Saturday, July 09, 2016
I had such high hopes for The Secret Life of Pets (despite the fact that the grammar nerd in me instantly hated that it wasn't called The Secret Lives of Pets).
As the owner of a black lab who freaks out every time I leave and return, I have often wondered what he does when I'm gone, and this film from directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney promised me some entertaining answers. Its trailers—filled with head-banging poodles and toilet-water-chugging bulldogs—showed promise. And to be fair, the opening act and the final scene of the movie were funny, clever and moving. If you're a pet owner or animal lover, you WILL well up at the end.
The problem is that almost everything in the middle was cringe-worthy or otherwise disappointing, and had absolutely nothing to do with what pets get up to behind closed doors.
The plot is basically Toy Story, except with animals. The main character Max (Lewis C.K.) is horrified and hurt when his owner Katie (Ellie Kemper) brings home Duke (Eric Stonestreet) from the NYC pound. Max does everything he can to get Duke out of the picture, and then when his plan finally succeeds but puts both of them in danger, the two rivals have to band together to get back home safely. In the meantime, a ragtag group of other pets, led by the fluffy Pomeranian Gidget (Jenny Slate), venture out into Manhattan to rescue their friends. (All of this is set to a surprisingly great soundtrack, by the way.)
I was enjoying everything until Max and Duke get lost in New York and run afoul of "the flushed pets"—a group of abandoned animals that live in the sewer. Led by the bent-on-revenge bunny Snowball (Kevin Hart, a great choice), these forgotten pets have one goal: to kill humans. You read that right. When Fluffy and his crew first meet Max and Duke, the two domesticated dogs lie and say that they offed their owner, and Fluffy wants details. He demands to know exactly HOW the dogs killed their owner. And then he vows to kill Max and Duke after they escape from the sewer. I could not believe what I was hearing. This is supposed to be a movie for kids! (It reminded me of why I despised Cars 2 so much—all the talk about shooting and killing.) How hard would it have been for writers Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio to have had the animals speak in more vague terms about the flushed pets wanting revenge? (Or to have just thought of another way for the story to go entirely.)
And don't think for a second that they were trying to make some bigger point about how animals aren't objects to be tossed out after the responsibility of having a pet gets old. They were doing no such thing. This film is not that deep.
So after Fluffy enters the picture, the story is no longer about what pets do when humans aren't around. The animals are chasing each other all over the city and none of it has anything to do with the original premise. During this disappointing middle section of the film, there were a few points where the directing and writing team could've at least paused the action for a moment and taken the opportunity to pull on our heartstrings a little. A scene where Duke visits his old home is a prime example. We learn something about Duke's old owner and then... nothing. We're left hanging. No closure. What were they thinking?!?
In addition to all of the talk about killing and death, one character does actually meet a violent end, Gidget beats up another animal, Max and Duke nearly die a few times over, and in general there's just a very icky undertone to most of the film. It's like a totally different team made The Secret Life of Pets' thoroughly enjoyable start and finish.
I will not be taking my 4.5 year old to see this one. Not because I think he would be scared by it or disturbed by it or even understand the parts I'm upset about. But rather because there are enough GOOD kids' movies out there that there's no reason to give money to one that took the lazy, easy way out.
Sunday, June 19, 2016
I mention all of this because I didn't think it would ever be possible for me to love films like Finding Nemo, Toy Story or Cars more than I already did. I was wrong. Once my four-and-a-half-year-old son got into these movies, a whole new dimension came into play. One of ownership, one of feeling personally vested (both emotionally and financially because of ALL THE TOYS), one of protectiveness as he came to cherish the characters as much as I did, and one of feeling truly petrified that something could one day ruin these franchises. (DAMN YOU, CARS 2!!!) When we took our son to Disneyland this year and last year and got a huge kick out of the "Turtle Talk with Crush" attraction (seriously, it's the best) and the Finding Nemo submarine ride, the stakes grew that much higher. Finding Dory HAD to be good. It just had to be.
And it is! Praise Poseidon! (Or King Triton, perhaps?)
Yes, it is like The Force Awakens in the sense that the plot is almost completely recycled. You know what I say to that? WHO CARES. I don't see these movies for the plot, I see them for the gorgeous animation and for the clever adult humor sprinkled in alongside more obvious jokes for the kiddies. I see them because I know there will be a positive moral to the story (Dory is actually superior to Nemo here). I see them because I know I will feel the warm fuzzies at the end. And because I don't recall a time in my forty-plus years where feeling the warm fuzzies was ever a bad thing.
So, yep, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the short-term-memory-impaired regal tang, gets lost in a few different ways. Most revolve around a search for her family, who she starts remembering bits and pieces about via flashbacks. Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (Illinois native Hayden Rolence, represent!) are back, as are a couple of other beloved characters like Squirt and Crush—though I wish those two had been in it much more, thanks to my reignited love of Crush after seeing his Disneyland show.
There's memorable marine-life humor (yes, that's a thing)—much like we learned how seagulls are actually shouting "Mine!" in Nemo, we find out why sea lions make their barking noises in Dory. You'll squirm through a sequence involving an aquarium's "touch pool." You'll sniffle at the opening montage and additional flashbacks featuring tiny bug-eyed Dory.
Speaking of young kids, parents should know that there is one scene that's a little intense (spoiler alert for the rest of this paragraph): Nemo, Marlin and Dory are chased by a pretty scary squid, and at one point the squid comes close to eating Nemo. They of course get away, so you could always just TELL your kids this before they see the movie so they're not worried. That's what I did, and my son is at the film with his dad for a Father's Day treat as I type this.
Two non-spoilery highlights involve Sigourney Weaver and a slo-mo scene set to Louis Armstrong's "What a Wonderful World," which was so crazy I can't believe the team (co-director/co-writer extraordinaire Andrew Stanton (who also voices Crush (!), co-director Angus MacLane and co-writer Victoria Strouse) not only thought of it in the first place, but then also pulled it off so magnificently.
So in summary: PHEW. No one's affection for or memories of Finding Nemo are going to be destroyed by this sequel. It was great to check in on the old gang again, and even better to meet some new insta-classic characters. Now can Cars 3 PLEASE not be horrible... ?
(p.s. Make sure you stay through ALL of the credits.)
Friday, June 03, 2016
Yes, I'm as surprised as you are. I should preface the rest of this review with the disclaimer that I know waaaaaaaay too much about Justin Bieber (who is clearly the inspiration for main character Conner4Real) and spend waaaaaaaay too much of my time consuming various celebrity-gossip articles and TV shows. If you're not into that scene, a large percentage of Popstar's humor will be lost on you. Whereas I laughed throughout the entire movie. This is one of the few times where I would recommend watching the film's trailer beforehand. If you like it, you will LOVE the rest of the movie. Bonus: most of the trailer's scenes occur within Popstar's first ten minutes, so it's not even giving away the best parts.
The story, written by SNL-digital-short-masters The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone; the latter two also directed), follows Conner4Real (Samberg), a Bieber-esque popstar who was once part of a trio called The Style Boyz. After a falling out, the Boyz break up, and Conner skyrockets to fame as a solo act, while Owen (Taccone) tags along as Conner's DJ, and Lawrence (Schaffer) retreats to life on a rural farm. Schaffer and Taccone shot Popstar as a documentary that takes place as Conner's second solo album, Connquest, is about to drop. As you might have already guessed, the new tracks are met with tepid reception, which throws Conner's world tour into jeopardy. His team scrambles to do everything, anything they can—from securing corporate sponsorships, to lining up a hot new opening act (a fantastic Chris Redd as Hunter the Hungry), to staging a very, very bizarre E! exclusive—to keep Conner in the spotlight and the money rolling in.
Zoolander 2), either. One of my favorites was Will Arnett as the head of CMZ. (If you don't know what that's a spoof of, then again, this movie might not be for you.)
If I had one complaint about Popstar, it would be the same complaint I've made about so many recent comedies: all of the f-bombing gets old really quickly, and its cruder gags are also its weakest. But when the laughs revolve around one of Conner's absurd (but catchy!) songs, making fun of our fickle celebrity-obsessed culture, or the many ways that Conner's entourage strokes his ego (Tim Meadows and Sarah Silverman as Conner's manager and publicist are particularly funny), Popstar is in Spinal Tap territory—"no bones" about it.
The story revolves around Louisa Clark (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke), who mostly goes by her last name in the film. She's a young woman with no real ambitions who's desperate for a job because she's pretty much supporting her entire extended family. Despite her circumstances, however, she is impossibly upbeat and expresses this through outrageous outfits that look like something the four-year-old girls in my son's pre-k class would pick out. I felt like Moyes went overboard on the Quirky Scale with Clark's character in the book, so it annoyed me even more to see all of her weird clothes and shoes brought to life on the big screen.
Clark needs a job and ends up becoming the latest in a long line of caretakers for Will Traynor (The Hunger Games' Sam Claflin, well cast), who had everything anyone could ever dream of... all before being hit by a motorcycle. Now he's a quadriplegic and extremely, extremely bitter. His crazy-rich parents (Janet McTeer and Charles Dance, also perfectly cast)—they literally live in a castle—are beside themselves and are putting no small amount of pressure on Clark to convince Will that life is still worth living.
You can already guess what happens: little by little, Clark is able to break down Will's walls with her never-ending positivity and relentlessness, and they eventually fall for each other. (It didn't hurt that Clark's boyfriend throughout most of the story is a self-centered buffoon.) One thing Moyes got right with the screenplay is that she dropped two dark subplots that were in the book—one about Will's parents and the other about Clark's past. Minor characters like Will's sister are also gone, so the focus is almost entirely on Clark and Will's changing relationship.
Which leads us back to Clark and her uber-optimism. I did not have a problem with it in and of itself because I, too, try to convince others that the glass is half full more than I probably should. What I couldn't get over was Emilia Clarke's facial expressions. Girlfriend has some CRAZY eyebrows that work for her as the Mother of Dragons, but that almost took on a life of their own in this film. Clarke is an actress who acts with her entire face, which would be refreshing if it weren't so distracting in this particular case. If you go to this movie and are not bothered whatsoever by the many ways Clarke's eyebrows can move, I salute you. But to me it came off like she was trying too hard, almost like she wanted to go overboard with being animated in order to make people forget about her steely Game of Thrones character. It often ruined what should've been a somber or touching scene. Claflin, however, was exactly how I pictured Will would be, and was able to pull off both Will's biting wit and repressed rage.
I want to be clear that I'm not saying Clarke was an awful actress in this film, but I do think she was miscast and too enthusiastic with her facial expressions at key points. Her performance came off as cheesy in those scenes, which were usually accompanied by an aggressive, intrusive song off of the film's soundtrack. Luckily there weren't too many of these moments, but I must still forewarn my fellow book fans to set their expectations accordingly.
Wednesday, February 10, 2016
Perhaps I should start by reminding you how sick I've grown of superhero movies over the past several years, and how—before I saw Deadpool—I would've confidently stated that if I never saw a dude with "special powers" in a colorful skintight outfit again it would be too soon.
But from the first second of this film I was laughing; it was clear Deadpool was going to be different. I won't spoil the excellent opening sequence for you (my far-and-away favorite in recent memory), but I will say that it manages to poke fun at pretty much every superhero-movie convention while also ripping on its lead and his, uh, not-so-successful past in the genre. (But hey, he did get a hot wife out of the whole Green Lantern fiasco, so the joke's on us.) Maybe the power of the title sequence stems from director Tim Miller's experience; this may be his first feature film, but in the past he was responsible for the opening scenes of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Thor: Dark World, so strong first impressions are kind of his thing.
At the outset we find our masked antihero Deadpool (Ryan Reynolds) in the middle of a violent car-chase-turned-car-wreck-turned-shootout, complete with gratuitous slo-mo and a thumpin' soundtrack. What's unexpected (for those unfamiliar with Deadpool's comic-book roots) are all of the wisecracking and fourth-wall-breaking asides in the midst of the chaos, as if Deadpool didn't have a care in the world. But before we can really get our bearings, much less see how all of the mayhem ends, we're taken back in time to learn how Deadpool became Deadpool... and what exactly his deal is.
So, yeah, it's an "origin story" as expected, since this is the first Deadpool spinoff and everyone wants to pretend like the character's scenes in X-Men Origins: Wolverine didn't happen. (There are some hilarious jabs about that whole mess of a movie as well; Deadpool is at its snarky best when it's giving the middle finger to other superhero movies, and specifically the X-Men franchise.)
Deadpool's nonstop banter, vulgarity, deprecation and audience-talking could've easily come off as annoying if not executed perfectly, and then the whole film would've been a bust. Instead it's the only superhero movie since the original Iron Man where I walked out of the theater feeling like I just saw something new. I've enjoyed a few other superhero films (all Captain America installments) and tolerated the rest, but for the most part I usually get the sense that I'm just watching the same movie over and over again with a new bad guy in the mix each time.
With Deadpool, though, the characters and their conversations felt fresh despite the familiar Wolverinesque origin story and the by-the-numbers ending, so I still must give credit to screenwriters Paul Wernick and Rhett Reese (the same writing team behind Zombieland). We learn that "the Merc with a Mouth" (as he's known in the comics) used to be Wade Wilson, a loner smart-ass with a special-ops background and just one loner smart-ass pseudo-friend (Weasel, played by the perfectly cast T.J. Miller of Silicon Valley) until he finds his match in Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin), a hooker who can go toe-to-toe with Wade's crudeness and sarcasm. Their "meet-cute" consists of a I'm-more-damanged-than-you faux-pity-party competition, followed closely by a month-by-month sex montage that is, well... perhaps this is the place to point out that you should NOT bring your kids or nephews and nieces to Deadpool unless you want to have some reeeeeaaaaaalllllly uncomfortable conversations on the ride home. This warning also applies to adults who are obscenity-adverse; you are guaranteed to be offended within the first 5 minutes. Unlike other superhero films, this one is rated R, and it's no joke.
So Wade meets Vanessa, they fall in love... and then he finds out he's going to die. Cancer is everywhere in his body. He doesn't want her to see him fade away, so he takes a really shady guy up on an offer to subject himself to torturous treatments that will "force a mutation" and cure his cancer. Yes, that means that Wade/Deadpool might make for X-Men material one day. But not just yet. Not before he can completely and utterly diss the residents of Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters several times over. And exact revenge upon the guy who ran the experiments that left him horribly disfigured... with regenerative healing powers.
Will you get all of the jokes if you're unfamiliar with superhero movies? Probably not. But you'll still get the rest, and my bet is that—again, only if you have a high tolerance for extremely naughty stuff—Deadpool will win you over, too. Be sure you stay for the end credits, which any child of the '80s will appreciate. Apparently there is also a second end-credit scene that was not screened for critics, so if you're already hanging out in the theater afterward, you'll be treated to that as well.
Friday, February 05, 2016
"Are you drunk" was the reply.
I get it. I didn't expect to like this movie, either—much less enjoy it so much that I would recommend others spend their hard-earned money going to see it.
What's more, I can't even say my enthusiasm about this film stems from any sort of Jane Austen fandom. I've read not one of her books, nor have I seen any of the several Pride and Prejudice adaptations. Before you judge me to be some sort of uncultured moron, I'll have you know that I was in AP English throughout high school, but for whatever reason Austen's books were never on the curriculum. Maybe they figured we nerds would seek them out for ourselves? Alas, I did no such thing. I've never been about the whole "women in corsets" era.
Which, again, is why it's so weird that I adored PPZ. Its trailers made it look like it consisted of a bunch of supermodels being all pouty and sexy while hiking up their dresses to reveal whatever weapon they had strapped to their thighs that would be used to dispatch the undead. However, I was already hooked by the time that silliness hit the screen in the actual film. In fact, I was sold in the very first scene, where we see the ever-solemn Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) ferret out a zombie in a room full of stuffy high-society types. Unlike other parts of the film, nothing in this initial scene is meant to be funny, and somehow it works. We learn that 19th century British zombies are not of The Walking Dead variety; they can still act and appear human for quite some time. Which is what makes Darcy's task all the more suspenseful. When he finally zeroes in on the undead guest, he wastes no time in bringing him/her/it to a bloody end ... which we see from the zombie's perspective. That's when I knew director and screenwriter Burr Steers (Igby Goes Down, 17 Again) wasn't going to phone this one in, and I allowed myself to think there could be a chance that a film called Pride and Prejudice and Zombies might not be embarrassingly awful.
When Elizabeth's sister Jane (Bella Heathcoate) and the rich Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) fall for each other, Elizabeth often finds herself in the company of Bingley's friend Mr. Darcy, who is giving Grumpy Cat a serious run for his money. Darcy is perpetually somber and frowning and annoyed, and it's clear he's a big ol' snob. Elizabeth's got no patience for that, yet over the course of time she and Darcy at least grow to appreciate each other's zombie-killing skills.
Despite the fact that soulless corpses are slowly but surely taking over their country, the characters in Pride and Prejudice and Zombies still fall victim to the worst human emotions: there is too much pride and there is definitely prejudice—and there's also extreme jealousy, paranoia and stubbornness. What I loved is that it was still such a human story in the midst of all of the zombie chaos (which never got very gory, by the way). The cast took their roles seriously and I never felt stupid or sheepish for enjoying the film. It helped that in addition to the leads, the supporting cast was strong as well, with standouts including Matt Smith (yes, the Eleventh Doctor) and Lena Headey (Cersei as
Lady Catherine de Bourgh, fierce zombie assassin = perfection) really getting into their somewhat comedic roles. I also thought that with a film like this, the director would almost be expected to try and get away with it looking kind of cheap and being shot in a straightforward manner, but that was never the case here. Believe it or not there was some really gorgeous cinematography by Remi Adefarasin, including a few memorable pan-outs to aerial views that have stuck with me.
As I was getting ready to publish this review, a friend wrote me to ask if I'd seen Pride and Prejudice and Zombies yet. She had been given advanced passes and confessed that she "kinda loved it." I told her I felt the same. So that makes two of us...
Will the rest of you give it the chance it deserves? Or are you going to be all Mr. Darcy about it and assume it's beneath you? Your loss if you do! I think it makes for a fun movie night. If you end up seeing it, let me know if you agree. And be sure you stay a few minutes after the credits start rolling.
Friday, January 22, 2016
So yes, I had already read Rick Yancey's novel of the same name over a year ago, and I'll have you know that it was one of The New York Times' Best YA Books of 2013. So in other words, it's not Twilight. (Though as you may remember I liked that series, too; I never claimed to be the most discerning reader. It's all about escapism, people.)
There are some YA books I read and I feel like they're just great books, period. Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy and John Green's The Fault in Our Stars are on that list. Then there are others, like Paper Towns (also by Green), or the Divergent and Mortal Instruments series, where I am conscious from beginning to end that I am not the target demographic and I feel a little silly. Not silly enough to actually stop reading these kinds of books, but a tad sheepish nonetheless.
The 5th Wave fell into the "just a good book overall" category for me, which is why I was disappointed when I saw its trailer. First, I thought Chloë Grace Moretz was not the right choice for the lead—she just didn't fit what I had in my head. Second, what little dialogue was highlighted was absolutely generic and awful. So I had extremely low expectations going into the screening.
The good news is that I enjoyed the film and was quite surprised by how much it didn't suck (by Teen Apocalypse Movie standards). The bad news is that I'm not sure I could outright recommend it to anyone who: 1) hasn't read (and liked) the book, and/or 2) is over the age of, say, 23. What seemed to be a lot more logical on paper comes off as totally bananas on the big screen—from how aliens destroy our planet in four "waves," to how we fight back by, um, attempting to turn shrimpy little kids into extraterrestrial killing machines. There are undeniable shades of The Hunger Games in the film that I never picked up in the book, and I can't help but feel like that was an intentional, conscious choice by director J Blakeson (The Disappearance of Alice Creed) and the very accomplished screenwriting team of Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman and Jeff Pinker.
Instead we have two strong first acts where we see the Earth get destroyed and pretty much everyone on it be killed, learn what happened to Cassie's family, find out what's become of her crush Ben (Nick Robinson, only slightly less scowly than he was in Jurassic World, but still likable), and meet Evan (Alex Roe, almost too pretty to look at), some random guy who saves Cassie from alien snipers but may or may not be completely trustworthy.
In the final act, Cassie is hellbent on finding her little brother Sammy (cute moptop Zackary Arthur from Transparent) and can't stop Evan from tagging along with her. Little do they know that Sammy has been with Ben, a badass chick who goes by "Ringer" (Maika Monroe from It Follows, whose performance is one of the highlights of the film), and a bunch of other little kids who are under the direction of the shady Colonel Vosch (Liev Schrieber). From there, things get even more messed up than they already were. There are some hokey effects that distract from the action sequences, and the dialogue goes from decent to godawful near the end. But to me it was more like the screenwriters knew they were being cheesy, and so it came off as a little "wink-wink" and amusing rather than out-and-out cringeworthy. Which is why I still enjoyed The 5th Wave and didn't walk out of the theater all bitter that Hollywood had ruined yet another good book.
I'm not going to tell you if Cassie succeeds in reuniting with her bro and finally giving him back his damn teddy bear she's managed to carry with her this whole time. Nor will I tell you if any of the aforementioned characters die. And the film ends before we get the final answer on whether humanity survives or the aliens win. However, the bigger question is this: Will this movie make enough green to get a sequel? The book The 5th Wave is based on is the first of three (with the final installment out in May of this year), yet I'm not sure the series has the Twilight/Hunger Games/Divergent-level fandom necessary to translate into profit at the box office. But I was entertained enough to hope it does.
Sunday, January 17, 2016
As I type out this next statement it seems so so so so very wrong, but after quickly refreshing my memory of Michael Bay's filmography, I've come to the realization that I actually enjoy most of his movies. Which is crazy, because on that same list of titles is one of my most-hated films of all time: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. But the fact remains that you can usually count on Bay for a good time at the theater, assuming you can handle lots of testosterone, boobs and explosions. (Semi-relevant side note: my friend was at the Playboy Mansion a few years ago for work (really!) and he texted me that Michael Bay was there. My response? "OF COURSE HE IS.")
Bay's taken on real events before with Pearl Harbor and Pain & Gain, both of which were critically despised (though for the record I kinda loved the latter). So I can't say my hopes were high for 13 Hours. Then there's the fact that most of what's been in the news more recently about the Benghazi tragedy did not exactly sound like movie material: emails, email servers, Hillary Clinton's emails and email servers, marathon Congressional hearings... blah blah blah... zzzzzz. I realize this is shameful and that I am living up (down) to the overall fairly accurate stereotype of an ignorant American, but I feel it's important to be honest that I didn't know a heck of a lot about what actually happened in Benghazi when I went into this movie.
But Bay knows his audience, and so he's got you, fellow fools. He lays it all out at the beginning, quickly explaining where Benghazi is, what was going on there in 2012, and why that context matters. Then we meet some of the people who were working at both the United States' diplomatic compound and the secret CIA annex about a mile down the road. At that annex was a team of six men who all had hardcore military backgrounds and were in Benghazi as CIA security contractors; the screenplay by Chuck Hogan was based on Mitchell Zuckoff's book, which he wrote alongside the five surviving members of that team.
As impossible as this may be to believe, 13 Hours isn't a political film. I was dreading that it would be, and was therefore pleasantly surprised that it instead focused almost solely on the Americans who were forced to defend themselves and each other when Islamic militants attacked both the compound and the annex. (In retrospect this focus makes sense, given the screenplay's source material).
When the attack sequences start—and then do not let up for a large chunk of the 144-minute running time—it is often hard to understand exactly what's going on. But I think that was the point. We might be seeing firefights from above, from street level, through windows or from the security team's night-vision goggles, but one thing's clear: it was an all-out shitshow, with the CIA team unable to tell which locals might be on their side versus who might be about to shoot them in the back at any second.
While some of the dialogue in the film is downright embarrassing, I'd still argue that I'm glad it was Michael Bay, of all directors, who made this movie. He kept it about the people directly involved, was respectful to those who lost their lives, and did the right thing by using the Hero Worship filter to depict the actions of a group of people who were profoundly brave and selfless in the face of near-certain death.
But make no mistake: you will not—or at least you should not—leave the theater wanting to pump your fist and holler, "MURICA!!!" You might be, as I was, confused and saddened and angry. And then perhaps you'll also do what I do after seeing any good movie that's "based on true events": get home, smack yourself upside the head and then spend a little time educating yourself on the full story.
Saturday, December 19, 2015
When I walked into the press screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the city of Los Angeles had just decided to close 900 schools and keep more than 640,000 students home because of a terror threat. (That threat turned out to be a hoax... but I think we all know that the nation's second-largest school system was justified in taking it seriously.) As we waited for the lights to dim, I started talking with a fellow critic about how scary it is to be raising two young children these days, and how I became physically sick the first time I learned about my three-year-old son's pre-K class having to practice "lockdown drills." Our conversation about the state of this country got more and more depressing until we were saved by the glorious, triumphant first blasts of John Williams' iconic score. The words STAR WARS appeared on the screen... and the tears started flowing heavily down my face.
This strong, emotional reaction to the freakin' FIRST SECOND of the movie was not what I was expecting. In fact, it was kind of like when my five-month-old daughter accidentally hits herself in the face and then looks around all confused and is like, "Did I do that?" That's how I felt when I realized I was crying. I mean, I LOVE STAR WARS and consider myself something of a hardcore fangirl, and I knew going into the film that I was probably going to be a mess throughout most of its running time. But to start bawling at the title screen? What was happening?!?
What was happening is that I was leaving the nonstop, overwhelming fears and worries of this world behind and being transported back in time to a beloved galaxy far, far away. But I was not only being transported to that other galaxy, I was also being transported back to my childhood. Back to me and my brother watching the movies over and over and over. Back to he and I "playing Star Wars"... not only with the figures, but also by pretending that we were the characters and running around our house like maniacs. (I think me rolling him down our steps in a sleeping bag might've somehow been related to a scene in the movies? Either way, sorry about that, bro.) Back to us standing in line for Return of the Jedi with our stuffed Ewoks. Those were happy, simpler times indeed. So all I can figure is that my tears started a-flowin' thanks to a prehistoric, preprogrammed stress-release response that is somewhere deep in all of us. And I guess there should be no shame in it anyway.
After I stopped crying, then I totally freaked out and all that was going through my mind was, "I'm seeing a new Star Wars movie! This is a NEW Star Wars movie! I'm about to find out what happened to everyone. I can't believe this is happening. I can't believe this day is finally here! I'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovieI'mseeinganewStarWarsmovie!!!!!!!"
Then I was like, "Dammit, Erika, you're gonna start missing stuff. Pull yourself together." And thankfully I did.
Now, I already told you I'm not even going to talk about the plot. But under the assumption that you've seen at least some of the nonstop marketing for the film and watched its trailers, I will share that I walked into the theater highly confident J.J. Abrams was going to do us right. Someone had asked me if I was nervous about The Force Awakens. My response was an emphatic "no." I realize that not everything Abrams has done has been the best ever, but this IS the man responsible for co-creating the show that changed the course of my career and hence my life. He was quite literally the only man for the job, in my book.
My main concern had been whether or not the female lead was going to be any good. But even that wasn't really a big worry, because J.J. and his team have a knack for plucking fresh-faced no-name actresses out of thin air who turn out to be really, really good. And Daisy Ridley (who plays Rey) is more than good. She's incredible. Say it with me now: phew. Before the movie I got some popcorn and the girl at the concession stand looked at me in my Star Wars shirt (and the five women behind me in line, also in Star Wars shirts) and commented, "I have never seen a female Star Wars fan before." My response was, "WHAT. SHUT UP." Then she repeated herself. All I have to say to that is, 1) it made me sad, but 2) there are bound to be more fangirls out there going forward thanks to Ridley's character. Yay!
Next up is John Boyega, who I loved as Moses in Attack the Block. But that movie was so twisted and weird and his character had such a thick South London accent, I was kinda like, "How is THIS gonna work with him being what I assume is some sort of Stormtrooper-turned-good-guy?" First things first: the accent is gone, bruv. Second: his Finn ended up being my favorite character (well, favorite new character). Funny, believable and charming. I was so, so impressed. Another phew and yay!
Another new character is pilot Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. On the day the cast was announced, I honest-to-god squealed when finding out Isaac was going to be in the film. Do yourself a favor and see everything else he's ever been in and then you'll understand why.
After we'd met the various new characters on screen, I kept thinking stuff like, "OK who's supposed to be the new Han... who's supposed to be the new Luke... hmm, that sounded kind of Han-ish," and so on. Until it hit me that they're just their own characters and they're the ones who are going to be taking this franchise into the future. I am pleased to report that it's in good hands, and no one even needs to be the "new Han" or "new Luke" or "new Leia" or whatever. Ridley, Boyega and Isaac were surprisingly funny on top of just being totally immersed in their characters. You know how all of us think of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill (I actually just wrote Luke Hamill first) and Carrie Fisher AS Han, Luke and Leia? That's already how I feel about these three. They ARE Rey and Finn and Poe. Forever and ever, amen.
If there was any new character that we all got to know before the film even came out, it was BB-8, the ball-looking droid. Nerds like me even bought their own BB-8s earlier this year. It's not a spoiler to say that BB-8 is in the movie A LOT, and he can more than hang with R2-D2 and C3P0, as far as instantly-lovable droids go.
Speaking of the old-school characters, everyone knows that the original three leads are back for this installment. My favorite of those characters is Han Solo (I even have a framed still of him in my house!), and I'm happy to say that his role is no small cameo. Han and Chewie (rrrrrrhhhhwwwwuuuurrrr) have a ton of scenes and pretty much every single one of them was The. Best. And the first time the Millennium Falcon appeared on screen? I lost my breath. One of my favorite scenes in the entire film involves that old "piece of junk," too. I gotta say that on top of putting so many of the original trilogy's characters into the mix to appease us older fans and provide the needed transition for the future films, Abrams also included several other sly shoutouts and callbacks that made me smile, because he himself is also a megafan. Again I say, "right man for the job!" (Of course the inclusion of Lawrence Kasdan on the writing team—he also co-wrote TESB and ROTJ—helped significantly on this front, too.)
Let's see... a few other things: The first time I saw it was in 2D. The second time was in 3D and while I usually hate 3D, I'll admit that it did add a little to the experience—there was one part in particular where the whole audience kinda laughed at how a huge ship was sticking out at us. It didn't give me a headache like it usually does, either. I'm seeing it again tonight (yes, really) but didn't have a format choice because there was only one seat left and it was in a 2D theater... and I'm fine with that. (I'm seeing it again because I feel robbed of a true hardcore fandom experience so far—seeing it early with mostly silent critics and then again in a half-full theater at noon aren't the same as a nighttime screening on opening weekend where I know everyone will be cheering and clapping and reacting loudly throughout. That's what I want. That's what I NEED!)
The last thing I'll comment upon is what a great job they did with the various "creatures." If you rewatch the originals, all of the various aliens and weirdo characters still have their charm, but many of them look straight-up fake because of technology and effects restrictions back in the day. That's no longer the case, obviously!
OK, before I go, I've decided that I AM going to spoil you on one big thing: Jar-Jar Binks does NOT make an appearance.
Can we get a final phew?
ENJOY THE SHOW and MAY THE FORCE BE WITH YOU, ALWAYS.
p.s. I WILL ALLOW spoilers and plot points in the comments below because I am dying to talk about the movie with others. So don't take a look-see down there until you've watched the movie for yourself. In a few days I intend to post all of my theories about various characters and what I thnk could happen in Episodes VIII and IX, but feel free to write whatever you'd like now before I get to it.
You have been forewarned!
Friday, June 12, 2015
Lightning has struck twice this year, my friends. I often complain about how action sequences haven't done it for me in a long, long time. I'll watch an elaborate car chase, explosion-heavy war scene or tricked-out superhero vs. villain battle and just feel bored. It's all like "been there, done that" for me at this point.
Until last month with Mad Max: Fury Road. And again this week with Jurassic World. Two totally different kinds of films—the former having truly changed the game and the latter being pretty much the definition of a popcorn movie—but all that matters to me is that I loved every minute of watching both of them, and that's something I can't say about any other recent action/adventure titles. I should probably mention here that I have no nostalgic feelings about the original trilogy, so there wasn't any of that factoring into my enjoyment of the film. This isn't the Star Wars franchise to me, by any means.
Having said all that, does it really even matter if I tell you what Jurassic World is about? No. Plus, you already freaking know what it's about: people being stupid (again) and dinosaurs wreaking having on those stupid people (again). It's a great combination, even though the dino mayhem far surpasses the idiotic human stuff in terms of entertainment value. And I'm not ashamed at all to admit that I was rooting against mankind for the majority of the movie.
Almost nothing of importance has changed plot-wise when comparing Jurassic World to 1993's Jurassic Park, except that this time it's 22 years later, the rebooted theme park has been operating successfully for years, and there's a guy named Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, in full "Hire me as the next Indiana Jones" mode, not that there's anything wrong with that) who's been attempting to train four Velociraptors with "positive reinforcement" techniques, much in the same way that I tried (and miserably failed) to train my black lab years ago.
So I truly had no issue with Claire overall, but the character I thought was most ripped out of the Movie Character Stereotype Handbook was Vic Hoskins (Vincent D'Onofrio, who I still can't believe is the same guy who played Thor in my beloved Adventures in Babysitting). Vic is the head of security and is all about weaponizing the dinos. He relishes the death and chaos when things start going horribly wrong. In other words, he is the Evil War- and Violence-Obsessed Villain.
And that's all fine and good, because watching these people (plus many other minor characters it's pointless to mention here) deal with the repercussions of humankind's greed, arrogance and inability to learn from the past was absolutely thrilling. The dinosaurs looked great, they sounded great, and everything about them was incredible. They're what's worth the price of a ticket, and thankfully you won't have to sit through too many human-only scenes. Michael Giacchino's spectacular throwback score and shots of the gorgeous island of Oahu (specifically Kualoa Ranch) are worth the cost admission, too.
Friday, May 15, 2015
When extremely enthusiastic buzz for Mad Max: Fury Road started leaking after its first press screenings last weekend, I didn't give those early whispers much weight. As a rule, I try not to pay attention to other film reviews before I write my own so as to not have my opinion clouded, and in this case, if I'm being honest, I had already figured there was going to be a strong George-Miller-fanboy element that would need to be factored in to account for all of the glowing reviews coming from mostly (95%, I calculated) male critics.
I had also figured that affection for the existing Mad Max films would bleed over into this reboot of sorts (with Miller back in the director's chair and Tom Hardy taking over Mel Gibson's role as "Mad" Max Rockatansky). Here's the part where I admit to having never seen any of those movies. What can I say? I was an 11-year-old girl obsessed with Madonna and The Goonies when the third film (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) came out, and for whatever reason just never felt motivated to rent the trilogy in the decades since. They seemed like testosterone-fueled "guy movies" to me. And my general dislike of Mel Gibson didn't help.
I considered catching up before seeing Fury Road, but ultimately didn't. My reasoning: in addition to most other critics being male, nearly all of them have seen the original trilogy, so maybe it would be more interesting if I reported from a totally different perspective.
But as it turns out, my gender and complete lack of familiarity with George Miller's previous films didn't even matter in the end. I'm here to assure you that you don't need to know anything about the other Mad Max installments to have your mind completely blown by Fury Road. I walked out of the theater contemplating that it might just be the best film I've ever seen, ever. (Not my favorite, but the best. There's a difference.)
Soon he has bigger things to worry about, though, because he gets captured by a gang of War Boys—brainwashed, chalk-covered, wild-eyed members of a feral army that worships King Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who played Toecutter in 1979's Mad Max). After a heart-pounding escape-attempt sequence that, in retrospect, serves as a remarkably tame appetizer for what's to come, Max finds himself strung upside down and serving as a blood donor for a weakened War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult).
We are introduced to Immortan Joe as he showers his starving, filthy and tumored masses with a stingy taste of the drinking water he's been pumping up from the earth and hoarding. But soon after this display of arrogance and power, he discovers that Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron)—who was supposed to be leading a crew of War Boys on a fuel run—has stolen Joe's five (!) wives and gone rogue. The wheezy, masked ruler promises glory to whomever brings Furiosa to justice, so Nux decides he needs to strap his blood bank (Max) to the front of a vehicle and join the chase.
From the increased frame-rate that makes everything appear jumpy and hyper-real, to the electric-guitar and drum-heavy score (by Junkie XL) that's cleverly embedded into the action, to the glorious wide shots of the desert chase courtesy of cinematographer John Seale—you can't help but wonder how in the hell Miller pulled this off, especially when there doesn't seem to be that much obvious CGI. Fury Road raises the bar so high I can't imagine it being met for years to come. Let's just say it reinforced my belief that superhero movies have been taking the easy and expected way out for quite a while now. No action movie I can remember holds a candle to Fury Road. No action movie I can remember should even be classified as an action movie now that Fury Road exists. It's a game-changer.
Much ado has been made about the film's feminist or female empowerment themes, but I didn't walk out of the theater with any such thoughts in my head. The person who's had enough of Immortan Joe's bullshit happens to be female, and she also happens to kick ass. A lot of the people who end up helping her happen to be ass-kicking females as well. But to me this isn't a story of men versus women or men effing up the world and women having to save it, it's a story of how a small group of people with not much more than their convictions and determination might possibly change things. It's a story about hope. It just takes a while to realize that after you've been holding your breath in amazement for two hours.
Tuesday, May 12, 2015
As I explained in yesterday's post, I've had some extra time over the past few weeks. My schedule will also be slightly less jam-packed between now and our vacation next Friday, and I have big plans to continue my rare productive streak.
My mom asked the right person. Not only did I have several purses wasting away in my closet purgatory, but I had over a dozen of those random makeup bags that you get "free" with your purchase at various makeup counters. These things were seriously multiplying on my bathroom shelves, and I was thrilled to clear them out and know they'd be going to someone who actually needed them.
And the toiletries? Oh lord, don't even get me started. This is a little embarrassing, but I clearly have some sort of kleptomaniac blood running through my veins because every time I stay at a hotel, I take all of the toiletries home. All of those mini bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion, mouthwash, body gel, soap—you name it. And we travel a lot. So over the years I accumulated literally hundreds of bottles, boxes and packets of various toiletries. My reasoning was that we have a lot of people stay with us and that it would be nice to offer our guests a selection of bathroom amenities to choose from. But at this point someone could stay with us for five years straight and not run out of shampoo. It was ridiculous.
So I spent a few hours over the course of that weekend going through my bathroom closets, looking under the sinks and rummaging through every other random place I've squirreled this stuff away and came up with several big grocery bags full of loot for my mom to take back with her. Now I wish I would've weighed all of it because it was insane! All that's left now are a few small baskets for each of our guest rooms that look something like this:
I think our visitors are gonna survive AND still be so fresh and so clean when they leave our place.
Next up was the biggest task yet: cleaning out my clothes closets, since my mom mentioned there were other groups she worked with that were holding clothing drives.
I've been freelancing from home since 2007, yet for some reason I still kept all of my very nice suits I wore for The Man, along with a ton of high heels and more businessy stuff that I haven't touched for years. I just never had the time—even on weekends—to go through it all and decide what I should give to charity and what I should keep. But now I finally had a huge motivation to do it: I had a few hours to spare because my parents were watching Desmond all weekend and they were going to be nice enough to actually haul everything to the various nonprofits for me and get me the tax receipts I need. I HAD to get it done.
I went crazy paring down my closets. It felt so, so good. I kept my three favorite suits, but all other outfits only relevant to The Man went bye-bye. As did sweaters I hadn't worn in at least two seasons, pants that didn't fit anymore, shoes that were uncomfortable, pajamas I'd forgotten about, and so on.
We piled it all into my parents' SUV and FILLED IT. We filled an SUV with clothes, purses and toiletries!?!?
We gave away that much stuff... and my husband still needs to rummage through his closets! We're going to have so much extra room around here, and we can feel extra-good about it. Words can't describe the relief I felt at getting this done.
I hope I've inspired you to do the same if you've been feeling like you need a good spring cleaning. Now is the time! 'Cause it's spring—duh!
Monday, May 11, 2015
It's been a while since I've posted, and this time I actually have a good excuse—or several good excuses, as it were. Two of them can't be shared publicly right now, so I'll have to keep you in suspense on those for a bit longer. But one update I can talk about is that—after 6.5 years of writing movie reviews, blog posts and social media musings—I am no longer freelancing for Redbox. It's only been a few weeks since I stopped working for them, so I'm not even sure it's completely sunk in to me yet. I was a contractor for Redbox longer than I had a "real job" anywhere else, so I guess the adjustment is going to take some time.
I had four months to prepare for my last day, but clearly change is harder than I'd like to admit because I didn't get off my butt and proactively try to secure another film reviewing gig like I should've. And now because of the other stuff going on that I can't share just yet, it probably doesn't make sense for me to try and find a more permanent critic post until the fall. So you can expect to see more movie reviews here on According to e in the meantime, starting this week.
My new gig will start in a few months and is still social media and writing-centric, but it's not really public-facing—meaning that I won't be sharing links of things I've written. So my hope is to eventually find a way to balance the new client work and my other client work, start reviewing films for a new outlet and also post frequently on this site in order to keep the ol' creative expression flowing.
Now that my personal update is out of the way, I'll be back with commentary on totally random topics starting tomorrow . . . until I leave for Ireland and Northern Ireland next Friday. Westeros, here I come!
Friday, April 24, 2015
What would you do if you knew you'd stay 29 years old forever?
I hadn't done my homework before seeing The Age of Adaline; I knew who the leads were and that it was about a woman who didn't age, but that's it. So I was surprised to learn afterward that it isn't based on any best-selling novel, but rather is an original story from J. Mills Goodloe and Salvador Paskowitz. I was surprised by this because let's be honest—there aren't a ton of romantic dramas out there these days that aren't adaptations. Actually, there aren't many movies of any genre out there these days that aren't adaptations.
I'd made another pre-screening assumption: that the movie was going to be either too cheesy or too weepy for my tastes. Wrong again.
Maybe it's because I've always been a sucker for any story dealing with the manipulation of time, but I found myself willing to go all in with The Age of Adaline from its very first moments. A voiceover explains the fairly ridiculous (and intentionally comedic in parts) setup of exactly how Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) stopped aging at 29 years old when she crashed her car on the way to pick up her five-year-old daughter after her husband's untimely death. The year was 1937.
Director Lee Toland Krieger (Celeste and Jesse Forever) made a smart decision in putting Adaline's secret out there from the start—and by giving the audience a silly "wink and nudge" moment that allowed them to just laugh out loud at the crazy premise and then move on to caring about Adaline's dilemma. The dilemma being that since she has remained 29 for decades, she can't get close to anyone, nor can she stay in one place for more than ten years before somebody starts getting suspicious.
It's a lonely, mournful existence, which Lively does an excellent job of conveying throughout the film, but there was one scene in particular that stuck with me. Adaline and her now-eightysomething daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn) were at lunch, and Flemming was babbling on about friends of hers who had recently fallen or had hip surgery or had moved to a retirement community. The mix of emotions that crossed Adaline's face within a matter of seconds—concern, disbelief, irritation, denial, sadness, and then back to authentic concern—was amazing and heartbreaking. A different scene where Adaline has to say goodbye to yet another faithful canine companion put me over the edge.
And so it becomes clear that unless you're a vampire with other vampire friends to hang with (or a virginal beauty decides she just must turn undead and join you), living forever ain't all it's cracked up to be. Adaline can't even pull an Arwen—if she were to find The One, she couldn't simply choose to give up her immortality for her own personal version of Aragorn.
So when Ellis Jones (Michael Huisman) aggressively pursues Adaline after they meet at a New Year's Eve party, it's understandable (to us) why she plays coy. However, she does allow herself a little fun, which leads to a weekend trip with Ellis to his parent's house to celebrate their fortieth anniversary. Things get mighty mighty weird right quick, because Ellis's dad William (Harrison Ford) knew Adaline back in the day.
This is where I tell you that if you're on the fence about seeing this movie, you must see it solely for the flashbacks of Harrison Ford's character. Because I'm pretty darn sure that my entire theater had their minds blown by not only the physical resemblance of the actor playing young William (Anthony Ingruber) to a young Harrison Ford, but also by how much the two men sound exactly like each other. It is freaky, I tell you. (I later learned that Ingruber got the part specifically because of his Han Solo impressions on YouTube. For real.)
I had but three small issues with The Age of Adaline: 1) I'm so used to hearing Huisman in other softer accents (on Game of Thrones, Nashville and Orphan Black) that I was not feeling the grating "American voice" he settled on for this role, 2) while there were hints at something deeper (bursting into another language, dominating at Trivial Pursuit), I was left wanting to know more about Adaline's past, and 3) the ending was totally cheeserrific. Not in a film-ruining way, but in a "did they really have to be that cheesy?" way.
Regardless, I would still recommend The Age of Adaline because it pleasantly surprised me and passed my test of getting me to think about things that will never happen to me. (What? You thought I was still 29? Why thank you, and you go on and have yourself a fantastic weekend.)