Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

starwars-tfaI’ve been struggling to write this review for weeks now for a number of reasons, but perhaps the biggest is because it’s STAR WARS. I mean, it’s huge! It’s a cultural phenomenon, perhaps one of the most well-known franchises in the world. It was the series that set me on the path to being a geek. “Formative” doesn’t really begin to cover it.

So putting down the words to describe how I feel about The Force Awakens seems to be an insurmountable task. It’s just so big, and there are so many things to discuss about it, and so much of it comes from who I am and what Star Wars has meant to me.

This movie comes at a point when it’s been more than 20 years since I saw the original trilogy for the first time, and ten years since I last saw a Star Wars movie in theaters (with the expectation that I would likely never do so again). When it was first announced, I was “meh” about it; given the overall disappointment with the prequels, I found it difficult to get excited for another film even though I knew George Lucas wouldn’t be involved.

And then the trailers came out.

I went from “meh” to “excited” faster than I ever have in my life. I couldn’t wait to see the movie, but at the same time, I was terrified it wouldn’t live up to my expectations (which were getting loftier by the minute, despite every effort I made to keep them manageable).

Fortunately, I shouldn’t have worried. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was easily my favorite movie from 2015, and is on par with the best of the original trilogy.

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The Netflix Queue: High Road

High_Road_Movie_PosterI really wasn’t sure what to expect from something called an “improvisational comedy.” What I got was a movie much funnier and more entertaining than I expected it to be.

Fitz (James Pumphrey) is a pot-smoking drummer with a girlfriend he loves. Generally, he’s happy with his life. Then, both of his other bandmates leave the band, and Fitz is reduced to selling pot out of his garage (though he insists he isn’t a dealer).

When he suspects he’s about to get busted by the police, he tosses all his drugs and heads to Oakland until the heat dies down, though he somewhat-accidentally brings his 16-year-old friend, Jimmy (Dylan O’Brien), along with him.

It’s a comedy of errors that gets Fitz and Jimmy on the road to Oakland, with Jimmy’s dad (Rob Riggle) and Officer Fogerty (Joe Lo Truglio) in hot pursuit. Fitz doesn’t actually need to go on the run (which we know, but he sure as hell doesn’t), but at the same time, it may be the best thing that’s happened to him. It really forces him outside of his comfort zone, and maybe, just maybe, he’ll grow up a little during it.

He and Jimmy develop a funny brotherly relationship, although who’s the older brother is up for debate, depending on the scene. 🙂

Jimmy’s dad and Fogerty were hilarious (keep watching during the credits; Jimmy, his dad, and Fogerty have a great final scene). On the one hand, I could totally understand why his dad was so worried, but at the same time I kept waiting for them to accidentally kill someone.

Fogerty was brilliant at the “making it worse” thing, which alternated between being hysterical and me just wanting to beg him to think before he spoke JUST ONE TIME. (Spoiler: He never does. It remains funny.)

Also, Ed Helms was just spot-on as Monica’s creepy boss, Barry. Their interactions had me laughing and squirming at the same time. And I liked Monica’s road trip (trying to track Fitz down) almost as much as Fitz and Jimmy’s.

The comedy style definitely isn’t for everyone. I thought it was hilarious for the most part, but there were a couple of times it felt like the jokes went on just a little too long, which is perhaps a function of the improv style of the movie. (At that point, I was glad I was drinking, because where normally that would have grated on me, being not-sober helped me tolerate it better.)

High Road is relatively short (running just under 90 minutes) and unexpectedly entertaining. And last I checked, it’s still available on Netflix Instant. If it sounds like your cup of tea, then go forth and enjoy. And if you’re not sure, give it a chance.

The Netflix Queue: Grizzly Rage

I have a really soft spot in my heart for movies that fall into the category “so bad they’re good.” I love MST3K movies even without the jokes. I voluntarily watched In the Name of the King and Ultraviolet (and laughed uproariously throughout both). One of my great disappointments of this year is that I have not actually seen Sharknado.

So when Eris told me about Grizzly Rage—wherein four teenagers run over a grizzly bear cub and the mama goes on a homicidal rampage—I could not say yes fast enough.

And frankly, it was funnier than most comedies I’ve seen this year.

grizzly-rage-movie-posterWe meet our four teenagers—First Kill, Schrodinger’s Dumbass, Token Girl, and Tyler Hoechlin—when they’re sitting outside someone’s house (no idea whose) waiting for First Kill to arrive with the Jeep so they can load up to go camping to celebrate graduating high school. (Yes, they have actual names. No, there’s no real point in learning them.) There’s a lot of empty banter, which ends with them getting into the Jeep and the viewer already rooting for the bear.

This is followed by a very long drive, and then a heated discussion wherein the boys decide to change their plans and go somewhere called “The Grotto” as opposed to wherever they intended to go. Token Girl puts up a token protest, but she is, naturally, overridden. Because if teenagers in horror movies ever exhibited sensible decision-making skills, the entire horror movie industry would collapse.

So our intrepid quartet sets off for somewhere they’re not supposed to be. Rather than being deterred by a locked gate when they arrive, they use the winch on the Jeep to get inside and proceed to rip down dirt roads at 80 miles an hour.

During their reckless driving, they hit and kill a grizzly bear cub, spin out, and wreck the Jeep. Miraculously, the car is not actually wrecked by hitting a living being that should be the size of a large dog, but rather by hitting a tree. The teenagers argue about what to do, and in a stunning display of brilliance, Tyler Hoechlin takes off his shirt (yay!) to wrap around the baby bear and bury it (NO!).

At that moment, Mama Bear roars and the teenagers take off for the car, leaving behind the shirt so as to enable Mama to track them more easily. They drive off (in the wrong direction, naturally) and get a good distance away before the Jeep overheats and they have to stop.

As you might expect, they have no cell service, nobody knows about their change of plans, and it does not take Mama Bear long to find her dead cub and the shirt our teenagers so helpfully left behind.

So much is ridiculous about this movie that I barely know where to begin. Apparently the only budget they had for effects was for MS Paint, because the only blood splatter we get is some computer-animated stuff on the camera lens. Not on anything else, mind you. On the actual lens.

And while we did have some nice stock footage of a roaring grizzly, any time someone got attacked, it was with clearly fake bear arms. Or a clearly fake bear head (possibly attached to a battering ram).

Schrodinger’s Dumbass is dubbed thusly because for a good thirty minutes of the movie, you have no idea if he’s alive or dead.

There’s also a good chance the bear is radioactive, perhaps making it stronger and more vicious, if the amount of radioactive waste just lying around the area is any indication. However, this is merely implied, never stated, and thus Eris and I determined it would have been much better if the bear had actually glowed in the dark.

Somehow, the teenagers managed to drink two entire flats of water—judging by the number of empty bottles in the back of the car—before they ever even got to their destination, because they only have a single bottle of water left by the time the Jeep overheats. Either that or someone only packed empty bottles of water, in which case I have no idea what they planned to do during their actual camping trip.

Then there are the random five-minute stretches of nothing: walking bear food characters just wandering around, either looking for water or climbing something or exploring a ramshackle hut with lots of “No Trespassing” signs posted. (Because clearly you want to approach someone who lives in bear country quietly and unannounced. There’s no way they might be armed with very powerful rifles.)

Nobody survives. I don’t really feel like that’s a spoiler, considering the kind of movie this is: nobody survives because nobody is smart enough to survive. You spend the last five minutes of the movie screaming “THE BEAR IS STILL ALIVE, YOU IDIOTS. RUN FASTER!” and are therefore not terribly surprised when the bear returns to make a meal of the survivors.

In fact, you could probably make a drinking game out of how many times you shout “You’re a dumbass” at the screen. (Eris and I ended up shouting it in unison several times.) Just don’t do shots; that might land you in the hospital.

This is the best kind of terrible horror movie: it makes very little sense and it takes itself just seriously enough that you can get a really good laugh out of it. If you’re a fan of bad horror and you haven’t seen it, put it on your list.

The Netflix Queue: Mortal Kombat

mortal-kombat-posterI can’t even count the number of times my brother and I watched Mortal Kombat when we were kids. A movie based on one of our favorite video games? Yes please!

While we absolutely adored it back then, I had no idea how well it would hold up when I finally watched it again for the first time in nearly 15 years.

Answer? Even though it was much easier to see the flaws of the movie as an adult (particularly an adult who’s actually reviewed movies for a living), my inner 11-year-old didn’t give a damn. I still love it just as much as I did when I was a kid.

The story for the movie is pretty much identical to the story of the games: there’s a big martial arts competition between Earth and the Outworld. When the Outworld wins 10 Mortal Kombat competitions in a row, then the evil emperor, Shao Khan, will be able to invade Earth. At the beginning of the movie, they’ve won nine.

Our heroes are Liu Kang, Johnny Cage, and Sonya Blade: three disparate people who come to the competition for different reasons. However, one of them is our only hope to keep Earth safe from Shao Khan.

One of the first and most noticeable flaws was, not surprisingly, the special effects. Being from 1995, they definitely haven’t aged well. Reptile in particular was pretty bad, and it was fairly easy to see where he’d been digitally inserted.

On the other hand, Goro still looks really, really good. Not perfect, obviously, but not nearly as dated as a lot of the computer effects. I was pleasantly surprised to see he still looked huge and intimidating.

Then, the fight between Sonya and Kano was kind of disappointing. It wasn’t terrible, but considering the history between the two of them and Sonya’s desire for vengeance, I was really hoping for more from it.

That being said, the rest of the movie? Is just pure campy entertainment.

All the actors seem to realize exactly what kind of movie they’re in, and embrace it with relish. Christopher Lambert as Raiden looks like he’s having a blast, and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa is great as Shang Tsung. He’s such an unapologetic scenery-chewing bad guy and the movie wouldn’t have worked half as well without him.

The dialogue is sometimes so-bad-it’s-perfect, and the snarking between Sonya Blade and Johnny Cage is endlessly entertaining.

My favorite fight remains the one between Johnny Cage and Goro, partly because of the split punch (which made me laugh just as much as it did when I was 11) and partly because it’s the only flawless victory in the entire movie.

I had forgotten all of the nods to the game: Scorpion’s “Get over here!” and “Come here!”, the “Finish him!”, “Fatality,” and “Flawless victory,” and Johnny Cage’s “Friendship” fatality with the autographed picture, just to name a few. Every time I saw another game reference, I giggled like the 12-year-old I actually am.

Is it objectively a good movie? Okay, probably not. But I really don’t care. It’s such camptastic fun that it is, to this day, one of my favorite movies.

Movie Review: The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises PosterSummer’s pretty much over, but I’ve finally seen the last of the three summer movies I DEFINITELY wanted to see in theaters: The Dark Knight Rises.

I’m very, very glad I took the time to catch this one on the big screen. The previous two movies in the trilogy showed that Christopher Nolan knew what he was doing with the Batman franchise. Not only are they great superhero movies, they’re great movies, period.

And The Dark Knight Rises is a fitting end to the trilogy.

Eight years have passed since the events of The Dark Knight. Gotham has settled into a period of peace and prosperity. Batman has not been seen since the fateful night of Harvey Dent’s death. Bruce Wayne has become a recluse, and nobody but Alfred has seen him in years.

But all is not actually well. The terrorist Bane has shown up in Gotham for unknown reasons, and Batman will have to don the cape and cowl one last time to protect the city he loves.

Much like The Avengers earlier this year, Nolan does a great job juggling all the characters, new and old, that came into the story.

Christian Bale is easily my favorite Bruce Wayne/Batman. At the beginning of The Dark Knight Rises, he’s completely closed himself off from the world. He’s a broken man, in both body and spirit. A large part of the film is him coming back out of the shell he’s built around himself, learning to trust again and move on from the tragedies that have driven him for so long. That journey alone is well worth watching.

Thomas Hardy’s Bane is quite different from the dumb brute we saw in Batman and Robin. He’s intelligent, eloquent, a powerful fighter, and absolutely ruthless in his mission. He’s almost the opposite of the Joker, who sought chaos for chaos’s sake. Bane has a goal from the very first moment we meet him, and he never wavers in his devotion to it.

Then there’s Catwoman. I loved Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, who fit perfectly in Nolan’s grittier world. She’s an accomplished thief, as always, but she’s looking for a clean slate. She could switch her roles off and on like a light: a meek servant one second, and in the next breath, she’s the confident Catwoman.

The moment I saw her pull off that switch was the moment I quit worrying about Anne Hathaway as Catwoman.

Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) and Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) in The Dark Knight Rises

Mee-yow.

It was also nice to see a movie that hadn’t given away the entire plot in the trailers. A small thing, but with film marketing today, where you can learn almost everything about the story before you ever set foot in the theater, it was a nice surprise. The movie kept me guessing, and I was on the edge of my seat for the entire film.

And the fight between Batman and Bane was fantastic. (If you know anything about Bane’s story from the comics, you know exactly what I’m talking about.) There was no music until the very end, just the sound of the two of them beating on each other and Bane’s taunts. It was pretty rough to watch, especially knowing what the outcome would be.

The only real problem I had was less with the film and more with the sound mixing. There were times that the music was so loud that I couldn’t make out what either Bane or Batman were saying. I understand that movies are supposed to be loud, but this went overboard. (Of course, the score itself was phenomenal. Seriously, Hans Zimmer did a great job.)

Not to mention, it was definitely long. I think Nolan could probably have tightened it just a tad, shaving a few more minutes of the runtime may have helped in a couple of parts where it dragged just a hair. But those moments were very few and far between.

That being said, those are merely nitpicks. Overall, The Dark Knight Rises was a brilliant end to a brilliant trilogy, and well worth the time and money to see it.

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man

When I previously discussed The Amazing Spider-Man, I had this to say:

I like that we’re actually going to see Peter’s parents (who are completely absent from the previous three films).

Plus, I really like the poster they’ve released, and it seems like they’re focusing on a different aspect of Spider-Man’s past (Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane, for example). And it’s certainly not impossible for a reboot to be just as good as (or even better than) the original.

But…:
For God’s sake, Spider-Man came out in 2002. 2002!! It’s only just now been ten years. Why in the name of sanity are they remaking it FROM THE BEGINNING? EVERYBODY REMEMBERS THE ORIGIN STORY, GANG.

However, the Marvel fangirl side of my personality won out, and my brother, with whom I have discussed every superhero movie to come out in the past decade in excruciating detail, gave it a rave review. Thus, my roommates and I went to see it last weekend.

Did they redo the origin story? Yes.
Did it bore me a tad? Yes.
But did it work? Absolutely.

Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) in The Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man, Spider-Man, does whatever a spider can…

For the first time (at least, for the first time in the movies), we get to see Peter’s parents, however briefly. We get to see why he lives with Uncle Ben and Aunt May, answering a little question that nevertheless adds an extra facet to the story that most of us know.

And while the general gist of the origin story remains the same, enough has changed—and enough of it falls on Peter’s shoulders—that it brings with it more emotional resonance than the first time around. In particular, the convenience store robbery and the events that precede Uncle Ben’s death rest a lot more on Peter’s shoulders.

Andrew Garfield is a perfect choice for Peter Parker. He’s rebellious, awkward, and far too smart for his own good. He’s not particularly popular nor particularly picked on, except when he stands up for the others who are.

The love interest in this movie is not Spider-Man’s perennial love, Mary Jane, but Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). I liked her a lot more than MJ from the previous films because she was far from a damsel in distress. She wasn’t kidnapped and didn’t scream herself hoarse. She helped Peter, as one of his few allies.

Gwen and Peter have a couple of great moments with some endearingly awkward teenage dialogue, and even more great moments after they’re caught up in the Lizard’s plot, Peter because he feels responsible and Gwen because she wants to help him.

Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) in The Amazing Spider-Man

Spider-Man’s looking pretty good. Just sayin’.

And, as you probably guessed, Denis Leary is fantastic as Gwen’s father, the police captain who sees Spider-Man as a vengeance-fueled vigilante. Equally good is Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connors/the Lizard, a villain who is an old colleague of Peter’s father. The secrets of what Connors and the elder Parker worked on at OsCorp will probably go on into the second movie (because you know there’ll be a sequel).

Plus, Spider-Man’s fighting style gets an upgrade for this movie. He’s back to the mechanical web shooters, but he uses that webbing a lot more when he fights and in much more creative ways. He seemed to be a lot more agile and he made more wisecracks, much more like the Spidey from the comics.

All that being said, there were aspects I didn’t like. The CGI was a little obvious at times, and I didn’t care for the first-person POV shots where Spider-Man was rocketing through the streets of Manhattan. They made me dizzy, and it was difficult to tell what was going on. (Fortunately, those shots are few and far between.)

Also, the score wasn’t quite as good as it was with the previous films. That’s not to say it was bad, but it wasn’t as memorable.

My roommate Jon, who is a huge fan of Marvel comics and of Spider-Man in particular, was THRILLED with this movie. (To say he hated the previous three films is an understatement, as any time “Spider-Man” and “movies” are brought up anywhere CLOSE to the same sentence, he goes on a ten-minute rant about how much he hated Tobey Maguire. I wish I were exaggerating.)

And really, The Amazing Spider-Man does a brilliant job of washing away the stain of Spider-Man 3. It’s definitely one of the better superhero films to come out.

Take the opportunity to see it while it’s still in theaters.