Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Croods

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to attend a pre-release screening of "The Croods", the latest film from Dreamworks Animation Studios (see Rise of the Guardians). Having only seen a couple of TV spots advertising it's impending release, I had fairly low expectations for this movie... expectations which were almost instantly justified. Strangely, I saw the beginning of this film more than once, as the 3D was malfunctioning in our theater and the technicians had to start the movie over once the issue was resolved. I therefore had a pretty good idea of what I was in for, particularly since the entire plot of the movie is more or less spelled out in an opening monologue.

The film is about the Croods, the last surviving family of cave people, who stay alive by following the "rules"... which apparently means they must remain vigilant and fearful at all times, much to the dismay of teenage daughter, Eep. She has a strong desire to explore the land around them, though her smothering father won't even entertain the idea of her discovering something new. However, Eep breaks her father's rules one night and happens upon a wanderer named Guy, who informs her of the coming apocalypse which will change their entire landscape forever. Thanks to this unexpected warning, the Croods are able to escape a destructive earthquake that decimates their beloved cave. Forced to accept Guy's help, the stubborn Grug must subject his family to a trek across dangerous and unexplored territory in their attempt to find a new home.

Now, I don't want this review to come across like I'm beating up on a defenseless child... but, here goes. I assumed this movie was going to have solid animation (which it does), but I was hoping for at least a serviceable story and semi-likable characters to push the action along. Unfortunately, neither of these things are offered in this film. None of the Croods are really featured, despite the opening monologue and first ten minutes of the film heavily focusing on Eep's character. As a result, I don't care about any of them and all I'm told is how they find it difficult to follow Grug's rules... and eventually learn to love animals.

Regardless of the juvenile nature of animated films, most at least adhere to a loose portrayal of physics and logic. In "How To Train Your Dragon", for example (a movie that this film borrows heavily from, to diminishing returns), when Hiccup falls from a flying dragon, there is no possibility in the viewer's mind that the water below will adequately cushion his fall. In this film, however, characters are constantly surviving ludicrously high falls, or being thrown hundreds of feet onto rocky surfaces without so much as a scratch. Before the obvious rebuttal of "it's a cartoon, what do you expect?" comes into play, let me just remind you that Mufasa in "The Lion King", one of the most successful cartoons of all time, died after a twenty foot drop into a stampede of wildebeests. With the lack of even a tenuous connection to reality and without any sense of danger, there's nothing to keep my interest in this film.

The whole "conflict" of this movie is Grug's stubborn insistence that everything new is to be feared, which becomes a heavy-handed and even painful metaphor throughout the entire movie. Obviously this film was not made for a 25 year-old audience, but good animated films can intertwine humor that will cater to children with coherent storytelling that can please adults. "The Croods" was made entirely for ages 3-8 who have little to no demand in their entertainment. Lest anyone think I hated everything about this movie, I must admit that the visuals are quite well done. The imagination of this pre-historic world is really fascinating to behold, it's just a shame that some will celebrate this movie because it does one thing right.

In short, I really didn't care for this film. If you are a parent and considering whether to see it, I recommend finding a babysitter to take your children to this movie. There are a few humorous bits (most of which are in the trailer), but even the little kids in my theater only laughed at about one joke out of four. My nieces and nephew enjoyed this movie to varying degrees, but the generous consensus from the adults in my party were of the "it's not one I'm going to buy" variety. I give "The Croods" two stars.

THE CROODS is rated PG for some scary action

Oz the Great and Powerful

After the generally unimpressive storytelling (and box office) of Jack the Giant Slayer, I wasn't sure if another retelling of a beloved fairy tale/fantasy was such a good idea. "Oz" is yet another movie where a successful director of a popular superhero movie franchise was handed the reigns to a big, fantasy story. My disappointment at Bryan Singer's (X-Men) inability to make a compelling and fun film out of the Jack and the Beanstalk mythos caused a bit of trepidation going into Oz, where Sam Raimi (Spider-man) was at the helm. I therefore tempered my expectations, hoping for merely an enjoyable time at the 3D IMAX theater.

Oz the Great and Powerful tells the story of a magician named Oscar Diggs (Oz for short), struggling to make ends meet at a travelling carnival and longing for a future of greatness. Each of his personal relationships are in shambles, as Oz uses them for his own benefit while giving them nothing in return. However, after engendering the wrath of the carnival strong man, Oz is forced to flee in a hot air balloon without realizing it is heading straight for a tornado. Pleading to the heavens for a second chance to be a better person in exchange for his life, Oz finds himself no longer in Kansas, but in a mystical land that seems to share his name. There he meets the witch Theodora, who believes him to be the fulfillment of an ancient prophesy foretelling a wizard that will come to destroy the wicked witch that has been terrorizing the defenseless inhabitants of Oz.

Thankfully, this was a much better film than Jack the Giant Slayer in virtually every way. Raimi has a great handle on the visual style of the film as well as the emotions of each character. I've actually been following this project since it was first being cast, and for a while the producers were attempting to hire Robert Downey Jr. as the titular Oz (clearly without success). A little of that kind of characterization is still at play in James Franco's performance, but I thought he did a good job of selling his selfishness while simultaneously hinting at the good man he could possibly become. Michelle Williams also does a great job of portraying the kind, yet surprisingly wise figure of Glinda, while Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis also turn in solid performances with their own in equally surprising ways.

The story plays out very similarly to the original 1939 Wizard of Oz, and is based on L. Frank Baum's novels set in the same universe. Fans of the original movie will be delighted at all the call-backs and homages made to the Judy Garland film, while others like myself will be enthralled at the character development and the visual style. While the movie looks great, it also comes across as a little cartoonish in certain places, which is actually somewhat fitting. Oz plays more as a family-friendly venture than one might ascertain from the trailers, which isn't a bad thing given the similar tone that was struck in the original Wizard of Oz. Overall, it does a good job of playing to both old and young audiences by offering impressive visual spectacle as well as relatable and intriguing character motivations and struggles.

One interesting piece of trivia that I found with this movie is that it marks the first collaboration between Sam Raimi and composer Danny Elfman since their infamous falling-out during Spider-man 2, at which time the composer said he would never work with Raimi again. While the reason for their burying of the hatchet remains unclear, Elfman's return does provide a fitting backdrop for the imaginative scenery. None of his work is necessarily ground-breaking, but it's nice to see this pairing working together again.

The story is well told and there are plenty of twists that I did not see coming, though they make perfect sense in retrospect. Character evolution occurs fairly organically throughout the film, and the growth of each relationship happens at just the right pace. This movie is a lot of fun, and it's surprisingly thought-provoking. The message being taught is interwoven into the narrative with great care, and I appreciated the simplicity of the title character's arc. Perhaps I'm being a bit generous, but Oz the Great and Powerful earns three and a half stars from me.

OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is rated PG for sequences of action and scary images, and brief mild language

Rise of the Guardians

I am a fairly big fan of animated films. There are even a few animated films on my top 10 favorite movies of all time (see Lists). However, I was somewhat conservative about the animated films I saw in theaters last year. Perhaps it's the fact that I realize the target audience is much younger than me, but the only animated film I paid money to see on the big screen was "Brave", which I trusted to cater to both children and adults. So when "Rise of the Guardians" came out, apart from not seeing it in theaters, I had no idea what it was even about. The poster looked interesting, but I hadn't even glimpsed a trailer for this movie before popping in the DVD for this review. For those of you who also don't know what this film is about, I'll parse it out in a brief plot summary.

Jack Frost awakens from watery darkness by the Man on the Moon to find that he has the power to create snow and ice wherever he wants. So ecstatic is he to share his newfound gift, that he flies into a neighboring town only to discover that no one can see him. 300 years later, Santa Clause learns of an impending crisis that will extinguish the lights of all fairytale-believing children across the globe. Convinced this means the return of Pitch Black (aka, The Bogeyman), Santa assembles the Guardians - the Easter Bunny, the Toothfairy, and the Sandman - to join him in combating this new threat. Once the Guardians have gathered, however, they learn from the Man on the Moon that another Guardian is to be chosen - Jack Frost. Far from  dutifully heeding the call, Jack is struggling from an identity crisis, as none of the children of the world believe in him like they do the other Guardians (a fact that Pitch uses to his advantage).

As a lover of superhero films, I was delighted to see that this film is kind of an animated version of The Avengers. I really enjoyed the personification of each of these beloved characters and the new iterations that were created for this film. Santa has a Russian accent and wardrobe; the Easter Bunny is an Aussie complete with weaponized boomerangs; the Toothfairy is as knowledgeable about teeth as any dentist; and the Sandman doesn't speak at all, but uses his sand-manipulating abilities to project his thoughts in a mime-like way. I found each of these characters relatable and enjoyable, but also found their inner turmoil and relationships very intriguing to watch. The voicework in this film is uniformly excellent, with Pitch (Jude Law) and St. Nick (Alec Baldwin) as the slight standouts.

I really enjoyed the story being told here, particularly the discovery of Jack Frost's past and how that helps him to realize his "center". Each of the Guardians protects childhood in some way, but each of them is the Guardian of something specific. The revelation of each of these things come in such an organic way, that it really helps build the mythos that makes up this universe. The conflict is great and it sets up good, dramatic consequences for the actions of each Guardian in a semi-realistic way. While this never quite reaches the emotional depths of Pixar, "Rise of the Guardians" is definitely one of the better efforts of Dreamworks Animation Studios. If you like animated films and/or superhero films, go check it out on Redbox. I give this film three and a half stars.

RISE OF THE GUARDIANS is rated PG for thematic elements and some mildly scary action

Saturday, March 9, 2013


I have to admit, this wasn't a film I was actively seeking out... in fact, if it wasn't for the recommendation of the sole follower of this blog, I probably would never have seen it. Films like this (February release, staring Dwayne Johnson) never really catch my interest, and I had very low expectations going into this viewing. Surely there was a reason this film was dumped during the notoriously slow season for Hollywood, after the Oscar fanfare and before the block-buster period of summer. I merely hoped that I wouldn't regret spending the two hours of running time in the theater.

"Snitch" is a story of a first time drug offender and his mandatory minimum sentence. Shortly after his incarceration, he is ruthlessly beaten by his fellow inmates and even taken to the infirmary. After learning of his estranged son's predicament, John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson) attempts to find a loophole of some kind to shorten his son's sentence. Despite the fact that he was set-up by his best friend whose own operation was busted, John's son refuses to orchestrate a similar set-up in order to avoid additional jail time. John, however, doesn't share the same "integrity" as his son and vows to do all that is in his power to free him. This leads to John using the resources of his own construction company in order to catch a drug lord in the act of distributing narcotics, which the state prosecutor says will greatly reduce his son's sentence. However, it also necessitates John participating in the transportation of drugs himself, putting him and his new family in serious danger.

This movie took a little while to get going, and the first few scenes of drama were clumsily acted and photographed. However, once the plot was in motion and John began his quest to free his son, the tension became palpable and my enjoyment of the film skyrocketed. This film does a few things very well, which makes up for the amateurish cinematography and clunky dialogue (for the most part). It has real stakes for our protagonist, even begging the question of whether the lengths to which he goes for his son's freedom are even worth the collateral damage and risk to those around him. There were moments throughout the first two thirds of the movie that I was on the edge of my seat, almost shivering from the suspenseful situations into which Johnson's character was constantly putting himself. The second act of this film is really quite intense, with solid acting and relatable struggles for the primary characters.

One of my biggest sticking points, Dwayne Johnson, actually turned out to be a great asset to this film. His toned-down physicality and the "realistic" portrayal of a desperate father was actually quite refreshing. True, there are moments when Johnson struggles to effectively emote, but for the most part, he does an admirable job of portraying this risk-taking everyman. The same cannot be said of most of his co-stars, however, as the remainder of this cast seems to struggle through even the least dramatically challenging line readings. Among the bright spots of the supporting characters, Susan Sarandon's prosecuting attorney does a credible job of depicting a slimy politician jockeying for position in a senate election.

While the first two-thirds of this movie were surprisingly enjoyable, much of the good-will earned during the first 90 minutes was wasted during the drawn-out finale. The events leading to the king-pin of the drug cartel's arrest seemed unbelievably simple (how about not staring the police down as you pass them... way to stay inconspicuous, drug-smuggling mastermind), while the "revelation" of a key character had none of the weight that the filmmakers must have envisioned. In all honesty, I found myself turning on the movie the longer it dragged.

I'm a big supporter of presenting themes or even political motivations in a cinematic venue. Films like "The Dark Knight" have fascinating political and sociological overtones that allow for enjoyment of its material on multiple levels. However, the ham-handed attempt to force a message of how unjust it is for first-time drug offenders to have such a long mandatory minimum sentence was really insulting to my intelligence. The fact that the filmmakers felt the need to post a paragraph about this very issue just before the closing credits makes it all the more awkward. It really bugs me when films can't rely on the strength of their narrative to drive such points home in a subtle, sophisticated manner rather than force-feeding the message to the audience. Film is a great medium with which to express thoughts and emotions about society and politics, but the more blatant the message the more I feel like the filmmakers are trying to manipulate the audience, which is always a turn-off for me.

All in all, "Snitch" is a mostly entertaining venture. The infamous "shaky-cam" is a real issue during this film, but the tension is so great during the first hour and a half that I hardly noticed it. Were the ending not such a convoluted and even mockable mess, I would have given this film a much stronger recommend. As it stands, this is merely a passable success, though certainly a surprising one. I give "Snitch" two and a half stars.

SNITCH is rated PG-13 for drug content and sequences of violence

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Jack The Giant Slayer

I was passively anticipating this film when it was supposed to debut in summer of 2012, but sort of forgot about it when it was delayed by Warner Brothers to March of 2013. I thought it looked somewhat interesting, but I didn't have any expectations. I even debated whether or not I would see it, but based on a few positive reviews from favorite critics, I decided to go for it. While I knew this wasn't going to be a game-changer in storytelling or even in visual thrills, I mainly was hoping for good, escapist fare to get me through until the real blockbusters start coming out later in the year.

The story is more or less a retelling of the classic Jack and the Beanstalk fairytale (with a few adjustments to the legend). Jack (Nicholas Hoult), a young man in his late teens, has grown up with stories of giants in a floating continent called "Gantua". They once came to earth when a magic beanstalk was planted by a group of monks attempting to reach heaven, and wreaked havoc until the King at the time helped drive them back into their land, cutting the beanstalk after them. This was managed by forging a crown from the metal-like heart of a fallen giant, which will give the wearer power over all the massive creatures. The princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) was told the same stories by her mother, instilling in her a great love for adventure. One day, a monk working in the castle attempts to flee the city with the remaining magic beans that will sprout the beanstalk that leads to Gantua, knowing that one of the king's men is plotting a reunion with the vengeful giants. Smothered by her father's overbearing rule, the princess flees in a rainstorm and seeks shelter at lowly Jack's leaky shack. Having traded his horse with the monk for the remainder of the magic beans, he was not aware that one had fallen through the cracks in the floorboards and sprouted into being after coming in contact with the rain water. The princess is taken to the land of the giants while Jack falls back to earth, promptly joining a search party to rescue the missing princess.

Despite that lengthy introduction of plot, it comprises only 15 minutes of actual screentime; a poorly animated sequence mostly filled with exposition filling the audience in on the updated lore. Thankfully, most of it is fairly well told and does a good job of building up to our anticipation of the giants' first introduction (about 40 minutes in). Jack The Giant Slayer hinges completely on the thrill of the moment, rather than resting its laurels on emotional involvement with the characters. The whole point of this film is to be entertaining, which it largely accomplishes. The intensity of the action as well as the suspenseful reveal of the giants is enough to keep the viewer at least superficially engaged in the story. Having said that, the characters are still likable and we do care whether a select few live or die by the film's conclusion.

The two romantic leads do a credible job of selling their yearning for one another, and they have pretty good chemistry on screen. Eleanor Tomlinson is a lovely actress, so it doesn't take much imagination to understand Jack's attraction to her. Ewan McGregor, who plays the captain of the King's elite guard, does a great job in the role and commands your attention whenever he's on screen. For me, the weak link in the cast was surprisingly Stanley Tucci, who plays the King's advisor (and main antagonist). His performance seemed uncharacteristically phoned-in and he wasn't bringing anything unique to the role. Still, his villainous portrayal is effective enough to bring in tension when necessary and wasn't wholly bad... it was sort of a bland portrayal, which wasn't what I expected from Stanley Tucci.

There is something that I really disliked in this movie, and it's rather unfortunate that it's the titular giants. To be honest, the first giant we see looks quite menacing and its physicality can definitely be frightening at times, but it's a steep decline from that wonderful introduction. Beyond that first encounter, it took me out of the movie a little bit whenever they were on screen, frankly. The voice work wasn't bad and the effects were fairly well done, but I didn't care for the design and realization of the creatures at all. I cared even less for the way they were characterized, with a giant picking his nose while making pigs in a blanket... which is just as off-putting as it sounds.

Still, this was a pretty entertaining film, and the twists on the classic fairytale as well as the fun of seeing the giants battle with likable characters makes this a recommend. Just as I suspected going into the theater, this isn't a game-changer or even a very good story. It's a fun diversion that doesn't ask much of the viewer and doesn't leave much of a lasting impression as a result. Needless to say, this isn't going to end up on my top ten list at the end of the year. I toyed with giving this three stars, but I ended up at two and half stars.

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER is rated PG-13 for intense scenes of fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief language