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.

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.

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.

Thoughts on Jack the Giant Slayer

I recently managed to convince a somewhat reluctant friend to go see Jack the Giant Slayer with me.  Though that friend enjoyed herself and offered praise such as “actually an okay movie” amongst other contortions to avoid actually saying she liked it, I hold no such reservations.  It was a good movie and I liked it.

I mean, the script was rather corny in parts, but it tied together a lot of the different aspects of various Jack and the Beanstalk legends in an enjoyable story.  The cast was solid and suitably over-the-top when called for, and it was refreshing to see a fantasy story where the king (Ian McShane) was not corrupt or evil and the captain of the guard (Ewan McGregor) was actually competent at his job.  The chemistry between Jack (Nicholas Hoult) and the Princess Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson) was believable, and I liked that neither of them was played as stupid.  While the plot was set into motion by some unfortunate coincidences, it did not rely on the main characters acting like idiots to keep it going.

All of which is to say this was not a brilliant piece of filmmaking, but simply a well-done movie.  It didn’t blow my mind or anything, but it didn’t disappoint or dissatisfy, either, and in this day and age I consider that a major accomplishment.

On the Road

I am travelling in Americaland for the next week, so my last-minute panic posting to get something blogged before the end of the month will be shorter than usual.

I write this post from the depths of New Jersey.  Well, not really the depths, since a 5 minute drive puts me within sight of New York, but from what I understand of American culture, it is generally acceptable to consider any part of New Jersey as its depths.

I will be attending a wedding in Washington DC over the weekend, which should be fun.  However, it won’t leave me a lot of free time, so I figured I should let my faithful readers—no doubt waiting with bated breath as the end of the month neared—know that I was alive and well.

That said, on the plane I did manage to watch…

Wrath of the Titans

This was the sequel to the recent Clash of the Titans and, though it may just be the sleep deprivation talking, I think it was better.  It certainly helped that I saw it on a tiny airplane screen and thus wasn’t subjected to terrible afterthought 3D.  It didn’t have much of a plot, but still felt more focussed, and the smaller main cast was a boon—no need to beat us over the head with terrible comic relief when you can just bring along some nameless soldiers to be killed in the mayhem.

The contrived plot really only seemed to exist to propel Perseus and his companions from action set-piece to action set-piece.  While some of the sequences were a bit confusing to follow, they were nicely intense and epic overall.  Perhaps that’s why I liked this one while sleep-deprived; after all, it’s just a series of battle sequences against cool and/or giant monsters.  And as anyone who knows me can tell, that’s all I really need to be satisfied.

Hugo / The Muppets / Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows / The Adventures of Tintin / Red Tails

So, all these movies came out quite a while ago, so these reviews are kind of out of date.  By this point, however, they are all out on DVD/Bluray, so talking about them is still somewhat worthwhile.  Some of them were really good!


Hugo was a really marvellous movie about, well, movies.  Actually, it kind of felt like two movies mashed together back-to-back, and I was more interested in the first one than the second, but it was a virtually perfect experience overall.

The superb execution of this movie is perhaps not surprising seeing as the director is Martin Scorsese.  He even managed to make the 3D interesting to watch!  The quality of the cast was also stellar, including the two child actors who were the leads (Asa Butterfield and Chloë Grace Moretz, who was also excellent as Hit Girl in Kick-Ass).

As you might have gathered, I liked this one a lot.

The Muppets

Finally!  A new Muppets movie.  Thankfully, Jason Segel managed to pull it off and created a story that was a worthy return to form for a franchise that had seen some questionable TV outings in the last decade or so.  He and Amy Adams were entertaining as the human “stars” of the movie, but it was the Muppets themselves that it was a pleasure to see on the big screen once again.

It was like this movie was aimed squarely at me and my demographic, hitting all the right triggers of nostalgia from my youthful Muppety memories while still managing to be an enjoyable story itself.  About my only complaint was a bit too much time was spent with the story of the human characters when really what I wanted was wall-to-wall Muppet insanity.  That said, I am eagerly looking forward to a follow-up.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

The second Holmes movie starring Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law was entertaining, but failed to live up to its predecessor.  While this version of Holmes is action-oriented, this second outing was too actiony and less thoughtful and clever.  It tried to outdo the first in terms of spectacle—and it succeeded—but at the cost of what makes Sherlock Holmes Sherlock Holmes.

I sound down about this, but it was enjoyable enough.  I just wouldn’t rate it as a “must-see” like the first.

The Adventures of Tintin

Whee!  This CG-animated adaptation the classic Belgian comic was a really well-executed movie that captures a sense of fun and adventure that is reminiscent of Indiana Jones.  There were a ton of highly entertaining and over-the-top moments in this movie, and the voice acting was great.  This movie just made me happy.

Red Tails

This movie is an effort from George Lucas to celebrate the accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American pilots in World War 2.  While it is very celebratory, the movie has all the subtlety one might have expected from George Lucas based on the quality of the Star Wars prequels.

I’m sure you can see the problem.

This movie as it was made now had the unsubtle patriotism and painfully obvious character arcs and storylines that might have been common in the 1950s or ’60s.  It was pretty much entirely predictable and simplistic.  I have heard that Lucas claims this was a deliberate effort to channel and earlier era of filmmaking, but I think this means the film will largely fail to resonate with a modern audience.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the aerial dogfights were well done and enjoyable.  And I did learn some history stuff I didn’t know before.  But when I came out of this movie, most of what I was thinking about was how it failed to live up to its potential.

Hunger Games / The Avengers

While I still have a massive post about movies I saw earlier in the year (or late last year) in the works, I figured I’d actually comment about The Avengers while it was still out, and throw in a little Hunger Games love while I’m at it.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games movie has been a hugely successful start to a franchise that—unlike a certain other book-turned-movie series *cough*TWILIGHT*cough*—also has the distinction of actually being a good movie.  I have not personally read the books by  Suzanne Collins, so I can’t comment on the quality of the adaptation, but the movie worked.

The movie is all about tension and pacing, and it handled both deftly with a largely excellent cast.  My only complaint at all comes from the heavy use of handheld camera work for basically everything, which (for me, at least) made static scenes somewhat nausea-inducing and reduced action sequences to blurry messes.  This is, of course, always the effect of handheld shaky-cam, and it sucks every single time that it is used.  Never once has it heightened my sense of being in the action; all it does is make me think about their lame camera work and hope I don’t get sick.

Anyway, back to my point: The Hunger Games was a well-done movie with an excellent cast and is well worth seeing (despite the unsteady camera).  Thematically, it is rather darker than most Hollywood SF not because of the level of violence, but rather in the grittiness and brutality of how that violence is portrayed.  In some respects, just like the games themselves, you don’t watch The Hunger Games—you endure it.

The Avengers

The Avengers is made of win.  There were so many ways this movie could have sucked, but Joss Whedon avoided them all and put together a movie with an all-star cast that met every high expectation people had for it.

(I feel the need to suggest that I may have been a teensy bit happier after the original Iron Man, since that was so unexpectedly excellent and thus seemed all the better, but even that is a tough call.  About the only other criticism of The Avengers I could assemble would be that I was familiar with many of the general plot points since I have a signficant familiarity with the comics, but that is not a flaw with the movie itself, just my experience of it.)

This movie is the payoff of years of anticipation, and thankfully it worked so well.  Delightful action, an over-the-top science fictional story, and layered throughout with humour—The Avengers hit the mark on all fronts.  There’s not really much else for me to say, except I can’t wait to see it again.

The Secret World of Arrietty / John Carter

It has been a while since I last did a movie post.  I had started one way back in January, but it was too ambitious and still sits somewhat unfinished.  I’ll get to it soon, since those movies are starting to come out on home video now.

I did see a couple of movies a bit more recently, though, and so I offer up my thoughts on those.

The Secret World of Arrietty

This is the latest animated Studio Ghibli film to be released by Disney in North America.  While Ghibli’s legendary director Hayao Miyazaki did not helm this one, he was heavily involved in the script and planning, and it bodes well for the future of Ghibli that this movie turned out awfully good.  The movie is a Japanese transplant of Mary Norton’s classic Borrowers children’s novels about tiny people who beneath the floorboards of our homes and “borrow” things to survive, and focusses on the Borrower girl Arrietty.

In typical Ghibli fashion, the animation is lush, beautiful, and detailed.  The perspectives they use evoke the sense of being a tiny person in a giant world better than anything else I’ve seen.  From duels with cockroaches, using leaves as umbrellas, and the dangers posed by the cat and the hungry bird attacking from above, it really gives you a sense of a whole other world surrounding us in our everyday lives.

The story skews to the family-friendly end of the Ghibli spectrum, but is oddly slow-paced and contemplative.  That is not to say it is boring—I was rapt throughout—but much of its wonder arises from the discovery of the world of the Borrowers rather than artificial external dangers, though those arise in due time.  It succeeds by being genuinely beautiful and interesting, not simply because it keeps throwing cheap gags and explosions in your face.

While I wouldn’t say this is the best example of what Studio Ghibli has to offer, The Secret World of Arrietty can stand quite comfortably alongside it.  Anyone who is a fan of quality animation—or quality film in general—should definitely check this out.

John Carter

John Carter is another Disney release that has already gained notoriety as being declared one of the biggest flops of all time within 2 weeks of opening.  There has been much debate over why that is the case even as the film continues to do okay worldwide, so who knows whether it might eventually earn back its massive production budget.

Had Disney actually cared enough to market the film properly, it might have done better domestically.  As a science fiction reader, I knew that the titular John Carter referred to John Carter of Mars, the hero of Edgar Rice Burroughs‘s (creator of Tarzan) Barsoom novels.  This was not at all apparent from any of the trailers I saw.  The one I sort of vaguely remember made it unclear whether it was a science fiction film at all, or a superhero film, or a dumb fantasy movie.  I’m not sure that there was a single thing done to market this film to people who didn’t already know who John Carter was.

Anyway, all of that is beside the point.  John Carter is a good movie.  It has its flaws, to be sure—it starts too slowly, throws in some unnecessary back story, gets a bit muddled in the middle, and has villains with unclear motivations—but it is a fun, enjoyable movie.

It is approximately ONE BILLION TIMES BETTER than any Michael Bay film.  Especially those ones with the transforming robots.

It looked beautiful and the action was fun and well-choreographed.  There was good chemistry between John Carter and Dejah Thoris (the Princess of Mars played by Lynn Collins, who is providing competition to Princess Leia for my Favouritest Space Princess Ever!), and the supporting cast (both human and alien) was strong.  And it did a pretty decent job of evoking a sense of wonder at Burroughs’s vision of Mars Barsoom.

So John Carter was a good (but not great) movie that I enjoyed more than, say, James Cameron’s Avatar (which was well-made and more tightly scripted, but less interesting to me for all its technical superiority) and which did not suck like those bowel movements that Michael Bay keeps excreting onto screens around the world and calling movies.  John Carter is not a deep, mind-blowing, revolutionary movie, but it is a lot of fun, and if a sci-fi action movie is the sort of thing you like, it is well worth seeing.