Sunday, December 10, 2017

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Steven Spielberg threw everything into the kitchen sink with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, and it shows, with an alien movie that tries to have it both ways. It feels like both a big adventure/road journey and what is typically expected from the genre, something much more focused and local. At times, it feels like he bit off more than he could chew, but if at any time the audience feels lost, focusing on the filmmaking aesthetics and how they've been homaged and built upon over the decades can help pull viewers back into the story.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind shows how different people react to the possibly of incoming otherworldly contact, and why they may do it. Some are just looking for answers (Roy, played by Richard Dreyfuss), some are secondary victims of abduction (Jillian, played by Melinda Dillon), and some are the military and government, who come off much better in this movie than the genre typically allows them to.

Starting with that, the military and government are given a light touch in Close Encounters. They do their job, and some of their actions are reprehensible, but they're humanized, and not the "robots" that typically fight and dissect the martians in these scenarios. There's a feeling of unity in Close Encounters that relaxes, but also raises the tension when it's realized that all the humans are on the same side, but is everyone in the movie on the same side?

Going into the aesthetics, the first thing people may pick up on is the use of light. It's beautiful, calculated, and arguably in one scene it creates one of the finest jump scares in cinematic history. The language of light and music is comparable to the recent movie Arrival (2016), which focused on language and communication in its plot.

The effects and especially camerawork are top notch. Little things like how a scene is blocked and edited go a long way in maintaining engagement. One scene that stuck out was when Dreyfus is interrogated by scientist Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) and his assistant Robert (Lance Henriksen). When Claude or Robert are speaking the camera always keeps both of them in frame, emphasizing that unity needed to ground the film. Also, closeups on either of them would have created unnecessary cuts in a scene that demonstrates that less is more.

Less however isn't enough when it comes to the ships and aliens. Douglas Trumbell (Visual Effects Supervisor) and Carlo Rambaldi (alien designer) nearly overwhelm with spectacle, trusting that it won't be too much. The ships are incredibly detailed, beautifully colored, and bathed in a warm (very warm) glow. What keeps this from becoming too much is the initial opening of the film. Close Encounters starts with a slow burn tone, but doesn't exactly maintain it. How people feel about that is up to them, as the uptick in speed comes with a spreading out in plot.

Close Encounters could have used a little more focus as it feels a little unsure where it's going, even though it actually is. All that's lacking, or feels lacking, is breaks to check in on everyone else in the film. It's frustrating, but it's only an issue on the first watch. Rewatchers will be rewarded with time to go into the mind of Roy, his family, Jillian, and others.

Roy's a great everyman, searching for the truth and shrugging off nearly all others in his path. Dreyfus makes him his own with some humor and the way he interacts with his kids. Speilberg's father-son tropes, for lack of a better term, are mostly sidelined here. However, when they come out it's heartbreaking.

It's tough to imagine how people will react to extraterrestrials, if or when the time comes, tons of movies have captured the scenario (seemingly) pretty accurately, but Close Encounters feels like one of the first to explore all aspects of what may happen. It's not all invasions and slavery, but it's not all peace and love either. It's a great mix, like this movie. All excellent, if a bit all over the place, too.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Life (2017)

When (human) life is created, it can be become anything. Life, successfully, tries to be everything. Daniel Espinoa's space thriller takes a lot from Alien, Gravity, 2001, and, most likely others. However, it's only enough for the audience to get initially engaged in the film. After that, it's the best kind of bumpy ride, rivaled only Space Mountain.

Life is about six astronauts who find an advanced human specimen, that slowly, but surely, turns of them. Survival quickly becomes the backup plan, when it's clear that keeping the alien away from Earth is the top priority. These characters take that extremely seriously, and it benefits the film immensely. Life doesn't feature any stock characters. People could certainly be fleshed out more, but enough time is spent with everyone so there's someone for the audience to latch onto. The actors had a difficult challenge, having to act scared, believably human, pretend they were in a zero-gravity environment, and perform an opening long take that bests Gravity in its complexity. The standouts will vary person to person, thank goodness, but Jake Gyllenhall and Ariyon Bakare up there. It may be because there characters can be the toughest to identify with, but again, that can vary.

The alien, named Calvin by some STEM-centric elementary schoolers via a webcam (this is a very sweet movie sometimes), is a wonderful creation. His evolution and behavior is literally put under the microscope, and every little detail of the cgi-beast looks seamless. He may look a little like a Xenomorph or Predator, or a symbiote, in some shots, but there's enough original design around his face to balance that out. On the Xenomorph side of things, Calvin may be more deadly, and this is illustrated through some interesting first-person shots. This is also where some of the 2001 influence comes in, along with some of the most gruesome space deaths on screen.

This is not a horror film, but it is a violent, R-rated one. There are no jump scares, but there are buckets of free-floating blood, which could definitely freak out some people. If you can get past that though, you're in for a treat because this is one of the few thrillers that can take every opportunity to slow down without loss of momentum. That sweet moment with the STEM kids isn't the only one in the film, there are little touches like that here and there, as a character is mourned, or a gut-wrenching decision is made.

The ending may seem underwhelming, and upon rewatch Life may have some major plot holes that shouldn't be overlooked, but at least at first glance, 2017 brought another breath of fresh air to one of genres that instinctively tightens throats.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Storks (2016)

No one gets society like Warner Brothers Animation. Cartoon Network shows like Adventure Time and Steven Universe handle equality and representation, We Bare Bears and Regular Show handle(d) millennial culture and how technology impacts all of us, and on the big screen Storks addresses a little bit of both, corporate culture (including what an empire Amazon is becoming) and workaholism. If it sounds like The WB isn't making content for kids anymore, don't worry, they are and Storks is a return to that and a bit of their former looney-ness.

Storks answers the age old question of where babies come from. Someone writes a letter to the stork, the baby factory automates the entire process, and storks deliver the bundles of joy. At least they used to. This was a failing business model, to say the least, but when a little boy asks for a little sibling (with ninja skills), and the baby factory is accidentally turned on it's, up to our main stork Junior (Andy Samberg) and his human co-worker Tulip (Katie Crown) to brush off that old employee handbook and go on an adventure.

The adventure is told at a fairly fast pace, if only because some of the dialogue is either a little expositional or on the nose. If these moments stretched the film out, it could've been painful. For instance they have a locker room scene that demonstrate how career focused Junior is, but they could've cut it and taken him almost directly to meeting his boss CEO Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) and no ounce of his character would've been lost. Instead, what we get is some reflective 21st Century water-cooler talk. It's so bad it's good, featuring a brown-nosing bro-pigeon (Stephen Kramer Glickman). It's something straight out of a "What Not To Do" LinkedIn article, and it's wonderful. A lot of the film is like that, with ridiculous profit charts, figuring out what being a boss means, and in-office golfing.

Anyway, out of the office, and in the suburbs, a couple of the same rules apply. That little boy, Nate (Anton Starkman) is the son of two workaholic parents (Ty Burrell, being very Phil Dunphy, and Jennifer Aniston, who doesn't do enough voice work). This sounds familiar, but Storks sets itself apart from most films by showing their whole home life, and not the parents' work life against Nate's home life. A baby isn't expected to magically just fix things if it shows up at the door.

The voice cast isn't just remarkable by name-recognition alone. In addition to those mentioned, Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key are the baby-loving wolves Alpha and Beta, and Danny Trejo as Jasper one of the last of the baby-delivering Storks.

Alpha and Beta, and their pack are something special. In pursuit of the baby, the comedy dream team of Key and Peele will form Voltron-like Wolf-Vehicles and objects by linking themselves together. This is straight out of Saturday-morning cartoons, and exactly what WB fans would expect...What they won't expect, however is these beautiful, silly visuals were created by Sony.

Sony Imageworks, who has created some of the most photorealistic cgi in the last twenty-five years, animated this entire film. It's shocking until you see the one sequence the filmmakers decide to replay. Everything else is gorgeously built from scratch and Imageworks, even with nothing to prove, showed that old wolves could learn some fun tricks. The visuals are fast, cartoony, and hopefully when Warners Brothers starts making cgi in-house they marry their legacy with what Imageworks has blessed them with.

Finally, one note about the sound. The film's score, by Mychael and Jeff Danna, occasionally uses a comedic orchestra. This is usually a pretty funny gag, and most likely it typically uses stock audio. Storks does it more than once, and it's a surefire hit each time. More than likely these were fresh recording, and when thinking about it, it sounds more and more like this film was a real collaborative experience for those involved.

If you can ignore the unintentional existential questions about overpopulation and unwanted children this film raises (just bury it deep down in the dark corners of the mind), enjoy Storks.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003)

There's no shortage of things to talk about with DreamWorks Animation. Sinbad is a lean 80 minutes brought down by a mean title character who leaves the strengths of his film elsewhere. Sinbad's (Brad Pitt) journey is to return The Book of Peace, from Eris The God of Chaos (Michelle Pfeiffer). This is so Sinbad's friend Proteus (Joseph Fiennes), this film's "Socrates," and that's actually meant with complete sincerity, won't take his place in his death sentence.

First of all, this friendship is based in exposition, and not the fun, improvised exposition from The Road to El Dorado. Second of all, Sinbad's actually starts on this mission because Proteus's fiancee, Marina (Catherine Zeta Jones) is keeping an eye on him. The film goes out of its way to make him unlikeable and even further to never give us a good backstory on why. It's basically because...it's expected of pirates, even though the rest of his crew seems like a stand-up bunch. If he had a few better, wittier lines, all of which are at least well-performed, he'd be acceptable.

The humor's actually pretty funny, when it's not blended with the action, forced, homophobic (albeit, it was a different time). DreamWork's trademark adult humor lands pretty well. There's even a silly nipple joke that's reminiscent of a classic episode of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The jokes generally just aren't sharp enough, and it's easy to assume that script needed a polish in that area.

Jumping back to the action, it's very solid. The camera and editing quickly draw viewers in with attention-grabbing, but not distracting movement early on. The cgi backgrounds and creatures that back the set-pieces up haven't aged well, but they're also a product of the time, and some beginning animators may find the models endearing. (Personally, as a failed animator, I do).

The action also has a certain restraint that I noted was in the entire final act of The Road to El Dorado. Please watch this film's siren-song scene and compare it with Ice Age Four's. This one is actually creative with how the crew reacts to the creatures, as it's a slow burn to their potential demise and not being instantly lust-struck. The creatures themselves, liquid beings, are actually alluring and good vocalists.

Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas is great for making comparisons, but when a road movie, it's not much of one, but it is one, doesn't tell the audience how close the characters are to the destination, and then rushes back to the starting point, the script needs to be started from scratch. While the ending of the film doesn't make these issues worse, and are a bit redemptive, Sinbad could've started stronger. This would be DreamWorks last 2d film, so they should've ended on a high note.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

Baby Driver (2017)

Edgar Wright has officially made his mark with Baby Driver, and by that I mean, he's turning a would-be cult-classic into a smash-hit at this very moment. And I don't believe, for a single second, that he had to compromise anything in this film to do it. So, what does that give us?

Baby Driver is the heist film for the new millennium (not "for the millennial," don't start thinking that), following the getaway driver Baby (Ansel Elgort) on his last few jobs as he tries to get out of the business and settle into the quieter life. He's earned it, as demonstrated by the break-neck opening getaway.

Wright's chases aren't just fast, they're smart, properly paced, and take risks. Baby uses every (realistic) trick in the book, everything we dreamed while stuck in traffic, running late, and/or just cruising. The only difference between him and everyone else in the driver's seat is he goes for it, and will run through the guardrails or down those hills to get off the highway. (Seriously, why don't we plant more trees in those open areas?)

If this doesn't sound like everyone else in the world, does jamming in the car and blasting music at least sound close because not only does he do that, but Elgort makes it a cornerstone of his performance. Roughly 80-percent of his work is non-verbal and synched to a track, and that track was specially crafted, not just selected, to the film. It may sound like Baby's got his own Awesome Mix, but Wright either thought ahead or was quick-to-adapt because he sets himself apart from that by miles. A cassette player gives Guardians support, whereas an old iPod gives Baby Driver everything, but without the film living or dying based on the specific tunes (which are top-notch anyway).

Rounding out the cast, Lily James is the perfect partner for Elgort, and luckily given much more to do in this than in Cinderella. Her character, Deborah, plays a the perfect partner in crime for him, but not in the typical her crazy matches his crazy way. They're not crazy, just their circumstances are, thanks to the rest of the cast.

Kevin Spacey, Jon Hamm, Jon Bernthal, Jamie Foxx, and Eiza González are their own little ensemble in Baby Driver, and if we were to follow any of them instead, we'd apply that last sentence to them as well. Wright takes it to heart that "we're the good guys" is a relative term, at least to a point.

There is a point where Baby Driver does shift into a different gear (sorry for that one), and you may not completely be onboard with that, but the consistency is with the characters. Stick with them, and the movie will stick with you in return. If you find yourself home alone at the end of the night, it's a guarantee that your speakers will be getting a workout, and you will too.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Rough Night (2017)

Rough Night is a hot, as in sometimes good and funny, mess.

Considered by some to be another female-equivalent of The Hangover, Rough Night fits the mold, but doesn't break it. While The Hangover, and Bridesmaids, wrote their characters as people first, Rough Night writes them as stereotypical women first, and characters second. Sometimes it works well, but often it doesn't.

In Rough Night, Jess's (Scarlet Johansson) bachelorette party is derailed because of the accidental death of the stripper that, of course, she did not ask for or want her friends to order. Because of the circumstances of his death, she and her friends Alice (Jillian Bell), Frankie (Ilana Glazer), Blair (Zoe Kravitz), and Pippa (Kate McKinnon) try to cover it up, and plot contrivances make the situation go from bad to worse.

Tonal shifts, personally, are rarely an issue when watching a movie, except this time. This death scene is one of the more jarring ones in a movie because it feels so disconnected from the rest of the film. It's played completely straight by the cast, but attempted humor is sprinkled in over screams and panic. The jokes are good, like one about a much-needed YouTube video on CPR being pre-empted by an ad, but everything else about the scene is saying, "if you laugh now, you're a bad person, and other people in this will look at you in disgust." What may have helped is if the director (Lucia Aniello) had the composer (Dominic Lewis) step in and leave a hint. One thing about the music, the soundtrack is less on the nose than Bad Moms.

As mentioned, the plot is lacking, and some things make no sense, like how Jess's fiancee is unable to contact Jess for part of the film. Does he really not have any of her friends' numbers? However, Rough Night tries to make these issues its strength, relies on its actors instead, and plays on the audiences expectations of new humor in the continuing R-rated comedy revolution. So, moments like a tame bachelor party, where Jess's fiancee Peter (co-writer Paul W. Downs) is being consoled by his bros, work really well in the post-Apatow world. Downs, by the way is one of the standouts on-screen.

The entire cast is great, after a rocky start, but only given so much to work with. McKinnon's is the shining example of that. She must have trusted Aniello and Downs when they said, "do that thing you do, and we'll give Pippa something real the audience can hold onto." Pippa is almost exclusively comic-relief and is only as strong as McKinnon's crazy eyes and Australian accent. She's more than a plot device, McKinnon is having a blast playing her, but because she owned the role.

Rough Night is a much needed film, for the cast, for the genre, for its audience, but its success will only come from the similar movies that surpass it...I'm certain some of them will be better attempts from this group.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Road to El Dorado (2000)

Just before the dark times of DreamWorks Animation, and animation in general, during the mid 2000s, there was The Road to El Dorado, a film that is only wounded by its Disney-isms but not destroyed because of them.

The Road to El Dorado follows two partners, Tulio (Kevin Kline) and Miguel (Kenneth Branagh) in their quest for gold. When they discover the city, they inadvertently become “gods” and must keep up the charade until they can escape back to Spain.

El Dorado’s biggest strength is in the life breathed into Tulio and Miguel, two of DreamWorks most fleshed out characters. While they work best playing off each other, it’s incredible how the screenwriters (Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio) kept the two independent of each other. This film easily could have been good if it only featured one of them, and the script wouldn’t be that affected. Instead, something great happens, as Kline and Branagh seem like they were cast together because they’ve been a team for years. The dialogue is sharp and fast, and the animation pushes the “show don’t tell” subtleties of Tulio and Miguel’s friendship.

The other major characters are Chel (Rosie Perez), Chief Tannabok (Edward James Olmos), Tzekel-Kan (Armand Assante). They’re all fairly well-written, and fun, and bring a lot to this film, but Tzekel-Kan is part of where the Disney-isms start.

Besides being a bit of a musical, which wasn’t requested and wasn’t needed, DreamWorks needed to import a Disney villain into this film. As the film goes on, he gets better, but the film is too clear too fast about who this man is. Hearing that he’s basically the interpreter for the Gods is enough of a tip-off for teenagers watching this film, and El Dorado is meant for all ages, but his Scar-like face and manner of speaking feel unnecessary. Having said that, his later scenes may have inspired The Princess and the Frog’s Shadow Man, so that’s a beautiful shout-out from The Mouse nine years later.

Saying the film is meant for everyone cannot be overstated. It’s smart, it dips into the brand of humor has been trying to balance for years (“adult), without going overboard, and El Dorado doesn’t shy away from some tense scenes (human sacrifice) or playing with film tropes and clichés. In fact, the movie handles religion in a very mature way, demonstrating how being a god isn’t all fun and games, but not bashing people over the head with what a responsibility it would be. While it’s fitting from the studio behind Prince of Egypt and Antz, it’s potentially unexpected today, when religion is such a major topic.

The second act may not be for everyone, although pacing in the film is hardly an issue, but the final act and climax are a breath of fresh air compared to what’s been the norm for decades.

El Dorado knows when to think small, and honestly, it could have been smaller. It could have even been a television show or even a radio play, but on the screen just about everything concerning money and time is budgeted just right, (apart from the musical segments that aren’t for everybody) and it shows when these two goofballs, and Chel, are just speaking effortlessly.