Thursday, November 26, 2015

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope ★★★★

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    Review coming soon.

Monday, November 23, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 ★★1/2

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    We're fickle, stupid beings with a great gift for self-destruction. — dialogue in "Mockingjay-Part 2"

    And this is about the extent of the profundity found in this year's concluding chapter to the "Hunger Games" saga. I must admit, with a buildup comparable to that of the Super Bowl (considering the film's star-studded ensemble cast and advertising onslaught), I'm a little disappointed in this franchise's unwillingness to provide audiences with something other than a feeble script, an uninvolving romance, and what appears to be an example of absent-minded direction. (I'm afraid that prolonging the source material also adds to this feeling of despondency, but that is today's Hollywood, folks.) Although diehard fans of the series may revel at the sight of this grand finale, this "Hunger Games" installment is nothing short of subpar.

    Positives: The plot, albeit ho-hum, continues to be the driving force of the franchise, not because it emits a sense of novelty, mind you, but because it remains as one of the few coherent aspects of the production. In fact, one could say that this simplistic storyline produces just about as much pizzazz as any lone performance. (Democracy is pitted against totalitarianism, and this not only gives us an allegory worthy of discussion, but it basically becomes the only sapient element of a script that seems to have a proclivity for triteness.)

    Additional strong points include the picture's gloomy ambiance and a veteran cast that relentlessly upstages their youthful compeers. (Low-key lighting is issued in virtually every on-screen moment; a color palette consisting of blacks and grays plays up a mise en scène that is built to exude this dreariness-induced air.) As for our seasoned actors: Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Julianne Moore do what they can with limited screen time and with dialogue that is, dare I say, downright dull, and with all due respect, they give the film a certain humanness that could never be attained by the other, less experienced cast members. (Sutherland and Hoffman excel in this department, and their presence alone helps the movie stave off total embarrassment.)                  

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    Negatives: Then there's Jennifer Lawrence, Hollywood's latest darling and an actress who is as talented as she is prepossessing. Is she as radiant and sincere as a younger Meryl Streep? Not a chance. Is she as memorable and fetching as a 1990's Julia Roberts? I don't believe so. Is she as complex and poised as the late, great Vivien Leigh? Not even close. (Although these comparisons mean little here, they are warranted if we are to judge Lawrence adequately. After all, the aforementioned actresses were Hollywood sweethearts sometime ago; how else are we supposed to define talent?)      

    Sure, Lawrence is unmatched when it comes to her aptitude for facial acting (she gives new meaning to the art of physiognomy), and she clearly knows how to command the camera's attentionand yet, she can never become what we need her to be: a force of conviction. Lawrence's execution in this particular installment is purely a continuance of past performances, and, well, that's exactly the problem. (Every spoken line of dialogue is polluted by this melodramatic delivery, and it is this miscalculation that hampers what would otherwise be considered a passable performance.) Nevertheless, our leading actress is not the worst thing about this movie.

     Remember the absent-minded direction? (If only that were a hyperbolic inquiry.) Francis Lawrence, a director of minimal value, has injected this franchise with every ounce of his style (he certainly likes to employ the indirect/subjective point of view, and he plainly has an affection for the mobile camera), but where's the sense of spirit? You know, that underlying feeling of passion or enthusiasm. Not only is this film entirely devoid of such attributions, but it simply comes off as another garden-variety piece with enough pointless drivel to drive any sane, rational human being into a melancholic state.

    Likewise, the digital camera cannot provide what this picture direly needs (that being a rustic look), and its infatuation for our leading star takes away from the overall meaningfulness of the story. (In short, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) seems to be the only persona with any kind of pull; the film can be characterized as an incessant monologue with sporadic action sequences.) Even the editing lacks personality.

    The "Hunger Games" series will be remembered for its strong female lead and inspirational outlook, yet I cannot begin to understand its appeal. (Perhaps I'm not supposed to.) I mean, beyond a fruitful story, which ultimately requires a Marxist criticism mindset, I can't pinpoint even an inkling of intellectual acuity. What does this collection of pictures say about love? About the human condition (apart from the snippet that opened this review)? The answer is relatively little, unless, of course, one considers frail and idle dialogue to be an example of cultural or intellectual refinement. I guess we can wait for the unpreventable reboot to see if it's any better. 

Friday, November 20, 2015

The Good Dinosaur ★★1/2

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    To say that Disney's Pixar has succumbed to somewhat of a rapacious state of mind with its releasing of "The Good Dinosaur," the production company's latest project to go from the figurative drawing board to big screen stardom, would be quite the understatement, and it would be a pronouncement destined for the euphemistic hall of fame. Animator turned filmmaker Peter Sohn's directorial debut is about as derivative as it gets when it comes to the film's lily-livered and etiolated subject matter, and it is in desperate need of that distinctive and treasured Pixar charm.

    Perhaps Peter Sohn is just a victim of what I like to call subconscious rehashing—at least, that would explain the picture's rather recycled temperament.

    Act I: Our story begins with a puzzling proposition. What if the dinosaurs were able to avoid extinction and clamber their way to the top of the evolutionary chain? (As silly as that sounds, the film reminds us early on of life's fragile and fickle nature, and this could hypothetically lead to sudden mass extinctions or, in this case, the avoidance of such events.) And what is the answer to this unthinkable question? According to the predictive minds at Pixar, these prehistoric animals would become, well, like us. (Many of the picture's more mature dinos have taken on professions such as farming and herding, which, of course, may have more to do with survival than any actual sense of purpose.)

    Act II: Enter Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), a caricature of cowardice and clumsiness and the runt of a litter of three. Not only is young Arlo completely incompetent when it comes to the family business (agriculture), but he lacks something that is even more valuable to an adolescent: that is, his self-respect and worth. Arlo's siblings have surely proven their importance (luckily their build is highly conducive for cultivating crops), yet our chicken-hearted protagonist has hardly left his mark (as the picture so graciously puts it). This will lead Arlo on a fateful quest to find his usefulness and merit in life, which, to be honest, isn't as significant as one might think.

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    Act III: You really didn't think there was going to be more to it than that, did you? For, from here, the film predictably progresses into your typical "coward's tale" and coming-of-age narrative—there's tragedy, a number of moments filled with joy and an ending that is borderline platitudinous. Arlo does befriend a small and boisterous Cro-Magnon child named Spot, and there is some hint of conflict stemming from a carnivorous crew of predatory pterodactyls, but these things become inconsequential when considering the hackneyed configuration of the film's structure.          

    "The Good Dinosaur" is well paced, technically proficient and even more beautiful to behold (the movie's hyper-realistic look and feel certainly helps to divert one's attention from other, less appealing features), and I would have no issue proclaiming it to be a partial success if not for its striking resemblance to another Disney picture by the name of "The Lion King." (Not to give away any specifics, but if you've seen the latter, then prepare yourself for many of the same actions and events, and in a manner of speaking, expect to see many of the same MacGuffins at work.) The story of Arlo clearly parallels that of young Simba, and although these things do tend to happen every so often in Hollywood, I could never commend a picture infused with such blatant unoriginality.

    Pixar is a company that makes a living off of its innovative computer technology and storylines that can only be described as endearing, and yet "The Good Dinosaur" appears to be nothing more than a money-grabbing and soulless effort. In fact, of all the dinosaur-themed films that I've come across during my tenure as a critic (which there are many), this one is particularly pitiful. Pixar's "Inside Out" is set to be a surefire winner for Best Animated Picture, and so it seems as if there was little incentive here. If you are not creating art, then you are part of the problem.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith ★★★

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    I find myself at odds when it comes to "Revenge of the Sith," George Lucas's final addition to what has been an erratic trilogy of films up to this point, and for the most part, I would say that this innate feeling of conflict seems to stem directly from the production's inorganic temperament. ("Episode III" can merely be viewed as yet another heartless digital product and CGI-fest, which, I suppose, pretty much summarizes the last two installments to some degree.)

    It is true: Lucas's previous directorial effort was clearly hindered by a number of imperfections, and they almost certainly reappear here in what is sincerely an example of poor scriptwritingI mean, there undeniably remains an overwhelming, amateurish amount of foreshadowing; much of the dialogue continues to embrace this flimsy, tawdry mentality; and the overall melodramatic ambiance of the picture never fails to mar several scenes that would otherwise be considered adequately dramatic and serious in nature. (Even a discussion of betrayal, which could be seen as a turning point in the film, transforms into this soap opera-esque display.) 

    Yet, here I am awarding this picture a passing grade. Why is that? I'm just a sucker, I guess, for films that actually have an explicit sense of profundity and a theme of sorts. And amazingly, Lucas was able to obtain these things despite the aforementioned weak points. (Our chameleonlike auteur reminds us that life, and the philosophies that come with itfrom egoism to altruismis only a matter of perspective and, therefore, subject to varying points of view.) Also, from an intuitive stance, "Star Wars Episode III" fares much better, I think, as an experience than the rather forgettable "Attack of the Clones."                   
    For those of you who direly warrant an in-depth explanation of the plot, I suggest that you utilize the valuable asset that is the Internetafter all, that is what it's for.

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    In all seriousness, however, and with all subjectivity cast aside, what George Lucas has crafted here is a piece that is surely as somber as it is monumental, and his creation of a modern-day tragic hero does deserve some form of acknowledgment. (Our title character turned antagonist, Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen), undoubtedly becomes a stark illustration of the long-forgotten Greek literary device; his lacking of an anagnorisis-induced moment, or flaw recognition, only makes him that much more piteous.) 

    Scenes are draped in shadows and characters are adorned in garments of black, and, fortunately for us, this bestows the picture with a much-needed change in tone. (As a matter of fact, this is the only occasion in the entire run of the franchise where an individual installment warranted something other than a PG rating.) I also have half a mind to applaud Lucas for his restraint when it comes to the personas of R2-D2 and C-3POa duo whose presence has become quite intolerable as of late. In actuality, it is this comedic relief deficiency that helps the film to rise above its predecessor. 

    Naturally, the most pivotal happening in "Revenge of the Sith" transpires just before the epic and climactic lightsaber battle (a mainspring of the franchise and a textbook ending if you ask me), and it is in this instance where our principal actors finally capture a believable moment on screen. Natalie Portman, an actress who continues to survive on her radiance and sincerity and who has struggled mightily in this franchise up to this point (through no fault of her own), nails the "big moment"; the same can be said of Ewan McGregor as the legendary Obi-Wan Kenobi. It is as if Lucas finally decided to involve audiences with human emotion unescorted by trivial plotlines and devices that evoke bewilderment more often than not. 

    The first three films of the "Star Wars" universe, chronologically speaking, will always be criticized for their limitations and inconsistencies. (In other words, they will live on as a perpetual showcasing of miscalculations.); and although I would consider "The Phantom Menace" to be the best of the lot and the least flawed as a standalone film, it just doesn't seem fair to contrast this trilogy with Lucas's previous productions. (Plainly, this triad of pictures pales in comparison.) The original set of "Star Wars" tales were hardly concerned with gimmicks, and, well, they simply came off as more human. In the end, I just wish that Lucas would have captured that same sense of wonder instead of battering audiences with an inordinate amount of special effects and digital hues.                        

Monday, November 9, 2015

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones ★★

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    To put it plainly, "Star Wars Episode II" is not only the worst offering of George Lucas's rather rocky and inconsistent career as a filmmaker, but it is a picture that suffers mightily from what is commonly known as the sequel syndrome. I mean, let's face it: "Attack of the Clones" clearly excels in its ability to provide spectators with an amalgam of over-the-top special effects and source material specifics, yet this hardly gives us a viable reason to care. Actually, this "Star Wars" outing seems to be an overstuffed and indifferent product whose intentions far outweigh its capacities. Is this excoriation just a consequence of comparative criticism and analysis? (Considering that we know and understand what Lucas is capable of.) It is a possibility; however, it seems as if "Episode II" is deprived of a number of necessary traits that otherwise make a terrific film.

    Of course, when examining a picture of this particular stature, one must focus solely on its structure. For, Lucas's subject matter here is patently original, and it is quite bereft of any measure of banalityit is untouchable in that regard. Sure, the storyline may seem a bit muddled as it routinely emphasizes the happenings of what can only be dubbed the political realm of this alternative reality, and although I may cringe at the inclusion of several unwarranted moments of comedic relief (which mostly include the lovable droid duo of C-3PO and R2-D2), it would be relatively unprofessional of me to fault the film for such characteristics. After all, many of these so-called disagreeable details are vital to the progression of the overall narrative.

    What I can comment on, however, is the film's ineptitude when it comes to an on-screen romance that is about as hollow as it is unconvincing and, in a sense, its inorganic appearance. (The latter of which surfacing as a startling repercussion of the picture's digital makeup, which, I think, robs the film of its naturalness, among other things.) This is surely not to shed light on a smokescreen that becomes entirely ineffectual, a degree of dramatic irony that completely loses its cachet, a repetitive and almost elementary execution of foreshadowing, a climactic ending that features a less than stellar exhibition of action choreography, and a score by John Williams that can never truly capture any hint of emotion. (There certainly are more flaws than strengths; I'm afraid that listing them all would veritably be an uneventful task.)

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    Is there a more talented actress in Hollywood at this juncture than Natalie Portman? I doubt it. And yet, her performance here is unarguably plagued by poor stretches of dialogue, and, essentially, she struggles in scene after romantically-inclined scene where her character is forced to commit to motives and actions that, well, they make little sense. (Portman's chemistry with co-star Hayden Christensen is actually quite good; nevertheless, the script does not allow her to do what she does best: that is, emit a certain level of sincerity.) Meanwhile, Christensen is reduced to lines that become tarnished by teenage angst, and the presence of Ewan McGregor and veteran actor Christopher Lee only adds to this bitter feeling of disappointment. (Not because they give substandard performances, but because they are limited to roles that lack any sort of ingenuity.)         

    Lucas shows much promise in "Attack of the Clones" both as a filmmaker and storyteller. Sadly, this potential is overshadowed by what I would designate to be an unproductive execution of technique and a lackluster story whose only motivation is to bridge the gap, so to speak. ("Episode II" is simply a stepping stone to Anakin Skywalker's more defining moments, and it is a dull one at that.)

    You know, there were times when Lucas could have made a statement of some kind, whether it be moral or political (which would obviously have given the film an increased proportion of profundity), yet we are ultimately left with a picture that becomes all too predictable and, in a way, unfulfilling. "Star Wars" is a franchise that is known for its charming and engaging personalities, and the characters on display here can never fully take possession of that same sense of desirability. Lucas abandoned what has been a highly successful formula up to this point, and this was not only a perplexing move but a damaging one.  

Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Peanuts Movie ★★★

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    I must confess. The "Peanuts" gang, a lovable and endearing microcosm of the adolescent world, has been around for more than half a century, and, well, I never expected to find these comic strip-based characters on the silver screen in what seems to be an era defined by fleeting fads and the latest technological trends. I mean, the adventures of Charlie Brown and friends have been with us ever since the Second World War, and let's be honest, their popularity has surely waned in the face of more recent animated arrivals such as SpongeBob SquarePants. (This, of course, is in reference to a demographic consisting of children aged ten years and younger.)

    Outside of the annual airings of the still popular "Peanuts" holiday specials, I'm afraid that our target audience here may not even acknowledge their existence. Maybe that's because the gang's exploits have little to do with texting, and they consistently aim to inspire.

    Yet, here is "The Peanuts Movie," a film that is destined to be ignored by even the most youthful of preteens, and, generally speaking, it is a picture that probably should have been made many, many years agowhen adolescents were more likely to care. Quite frankly, I'm not even sure if the bulk of the material will be readily understood by our little ones, except, of course, for the situational humor and physical comedy provided by the ever-scintillating Snoopy. For, the success of the original comic strip hinged on one's empathy for the central protagonist, Charlie Brown, who, I suppose, must be the biggest sufferer of cosmic irony I've ever seen. And although younger viewers may emit a cry of laughter as a ramification of Brown's bungling, I don't believe they will wholly understand what makes this lovable loser so darn charming. (As adults, we can see Charlie Brown for what he truly is: a caricature of the average individual amidst their everyday struggle between optimism and pessimism. In many ways, he is a portrait of truths.)

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    This is a rare instance, I think, in which an animated picture, manufactured specifically as the perfect family film for the Thanksgiving holiday, appeals more to the child within us as mature adults. It will undoubtedly come across as a gentle reminder of a much simpler time, especially for viewers who grew up with these rather winsome personalities.

    The plot is just as we left it; we know the score. Lucy is still very much a bully, Linus remains as best friend to Charlie, and Pig-Pen, well, Pig-Pen continues to be pestered by a perpetual sense of dirtiness. This is not to mention Charlie's habitual ineptness and a Snoopy subplot that almost steals the show. (In fact, Snoopy's high-flying sequences only served as proof of the computer's ability to produce a viable product on screen. I've been somewhat critical of the artificial technology in the past; however, hand-drawn animation would never have succeeded here.) In essence, it is the exact same storyline found in "You're in Love, Charlie Brown," which merely sees our maladroit leading participant in a continuous struggle to gain the affections of the Little Red-Haired Girl and thwart the pains of unrequited love.

    Two things can be taken away from "The Peanuts Movie": For adults, we can enjoy a memorable depiction of love at its finest, before the ills of adulthood take hold and transform it into something seemingly unnatural. As for the take-home theme for children, we are given a message that highlights the nobleness of perseverance, and, maybe even unknowingly, it provides a new perspective on our ungainly old friend.

    Even though I began this review with a simple statement of disbelief, when it comes right down to it, I should never have been surprised by this particular revamping. I mean, we are truly witnessing one of the worst cinematic periods in all of film history; it may very well end up being designated as the "Decade of Remakes." Remember the summer of 1982? When original pictures such as "E.T." and "Bladerunner" were only separated by a few weeks? If you do, then you may begin to understand my distress. At least, the writers behind "The Peanuts Movie" (who just so happen to be Charles Schulz's son and grandson) were able to avoid that dreaded avant-garde mentality, which is a more commendable act than even the product that was given to us. They changed little about Charlie Brown and his gang of misfits and portrayed them in their natural form. That fact alone makes this film noteworthy.