March Movies: The Wind Rises and The Grand Budapest Hotel

Falling behind again with life in general.  But in the interest in not leaving a month gap in my blog history, I give you my thoughts on the movies I saw in March 2014.

Thoughts on The Wind Rises

The Wind Rises is the latest (and purportedly last) film from Hayao Miyazaki, the animation genius who gave us everything from Totoro and Nausicaa to Mononoke and Ponyo.  While this movie is as visually beautiful as one might expect of a Miyazaki film, it was not the lighthearted romp I have come to expect.

Part of that has to do with it being a fictionalized biography of Jiro Horikoshi, the designer of the legendary Zero fighter use by the Japanese in World War II.  While Jiro himself is portrayed as a visionary who loved flight, it is impossible to forget that for most of the film his work is exploited as a weapon of war.  There are aspects of his personal life, too, that do not go in happy directions.

Thus, though The Wind Rises flirts with the traditional sense of wonder found in all of Miyazaki’s films, there is always a feeling of tension pervading the film.  It can never quite make you forget that layer of darkness.  This is fully in line with the thematic elements of Jiro’s beautiful dreams being ultimately corrupted by war, but it is still unsetting.

All of this is to say that while The Wind Rises is a beautiful and interesting film, it is certainly not an uplifting one.  The film is definitely worth seeing, so long as you know going in that it is ultimately rather bleak.  If this is really Miyazaki’s final film, however, I kind of wish he had ended his career on a happier note.

The Grand Budapest Hotel

This latest movie from quirky director Wes Anderson is, perhaps, his best and most accessible.  It is certainly my favourite of his films that I have seen, in no small part because it has an actual coherent plot.  In general I enjoy Wes Anderson films, but they are admittedly slow-moving at times, with stilted characters, odd humour, and fractured relationships.  Most of that is present in The Grand Budapest Hotel, but thoroughly wrapped in a story that moves fairly briskly.

The main plot is portrayed within a deeply-nested framing device: a girl visits the grave of a beloved author, in whose memoir we get some writing advice, which gave an example of his visit to the titular hotel in his youth, wherein the hotel’s owner gave him the story of how he came to own the hotel.  (That last layer is, in fact, the bulk of the film.)

That story turns out to be simultaneously highly entertaining and bleakly morose, and lends the whole film a bittersweet air.  As in life, there are no happily-ever-afters, just happy-for-nows, but the ride from beginning to end is quite delightful.  Fans of Wes Anderson films will doubtless love this one, but I think that of all his films, The Grand Budapest Hotel is likely the most enjoyable to non-fans.  I’d certainly recommend it.

Thoughts on The Lego Movie

First things first:

That pretty much sums up my feelings about The Lego Movie.  It basically did everything I hoped a Lego movie would do, and it did it well.

The basic premise of the movie is that the evil Lord Business has found an ultimate weapon and plans to freeze the entire universe to ensure that it stays well-ordered like he designed it.  Emmet is the “Special”, the chosen one who can save the universe.  That universe is an amalgamation of all the different Lego sets and properties, and thus full of references to older Lego lines, sly in-joke character cameos, and a whole lot of craziness.  Anyway, Emmet turns out to be a less-than-suitable savioiur, and wackiness ensues.

The animation for this movie is rather beautiful—it almost seems like stop-motion at times.  For the most part, everything on screen is made of Lego, from the clouds to smoke puff to the waves in the ocean.  It gives it a really interesting look.  Several of the other visual effects also have a sort of home-built look as well, though I don’t want to ruin those gags for you if you haven’t seen it yet.  But overall, it managed to differentiate itself in an increasing crowded market of computer-animated movies, while at the same time staying absolutely true to the notion of being a Lego movie.

The voice cast was also perfectly done, including big names like Morgan Freeman and Will Ferrell and slightly-less-big-but-no-less-awesome actors such as Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, and Chris Pratt.  (There were a host of famous guest star cameos, as well—again, don’t want to ruin any surprises.)  Everyone stepped up to deliver a hilarious performance.

In many ways, The Lego Movie is a culmination of years of work bringing Lego to life in video games and on TV.  I think the irreverent, not-too-serious feel of this movie had its beginnings in video games like Lego Star Wars and Lego Indiana Jones.  The directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller rightly recognized that the Lego universe would have to be wacky and infused with humour, and they mined the toy’s rich history to extract every bit they could find.

I only really have one minor criticism.  Late in the movie, there is a… twist… that is a bit inconsistent with the feel of the movie up to that point.  Thankfully, it doesn’t undermine what came before as can sometimes happen in movies, and it is not completely devoid of the humour that pervades the rest of the film, but I found it a little jarring.  Oddly enough, I feel that the twist may make the movie more appealing to viewers who are not inherently fans of the toys, the ridiculous humour, or the fantastical plot.

Anyway, I wholeheartedly recommend this movie.  It was awesome.  I just need to get more Lego now….

Catching Fire / The Desolation of Smaug

January turned out to be a month of movie sequels.  At the tail end of my stay in Philadelphia, the wife and I saw The Hunger Games: Catching Fire with a friend of hers, and then after returning to Canada a friend and I took in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

Thoughts on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Yay! The producers used the money they made from the massive success of the first movie to buy a tripod for the cameraman!  No more shakey-cam!

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire lived up to the quality of its predecessor, but it does have the distinct feel of being the middle movie of a series—the ending is kind of abrupt, and just sets you up for more.  Quality performances all around, as well as more tantalizing glimpses into the world of Panem.  Not much else to say—if you liked the first one, see this one, because you’ll like it too.

Thoughts on The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, however, does provoke me to say more.  Though in a largely good way!

It has been so long since I read the book that I can’t really pick out much in the way of differences, apart from the introduction of Legolas and a newly-created Elf woman, Tauriel, into the mix.  While I don’t think their presence is strictly necessary, neither is it particularly jarring, either.  It’s just another part of the transformation of what is a relatively straightforward children’s book that just happened to be set in the same world and predate the events of The Lord of the Rings into a full prequel to Lord of the Rings—they go out of their way to lay the groundwork for much that is seen in the more epic trilogy.

In general, I liked this movie a lot better than the first one.  I enjoyed the first one, but felt it was kind of slow, and it certainly didn’t grab me the way The Fellowship of the Ring did when it first came out all those years ago.  This one did retain the physics-defying action sequences that I found kind of jarring in the first one, but on the whole it was a better-paced movie.  It does end with a rather large cliffhanger, but I knew that going in.

While I’m sure the Hobbit would have been best as, say, a single 3-hour movie, this installment improves my opinion of the trilogy.  While there were some questionable elements (the obligatory sort-of introduction of a love triangle with the one named female character they have introduced), the acting is by and large quite good, many iconic scenes are portrayed in a visually exciting way, and the exchange between Bilbo and Smaug in this one parallels quality of the meeting of Bilbo and Gollum in the first.

So, my verdict: If you are a Tolkien purist, you are probably going to be very unhappy with this movie.  If you were kind of wishwashy on the first Hobbit movie, this one is, I think, better, so go see it.  And if you hate all these kind of movies, well, you don’t need me to tell you not to see it.

Post-Christmas in America

So, being newlyweds this year but still not living in the same country on account of the need for proper immigration channels to be followed, the wife and I decided we should at least spend our first Christmas together, together.

To that end, she flew up here to St. John’s in the midst of blizzards and storms, and spent 5 of the snowiest December days I can remember here through Christmas Day.  (Her additional help in shovelling was much appreciated.)  On Boxing Day, however, both of us packed and headed down to Philly to spend the remainder of the holiday break with her family.

I was greeted with this.

Phil the Dog

Phil the Dog, failing to model his bow tie collar successfully.

It took a while for him to warm up to me, since he is not very smart and forgot that we had met and played quite a lot on my previous visits.  We never could get him to stay still long enough to model the bow tie I bought him, however—every time I put my camera down low enough to get a picture, he came toward the camera with his tongue ready for licking.

Anyway, we visited with all the rest of the wife’s family, ate far too much food, and went to the movies a few times, which was great—I was able to catch up on my viewing.  Also, we saw Batman.

LEGO Batman.  In person.  Well, plastic.  Sort of.

Ugh, just look at the picture.

Lego Batman

He’s (Lego) Batman

Needless to say, I am looking forward to the upcoming Lego movie.

Anyway, while there I saw Frozen and 47 Ronin.  Not surprisingly, I have thoughts on each.

Thoughts on Frozen

Disney’s Frozen has done exceptionally well for the House of Mouse, and for good reason.  It is a thoroughly enjoyable movie that both feels like a classic Disney fairy tale movie while avoiding and gently skewering some of the more questionable tropes of the genre that they built.

The computer-animated visuals are fine, but rather par-for-the-course these days.  While is is excellent character and visual design, I find all the 3D computer animated look largely the same.  I prefer traditional 2D animation—I can think of lots more examples in that arena that simply blow my mind.

The voice work was also good.  I am a fan of Kristen Bell from her, shall we say, less family-friendly work in movies like Fanboys and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, but was surprised that she also sang her character’s part as well—she’s really good!  Broadway star Idina Menzel’s strong singing and voice work was less surprising but no less impressive, and the film really revolved around their relationship.

Though I  enjoyed Disney’s previous effort, Tangled, it felt a little too modern and Shrek-ish (which is not necessarily a bad thing, as I very much liked some of the Shrek movies) for me to reconcile its feel with that evoked by their prior classics.  Frozen fits right in there among them.

The songs are catchy, too.

Thoughts on 47 Ronin

The wife is good to me.  From the trailers, 47 Ronin did not look like her kind of movie—it looked like it would be a kind of terrible movie with Keanu Reeves, 80 minutes of gory, over-the-top sword fighting, and 10 minutes of plot.  That would have been exactly the sort of thing I would love, but no one else was interested, so she went with me.

It turns out the trailers were completely misleading.  It wasn’t a bad movie.  It wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t bad.  There were cool action sequences, but they were hardly the focus of the movie—it was actually kind of slow paced.  And Keanu Reeves was not the main character—or at least not the only one.  Hiroyuki Sanada as Oishi—the leader of the titular 47 ronin—was the real driving force of the movie.  There were large chunks with no Reeves at all.

The story is a retelling of one of Japan’s most famous legends, about a group of samurai who avenge their master despite the personal costs.  This version has hidden magic, a demon-trained half-breed warrior (Reeves), a sneaky witch, and a forbidden romance woven throughout.  The action sequences are brief but interesting, and the plot and motivation of all the characters was well-explained.  The pacing, however, felt… loose.

The wife said it reminded her of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and that comparison is apt.  In recent years we’ve seen some really well-done epic films with tight pacing and plotting.  47 Ronin seemed like it would have blown my mind if it had come out 20 years ago, but now it’s just okay.  It’s not bad, it’s actually quite interesting, but it is the sort of movie that I wish could go beyond that to be awesome, but doesn’t quite.  If the premise sounds interesting to you, however, it is certainly worth seeing.

The New York Visitation

So, now that I’m done talking movies, I needed a new header so that the end of my 47 Ronin discussion would be clear.  It does provide a convenient segue for next bit of blathering.

On December 30th, the wife and I took the train into New York City.  We saw the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center!

Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center

Christmas Tree at Rockefeller Center

Unfortunately, everyone else was there to see it, too, which made getting to the Lego Store difficult.  Once we made it in, I didn’t dare stop long enough to actually get anything.  (Fear not, faithful readers—on the 31st we stopped into the Christiana Mall in Delaware which had both a Lego Store and a Cinnabon.)

The reason for our visit to New York was that the mother-in-law had gotten the wife and I some tickets for Waiting for Godot, starring Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen.  It turns out that I did not like the play very much, as there is no plot to speak of and there’s a lot of self-indulgent monologuing, but Stewart and McKellen were fantastic.  They owned their parts, they played off of each other perfectly, and occasionally even cracked each other up.  During the curtain call, they even did a little dance.  They made that play worth watching.

The only drawback to this New York visit was that I thinked I picked up a bug somewhere that hit me on New Year’s Eve in DC.  (That happened the last time I took the train to New York and then later went to DC, too…. Hmmm…..)

Thoughts on Ender’s Game and Thor: The Dark World

My exciting life continues, meaning I’ve hardly done anything this month.  While there are still a couple of movies currently out that I hope to see (Disney’s Frozen and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), I already did manage to see two November movies that were much higher on my list.

Ender’s Game

I came into this movie with a degree of trepidation.  While I absolutely love the book, I am—to put it mildly—less enamoured with its author these days.  (A quick search on “Orson Scott Card” will give you lots of reading on why.)  Ultimately I decided to go see the movie, and I’m glad I did—it is good.

A part of what made it good was the excellent cast.  They aged the characters a bit, compared to the books, I think, but as a result they were able to get a number of strong young actors in key roles—Asa Butterfield and Hailee Steinfeld in particular.  Balancing them out was a trifecta of excellent established actors: Harrison Ford, Ben Kingsley, and Viola Davis.

But what made the movie just good, and not great, was that we hardly got to know any of these great actors.  The book is told deeply from Ender’s perspective, but a movie adaptation by its very nature has to focus more on the external action.  All the key plot moments are there, but so many key character moments from the book are missing.  Consequently, the movie feels incredibly rushed.  We see moments of Ender being clever, but very little of him building relationships and earning the respect of his team.

This rushed feeling is common in adaptations from books, but I felt it all the more keenly because I wanted this movie to be amazingly awesome instead of just good.  Also, they changed a few minor details (technology, locations, and timelines) that nonetheless REALLY BOTHERED ME.  That is probably just my OCD speaking, however.

Apart from the cast, I feel I should also acknowledge the visual effects, which were pretty awesome.  The Battle Room in particular was extremely well done.

Overall, the Ender’s Game movie is worth watching.  It’s got a whole lot of talent behind it, and mainly suffers because (a) it is not the book, and (b) in recent years we’ve been getting a surprising number of science fiction and fantasy films that are edging into “great” territory.  I wanted this movie to be there, but I don’t think it quite made it.

Thor: The Dark World

I thoroughly enjoyed this latest Marvel movie.  (See what I did there?  THOR-oughly? I crack myself up sometimes.)  As with its predecessor and the other films in the Marvel cinematic universe, it is not a deep film, but it is rather ridiculously fun.  It seemed formulated entirely to give the audience a chance for more banter between Thor and Loki amidst a lot of action.

Things I liked: the aforementioned banter, the return of Darcy and Selvig from the first movie, and the little touches of humour throughout (many courtesy of Darcy and Selvig).  Also, the stingers during the credits.  Both of them.

Things I didn’t like: it seemed awfully coincidental that Jane would stumble upon the MacGuffin that the whole movie revolved around, we saw too little of Sif and the Warriors Three (they should totally get their own spinoff), and the story meandered an awful lot to get to the point.

I don’t know if it is quite as good as the first Thor movie, but it is a solid entry into Marvel’s slate of movies.  I don’t think it will disappoint fans of Thor, the Avengers, or the Marvel cinematic universe in general.

Thoughts on The World’s End

August has been largely uneventful.  I didn’t even get out to the Regatta this year since I was working on thesis.  I wrangled groomsmen into tux fittings.  I bought a tux for myself.  I tracked down responses to wedding invites.  I think I saw a few movies, but I most definitely saw one: The World’s End.

This latest outing from director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) completes the spiritual pseudo-trilogy starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, this time joined by an impressive cast that includes Martin Freeman (of Hobbit and Sherlock fame) among many others.  And, like its predecessors, it is a comedy that is also surprisingly heartfelt, dark, and bleak.

The basic premise is that burnout Gary King (Pegg) manages to convince four old friends (long since grown apart) to reunite in their hometown to try and finish the legendary “Golden Mile” pub crawl that they had failed to complete in their youth.  As you might imagine, this doesn’t go well.

The realization that their hometown has forgotten the “legendary” Gary King was already hitting hard when the more science fictional elements of the plot kicked into high gear, and Wright managed to deftly weave the two threads together throughout the remainder of the movie.  As with Shaun and Hot Fuzz, many elements of the plot are rife with cliche and tropes of the chosen genre, and, as in those two movies, it is the parallel arc of the characters that lifts the movie above being cheap parody.

I would be hard-pressed to rank The World’s End against its predecessors or Wright’s other work (Scott Pilgrim!), but if  you enjoyed them I’m pretty sure you will enjoy this one.

Various and Sundry (July 2013 Edition)

This post is rather tardier than usual, but in all honesty I’ve hardly felt like I’ve done anything other than work at my job, work on my thesis, and plan my wedding all summer.

On the up side, I’ve been making decent progress on the thesis research.  This has been helped by using my vacation time from work as dedicated thesis time.  Even when I went to visit the fiancee in Philly/New Jersey, I got a good 4.5 days of thesis work in while she had to work during the week.

Oh!  That’s right.  International travel.  That is something, at least.  I finally got to see some of the historic sites around Philadelphia, like Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.  Look!  There are pictures!

Independence Hall

Independence Hall

Liberty Bell. No licking allowed.

Liberty Bell. No licking allowed.

We then spent some time in New Jersey while the fiancee was at work during the week.  We did pop over to New York City one night.  I have proof!

New York. Probably Times Square, or somewhere near there.

New York. Probably Times Square, or somewhere near there.

We had decided to see a Broadway show, so we looked at what was playing at a time that was convenient (and had good reviews), and so—knowing absolutely  nothing about it—went to see Once.  This turned out to be an excellent—if somewhat low-key—show, but was made all the more exciting because it was starring Arthur Darvill (Rory from Doctor Who!) and the dude could sing!

Possibly even more exciting than that, we also found a Lego Store in the Jersey Gardens Outlet Mall in Elizabeth, New Jersey.  There was so much Lego!  I wanted to roll around naked in it, but that would be both painful and frowned upon.  That outing also saw a visit to White Castle, which was okay, but not as life-alteringly transcendant as I would have hoped.

At the end of that week, we headed up to the Jersey Shore.  We actually didn’t make it to the boardwalk area, so it was really rather nice.  I have proof!

The nice part of the Jersey Shore.

The nice part of the Jersey Shore.

While down in the US I also managed to see Pacific Rim, which was super-enjoyable but not as mind-blowingly awesome as I had been hoping Guillermo del Toro could make a movie about giant robots fighting giant monsters.  All the monster-on-robot action was great, but there was just… something missing that kept it from quite rising to the heights of his other movies like Hellboy.  (Pan’s Labyrinth is head and shoulders above even that, which is why I had high hopes.)

We also took in RED 2, which was quite well executed by the charming and awesome cast, but perhaps fell a little short of generating the excitement of the first one simply because it was no longer a novel concept.  As such, it didn’t feel quite as good, though it was certainly not a disappointment.

Okay, so July was actually pretty eventful.  Maybe that is my excuse for being tardy.