Movie review: Live action ‘Beauty and the Beast’ a charming adaptation of the animated classic

beauty-beast-2017-belle-watsonAlthough Disney’s recent trend of turning its animated classics into live action adaptations could be seen as a bit of a cash grab, these films have, for the most part, been successful so far. Disney is able to take what people loved about the original while also helping us view the story with fresh eyes.

Disney recently took on one of its most beloved classics, the animated musical “Beauty and the Beast.” The 1991 film featured a charming tale with an important message — learning to look past the outside and love and respect someone for who they really are — and even became the first animated film to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. The new live action film cast Harry Potter star Emma Watson and Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens as Belle and the Beast, with Luke Evans playing the character we all love to hate, Gaston. So, how does this live action update of Disney’s “tale as old as time” compare to the original?

The last time I saw the animated “Beauty and the Beast” was when Disney re-released it in theaters in 3D several years ago, and I decided not to rewatch it to prepare for the new movie. I wanted to experience the live action adaptation without focusing too much on the original version.

You’re probably already familiar with the story — a woman named Belle loves to read and feels trapped in her small village, especially since the other villagers don’t seem to understand her. When her father gets lost in the woods and is trapped in a castle by a mysterious Beast, Belle volunteers to take his place as prisoner. She learns the Beast is actually a former prince who was cursed to take on this terrifying form until he can learn to love another and receive their love in return.

While reviews for the film have been generally positive (and it’s already made a boatload of money), one of the criticisms I have seen is that it sticks a little too close to its source material. Since this is based on such a well-loved film that was made fairly recently, perhaps the film makers were hesitant to depart too much from the original narrative. One of the things I appreciated most about 2015’s live action “Cinderella” was how it felt both traditional and modern at the same time, featuring a fresh look at the characters and narrative. I feel the live action “Beauty and the Beast” could have been a bit more daring and veered farther from the original.

That being said, the live action “Beauty and the Beast” is a very charming adaptation, and there were many moments I had a huge grin on my face (especially during the always show-stopping number, “Be Our Guest”). For me, the standouts from the cast were Stevens as the Beast and Evans as Gaston. I am definitely down for seeing the former Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey in more movie musicals; I thought he had a good singing voice and brought a nice amount of nuance to the role of the Beast. It could have been easy for the character to get lost in the CGI effects, but Stevens helps us catch more and more flashes of the character’s humanity as the story goes on and the Beast learns how to love. I also got a big kick out of Evans as Gaston. The character isn’t as bombastic or over-the-top as the animated version, but to me that was a good thing. Since this is live action, the characters have to feel a little more realistic.

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And speaking of more realistic… I’m impressed with how they brought all the talking household items to life. This is one of the things I most skeptical about for the live action adaptation, but I thought they struck a nice balance between fanciful and believable. Well, about as believable as a walking, talking candlestick can be. 😉

While I didn’t think Watson sparkled quite as much in her role as Belle as Lily James did in “Cinderella,” Watson has a sweet singing voice and I enjoyed her more empowered take on the character. I’m glad they made her an inventor like her father and that they did more to address the sticky issue of Belle falling in love with her captor.

I very much enjoyed this film, and I left the theater smiling and humming (I still have “Be Our Guest” stuck in my head). I even liked the new songs they introduced for this version and I’ll probably end up purchasing the soundtrack. Although it’s fair to say this adaptation could have been a bit more adventurous, it’s still a treat for Disney fans.

Movie review: Return of the king – ‘Kong: Skull Island’ offers old-fashioned monster movie fun

two-new-kong-skull-island-postersKing Kong has been a Hollywood staple since the 1930s, a hallmark of the golden age of monster movies. Although it’s only been about a decade since we last saw the giant ape on the big screen — in “Lord of the Rings” director Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” — it was perhaps inevitable in our era of big-budget franchises that Kong would make a return. He’ll reportedly face off against a certain giant rampaging lizard in 2020’s “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but first he stars in a new solo outing, “Kong: Skull Island.”

Set during the early 1970s amid the fallout of the Vietnam War, “Kong Skull: Island” follows a group of soldiers, scientists, and adventurers who travel to the uncharted Skull Island on a mysterious mission. They quickly learn Skull Island is no jungle paradise — the island is populated by deadly creatures and plants found nowhere else on Earth. Kong is the ruler of this domain and quickly takes out many of the expedition’s helicopters. To Lieutenant Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), Kong immediately becomes an enemy who must be neutralized. However, an encounter with marooned World War II vet Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly) convinces the expedition’s tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) that Kong isn’t a villain. He’s merely trying to protect the island, and without him the expedition will face a far more terrifying threat — the ravenous, lizard-like skullcrawlers.

There are a couple ways you can look at “Kong: Skull Island.” Some of the standard criticisms for action flicks can be applied here — there are a lot of characters, and not all of them get a lot of development (Jing Tian as a young biologist is particularly underused). The plot isn’t terribly deep, either, and doesn’t break much new ground for the monster movie genre. However, I had a heck of a good time watching this movie. It’s an undeniably fun film with some genuinely tense moments.

The star of the show is, of course, Kong himself, and he does not disappoint. One of the issues I had with the 2014 Godzilla movie is that we didn’t get to see nearly enough screen time for the title monster. Thankfully, “Kong: Skull Island” doesn’t have that problem. We see Kong in action almost as soon as we get to Skull Island, and his final confrontation with the biggest of the skullcrawlers is an epic smackdown.

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I think it was a smart decision to give the film a retro setting (I loved the soundtrack!). I also felt the Vietnam War provided a fascinating lens with which to view the actions of the characters. For Samuel L. Jackson’s Preston Packard, Kong is a metaphor for the War itself: a frustrating challenge he isn’t given enough resources to fight and one that rips away his friends and comrades. He’s a man who doesn’t know how to cope with living in peacetime and as he loses grip with reality, he views his war with Kong as a chance for revenge and redemption. I think Packard is ultimately a tragic character, even though he also becomes the film’s villain.

I do wish there had been more development/background for Tom Hiddleston and Brie Larson’s characters, though I did enjoy seeing both actors in this film. And John C. Reilly steals just about every scene he’s in as the eccentric castaway, providing some humorous moments amongst the monster movie scares. He also helps the members of the expedition understand the peril of fixating on someone (or something) as your enemy to the point that you ignore the real dangers around you. That’s always a relevant lesson.

In short, I went to the theater hoping for a loud, fun, entertaining blockbuster that didn’t take itself too seriously and got exactly that. I think it was a really smart idea to release this movie in March, as opposed to the traditional summer blockbuster season. It may have gotten lost in the summer movie shuffle, but by coming out in early spring, it provides a nice boost to the box office. Also, definitely make sure you stay after the credits — there’s an exciting teaser about what’s to come.

Movie review: ‘Logan’ a satisfying final ride for X-Men’s Wolverine

20173258c7b132-0c03-4e9b-8e4d-d6e3cfe00beeIt’s hard to believe it’s been close to 20 years since the original “X-Men” was released in theaters, and now, we’ve reached the end of an era with “Logan,” Hugh Jackman’s final performance as Wolverine, the role that made him a star.

Although Wolverine has had solo films before (to varying degrees of success), fans have long been asking for a gritty, violent, and R-rated take on the character. “Logan” certainly delivers. The film easily earns its R rating in just the opening moments, when Logan dispatches a gang of thugs who mess with his car.

The year is 2029, and Logan is currently working as a limo driver and has very clearly hit rock bottom. While he can still summon claws from his knuckles, his ability to heal isn’t as effective and the mutant who once seemed invincible is slowly dying. The outlook for mutant-kind as a whole isn’t bright, either, and they are close to going extinct. Almost everyone Logan cared for is dead and gone, except for Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), whose neurodegenerative disease causes his mutant abilities to go haywire and harm those around him.

Wolverine just wants to stay off the grid and ignore the world; however, he crosses paths with a mutant girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) who has powers like his and is on the run from evil forces who want to harness those powers. Although Logan is great at putting up a tough exterior and pretending he doesn’t care, we know from the X-Men franchise that he cares far more deeply than he lets on. He decides to help Laura escape from danger, no matter how much it ends up costing him in the end.

“Logan” has a very different feel from the other films in the X-Men franchise, at times seeming more like a modern-day Western than a superhero movie. Hugh Jackman always gives 100 percent as this character, but his final performance as Logan may be his best. The Wolverine in this film is grizzled, worn out, and broken, and his better instincts have been buried deep inside him. One of the things I have always appreciated about Jackman is how well he captures the darker aspects of this character, despite the fact that Jackman appears to be such a friendly, charming person in real life. Perhaps that’s also what helps Jackman capture Logan’s heart. I’ve heard rumors Jackman took a pay cut to allow this movie to be made the way it was; that just shows the depth of his commitment to the character.

I suppose one could argue the story’s basic narrative isn’t groundbreaking; the reluctant father figure and misunderstood child on the run are archetypes we’ve seen before. However, “Logan” never feels less than authentic, and the movie’s strength lies with its three leading actors: Jackman, Keen, and Stewart. Keen handles a very intense role well for her young age, and Stewart gives a heartbreakingly poignant performance as an aging Professor X. There aren’t really a great deal of special effects to talk about, which is a bit unusual for a superhero film. However, too much CGI would have taken away from the grittier, more realistic tone.

Before I saw this movie, I had wondered if it really would be the end of the Wolverine character. Without giving away too many spoilers, I will say that the character’s story definitely does end; the movie’s conclusion is sad and poignant — and final. We may see Wolverine pop up in cameo roles (please, please, please be in “Deadpool 2”!) but Wolverine’s forward-moving journey has clearly come to an end. I admire the director, who was willing to end such an iconic character’s film legacy on an uncertain and tragic note. But the movie is better for it, and even if Jackman never suits up as Wolverine again, even for a cameo, I think he can be proud of the legacy he left.

TV review: I (finally!) watched ‘Stranger Things’ on Netflix

stranger-things-1-1200x605Last summer, Netflix’s “Stranger Things” generated an incredible amount of buzz, and it immediately went on my “to watch” list. However, it landed in the middle of summer blockbuster season, and although I kept thinking, “I really need to make time to binge-watch this,” I kept putting it off. Well, this winter I finally sat down and watched it (by some miracle, I’d managed to avoid almost all spoilers). Now, I can’t believe I didn’t watch it sooner, and I can’t wait for season 2.

“Stranger Things” is set in a small town in Indiana during the 1980s and is about a group of boys — Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will — who love to ride around on their bikes and play Dungeons and Dragons. The show has a sort of “Super 8” vibe, though while I did love that movie, “Stranger Things” is even better. This quiet, sleepy town where nothing ever seems to happen is stunned by the shocking disappearance of Will one night. Police Chief Jim Hopper believes it’s a kidnapping or accident, but Will’s mother, Joyce, thinks something stranger and more sinister is going on. It becomes harder and harder to deny the paranormal events occurring in town, especially after Mike, Dustin and Lucas find a mysterious girl known only as “Eleven” who has unusual abilities and may know something about Will’s disappearance.

I feel like I’m one of the last people in the world to watch “Stranger Things” 😉 but I’ll try to keep this review spoiler-free because part of what makes this show so amazing is the suspense of not knowing what’s going on or what’s going to happen next. This is one of those shows where you’ll watch one episode and then immediately feel a need to watch another because you want to uncover more of the puzzle.

Netflix has really been knocking it out of the park with their original series, and “Stranger Things” is just as good as their Marvel shows (and maybe even better). I feel like “Stranger Things” is a really good showcase for the strength of the Netflix model. This is a quirky, spooky show that’s only eight episodes long; if it had landed on a traditional television network instead, the commercial breaks and the possible need to stretch the story out to more episodes would have completely thrown off the pacing and the magic of the narrative. Netflix seems like a company that’s willing to allow creative risks, and with shows like “Stranger Things,” that really pays off.

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I loved the show’s Spielberg-ian feel and how they gradually reveal the conspiracy of what’s actually going on. They do a great job of building suspense and making the scares really count (I had to stop watching it late at night because I didn’t want to get nightmares!). I remember not liking one episode *quite* as much (I think it was episode 6?); there are a few events that happen that feel a little too convenient and took me out of the narrative for a bit. However, overall this show clips along at a great pace and keeps you going to the finish.

A lot of this show is riding on the strength of the young actors portraying Eleven, Mike, and the rest of the gang, and I really enjoyed all those performances. They weren’t too precocious and acted like real kids would. I liked seeing the power of their friendship and how they refused to give up searching for their friend even when it seemed impossible that they’d get him back. I also thought Winona Ryder was great as Will’s mother, Joyce Byers; she really captures the character’s sense of panic at losing her son and the desperate hope that she’ll find him again.

I’d probably better quit writing at this point because I’m really tempted to start veering into spoiler territory, and like I mentioned before, this show is definitely better the less you know going in. I’m really curious to see where the show goes in its second season; although the last episode of season 1 ties up several plotlines, it looks like all the secrets haven’t been revealed yet.

Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon: ‘The Prestige’ (Week 3)

the-prestige-jackman-and-bale2Next up on the Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon is “The Prestige,” a mysterious and suspenseful film about two rival magicians — played by Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale — who destroy their own lives while trying to destroy each other. Although my husband, Aaron, and I debated on whether to go ahead and review all the films in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy in a row, we ended up deciding to watch Nolan’s movies in the order he filmed them. It’s interested that he took time between his Batman movies to work on other films — “The Prestige” and “Inception.”

Nolan doesn’t like to retread the same creative ground, and “The Prestige” tackles a completely different subject than his other projects, while still featuring his signature style as a film maker. Since I’ve been sharing my thoughts first on these blogs, I’m going to let Aaron go first this time and share what he thought about “The Prestige.”

Aaron’s thoughts

The first time I saw “The Prestige,” it captured me and instantly shot to near the top of my chart of favorite movies. Since then, more than any of the other Nolan movies, it has decayed the most. I still think it’s good, but I’m rarely in the mood to watch it again and that’s because it’s just so difficult to watch. This stems mostly from that fact that, unlike most every other movie of his, this one is hopeless. There’s no good character to latch onto. Everyone’s a monster in their own way and the one good character commits suicide, driven to despair for the sin of wanting to have a relationship with someone.

I’m going to assume the readers of this blog have all seen “The Prestige,” so if you haven’t, do it. The first watch is amazing and is arguably more plot-twist laden than the masterpiece that is “Memento.” The build up to the final twist is so poignant that it alone is worth the price of admission.

Last chance to turn away before spoilers! Still here? Okay, let’s talk about the things I like. As I said before, the twists in the plot are top-notch. They are so well alluded to that the movie itself is reminiscent of a magic act, which I’m sure was the intention from the start. Granted, the movie is based off a novel which I suspect has the same intentions. But a well-paced novel does not a well-paced movie make. The hints at what’s to come are so subtle sometimes that I still pick something new up every time I watch it, and this is probably the seventh-ish time I’ve seen it. The twins, the water tanks, the way the transported man is alluded to when Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) appears in his wife Sarah’s room after we see him walking away, the dueling diaries, the hats at the start. The list goes on and it’s all great.

What do I not like? Some things are not terribly well explained. The fact that Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) has a lot of money because he’s an aristocrat isn’t well established and yet so much hinges on it. Even this time I kept asking myself, “How can he afford this expensive machine and months of hotel stays and transatlantic travel? There’s no way being a magician pays that much.” I seem to recall he mentions at the very start something about not embarrassing his family but that’s about all I can remember in terms of him being alluded to as an aristocrat. I actually had to look that up.

Also, Alfred talks so softly at the end that it took me a long time to realize he had a twin. I thought maybe the lying about Tesla was a double bluff and Tesla had cloned him like Angier clones himself. Tesla and his assistant seemed to know what Angier wanted when he said he wanted a machine that Tesla had made for another magician. How did he know Angier was talking about that machine in particular? Also, if the machine can clone and transport, shouldn’t transporting without cloning be relatively simple? Why is the cloning necessary? For a movie that relies so heavily on a strong plot, there’s a few more holes in it than I’d like.

Overall, “The Prestige” will always be a good movie, especially for people who haven’t seen it. But I am not usually in the mood to watch movies and when I am, it’s rarely for “The Prestige.” I feel that “Memento,” “Donnie Darko” and “The Game” all fill that dark plot twist niche a little better.

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My thoughts

While I personally am almost always in the mood to watch movies 😉 I do agree with Aaron about “The Prestige.” The very first time I watched it, I remember it blowing my mind. I didn’t see any of the twists coming, and as one secret after another was revealed, I didn’t think it could get more shocking (it did — and boy, that ending is a doozy). However, like Aaron said, the first time watching this movie is going to be the best. It’s rather like a magic trick; once you know how it’s done, it’s not quite as fascinating.

Christopher Nolan has tackled some dark subjects in his films, but “The Prestige” is arguably one of his darkest. Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale’s characters do some pretty despicable things in their quest for revenge, and neither is really redeemed in the end.

Of the two, I found Jackman’s character Robert Angier to be the more sympathetic. (Warning, more spoilers ahead!) His wife dies onstage during a magic act gone wrong, due to a mistake made by Bale’s character Alfred Borden (well, one of the twins). I can understand Angier’s grief and it’s tragic to watch him fall apart, because I feel like in the beginning he was a better person than Borden. However, obsession soon takes over, and Angier becomes the more morally compromised of the main characters. He becomes obsessed with fame and recognition, and with making Borden suffer. It’s a little scary to watch a good person become so twisted as he tries to justify such terrible crimes.

Some might argue that Borden does find some redemption in the end; the “better” twin returns to raise his daughter after the death of his wife. Still, he and his twin’s decision to live as one person, hiding the truth about who they are, is very difficult to justify. Especially since it is hidden from Sarah, the woman one of them loves. She can’t figure out why some days her husband loves her and some days he doesn’t. This is such a heartbreaking and unfair thing to do to another person, and her despair eventually leads to her death.

The film serves as a cautionary tale as to what can happen when revenge and obsession take over a person’s life and mutate them into something terrible. Again, the plot twists don’t have as much of an impact once you know how the film ends, but it is a genuine thrill to watch this movie for the first time, and Nolan handles it masterfully. It’s also a treat to see David Bowie in a small role as real-life inventor Nikola Tesla, who was a true magician in his own right.

Movie review: Does Academy Awards front-runner ‘La La Land’ live up to all the hype?

LLL d 41-42_6689.NEFWhile technically any of the films nominated for “best picture” could take home that coveted statuette during the Academy Awards on Sunday night, the front-runner has long been viewed as “La La Land” (though don’t count out “Moonlight” just yet — it could very well pull off an upset). It’s easy to see why Academy voters have fallen head over heels for “La La Land” — it’s an old-fashioned musical with singing and dancing that hearkens back to the days of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. In many ways, the film is a love letter to the mythos of Hollywood, the magical land where you can follow your dreams and fall in love.

At least, that’s what the film looks like on its surface. Yet even as it celebrates the magic of Hollywood with grand song and dance numbers, it also offers a surprisingly realistic (and poignant) look at how Tinseltown isn’t always full of perfect “happily ever afters.” The film’s ultimate message is that while you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, you should also realize that sometimes life doesn’t work out exactly as we plan.

“La La Land” opens with an exhilarating song and dance sequence in the middle of a Los Angeles traffic jam (yep, it’s a musical, so song and dance numbers happen in unusual places, but the song is so infectious and fun that I willingly went along for the ride). We meet aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone), who has come to Hollywood with the hopes of finding auditions and getting her first big break. She doesn’t immediately hit it off with cynical jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), but the audience can spot their chemistry before they do. They end up falling in love as they work towards their dreams.

The movie could have easily ended here, on a happy note, but director and screenwriter Damien Chazelle decides to take a riskier route by throwing some obstacles into his leads’ personal and professional lives. After her auditions don’t pan out, Mia decides to start writing a one-woman play that ultimately doesn’t do much to kick-start her career, either. Sebastian decides to put his dream of opening his own jazz club aside in order to join a successful but more commercialized band. Mia accuses him of selling out; he argues that he’s just being realistic.

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I’ll talk about the film’s conclusion in a minute, but no review of “La La Land” would be complete without touching on the music and dancing. While we don’t see a lot of old-fashioned movie musicals anymore, this one works rather well, managing to give off a vibe that’s both traditional and modern. The music is catchy — particularly the opening number, “Another Day of Sun” — and Stone and Gosling are surprisingly nimble on their feet. The song and dance numbers are a genuine joy to watch.

I’ve heard from some who wished the movie ended differently, and I was a bit surprised by how bittersweet the final scene is. Without giving too much away, the ending is in some ways rather sad, quite a contrast from the sunny opening number full of hope and promise. But I also don’t think it’s a completely depressing ending. To me, it communicated the concept that it’s unrealistic to expect to “have it all.” Although life may not work out perfectly, we should keep dreaming, loving, and using our imaginations. Things don’t always transpire the way we’d planned, and that’s okay.

So, now for the big question: does “La La Land” deserve to win best picture? I’ve only seen two of the best picture nominees — this and “Arrival” — so I can’t accurately comment on which of the movies is actually the most deserving. Although I’d love to see “Arrival” win for its thought-provoking sci-fi, I thoroughly enjoyed “La La Land” and haven’t been able to stop humming the songs since I watched it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it dance away with the top prize.

Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon: ‘Batman Begins’ (Week 2)

batman-begins-7After watching “The Lego Batman Movie” this past weekend, coincidentally enough the next film up on the Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon list is “Batman Begins,” the first movie in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Well, actually it’s not technically Nolan’s next film; “Insomnia” comes after “Memento,” but neither Netflix nor the local library had it available, so it’s on to “Batman Begins.” And thanks again to my husband, Aaron, for joining me on this joint blog-a-thon!

My thoughts

For some reason, I’d always thought of the Dark Knight trilogy as some of Nolan’s later films, but doing this blog-a-thon reminded me “Batman Begins” is actually just his third major release. It’s interesting DC Comics and Warner Bros. trusted Nolan with a superhero movie of this magnitude early in his career, but it’s a gamble that paid off very, very well.

The Batman franchise wasn’t exactly in great shape when Nolan inherited it (yes, I’m picking on you again, “Batman and Robin”). Although the franchise had headed in a rather silly, campy direction, Nolan breathed fresh life into Batman’s cinematic mythos with his grounded and gritty version of the character. His movies have become the gold standard DC Comics movies are now judged by.

While I’m definitely a Marvel fangirl, I also really love Nolan’s Batman films, and I think “Batman Begins” is a great origin story. It wipes the franchise’s slate clean and shows how Batman’s tragic past and ninja training shaped the vigilante he becomes.

Christian Bale’s portrayal of the caped crusader ranks as one of the best, and his brooding, morose Batman fits well with Nolan’s darker tone. (The Lego version of Batman also does a great job lovingly poking fun at this serious persona.) Michael Caine has become equally iconic as Batman’s butler, Alfred, and Liam Neeson makes for a great villain as the (spoiler alert!) leader of the League of Shadows.

I don’t really have any complaints about this movie. While we’ve seen a lot of superhero origin stories since this movie was released in 2005, Batman definitely needed a fresh start on the big screen, and Nolan’s distinctive film making style was a perfect fit for the franchise.

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Aaron’s thoughts

“Batman Begins,” the beginning of the greatest superhero series ever made. These movies are so widely regarded that, before its release, “Suicide Squad” apologists on the Internet argued that “Suicide Squad” and other DC movies shouldn’t be held to the Batman standard because they’re “too good.” (As a side note, these arguments make for hilarious reading. Who else would say “Orwellian blitzkrieg of Marvel bot-trolls” with a straight face?)

As a superhero origin story, “Batman Begins” is excellent. As a film viewed in a vacuum outside of its genre, it’s a good film, but does have a few kinks in it.

The first thing that I like, which I hadn’t thought of before, is how well “Batman Begins” integrates the “super villains” and “superheroes” into the story. A lot of these movies loudly cry out at the start THIS IS A SUPERHERO, SEE HOW HE’S DRESSED LIKE ONE? HERE’S THE SUPER VILLAIN, HE’S EVIL AND ALSO HAS A WEIRD COSTUME. THEY’RE GOING TO FIGHT NOW. In “Batman Begins,” there’s a good reason why he dresses like he does and looks like a stealthy, armored, ninja badass, not a weirdo in tights with underwear on the outside. On the other hand, the super villains are characters with motivations beyond “I want to kill the superhero because plot.” I also noticed that the villains in this movie are content to stay in the shadows and almost never seek to fight Batman. Compare this to the villain who wants to destroy New York City for the 50th time. The hero here takes the fight to evil instead of vice versa.

Beyond this, I just like the dark, realistic tone. I sort of covered this in the previous section, but I just love how real the whole thing feels. The Batmobile looks and sounds like a military vehicle. His armor looks practical. The streets look dark and desperate, but not comically so. Villains that wouldn’t be good at fisticuffs aren’t. The police station is always bustling with phones ringing and people running all over. The ninja training is difficult and punishing. It’s nice to see a hero earn his powers for once instead of being a Captain Spider Thor-Hulk, who is instantly granted it by the powers of “the plot requires it.” [Note from Ashley: I let Aaron make fun of my beloved Marvel movies, but someday I WILL get him to love these movies as much as I do.] 😉

So what do I not like as much? Well, it’s an origin story. And Batman’s parents are quickly catching up to Uncle Ben in terms of “death portrayed in media.” Having to work a full crime drama into an origin story always feels a bit rushed.

There also just seem to be some rookie mistakes in here that take you out of the moment and make you realize you’re watching a scripted movie with effects and not witnessing an unfolding drama. They may seem minor, but they are easily correctable and were missed. First, the tiny pile of boards that falls on and kills Ra’s Al Ghul. That stuff looks and sounds like it weighs 15 pounds at most. It is very unconvincing. Second, when the train is moving toward Wayne tower, the water technician has, as one site says, “perhaps the clunkiest and worst-written [lines] in the entire franchise.” Agreed. Not only are the lines bad, but they tell us what we’ve already been told, and they both end in the word “blow.”

In case you forgot what they are:

“The pressure’s coming straight for the main hub under Wayne Tower, and if that pressure reaches us, the whole water supply, right across the city is gonna blow!”

“Evacuate the building. We’re right on top of the main hub, and it’s gonna blow!”

Someone needed to catch this.

Lastly, how on earth was the helicopter not able to follow the Batmobile to Bruce’s hideout? Car pileups and traffic have no effect on helicopters. That’s like, the point of helicopters. Again, these are minor but noticeable kinks which were thankfully learned from in the sequel, which would become the apotheosis of comic movie history.

As a final shout out, I’ll just say I really like Liam Neeson in this movie. I’ve been disappointed at his downfall from the majesty that was “Schindler’s List” into being cast just to say things like “release the Kraken!” or having to do “Taken 12: Let’s Murder the Lagos Underworld.” He does a good job here though and gets to showcase his actual acting talent along with having a good voice and build for action movies.

Overall, I like this movie. I don’t LOVE it. But it’s enjoyable and I can watch the whole thing without wanting to get up and do something else, which is rarer these days.

Movie review: ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ offers plenty of colorful, entertaining mayhem

lego-batman-main-0-0We’ve seen many incarnations of Batman since he first made the jump from the comic book page to the screen. He’s been both campy and gritty, animated and live action, and occasionally cringe-inducing (yes, I’m referring to you, “Batman and Robin”). He also ended up stealing the show in tiny brick form in 2014’s unexpected hit “The Lego Movie.” Will Arnett’s Lego caped crusader quickly emerged as a fan favorite from that movie, and he’s now been given his own standalone feature, out in theaters this past weekend. Although it can’t quite top the original “Lego Movie,” it’s a fun, colorful adventure with plenty to keep both adults and children entertained.

Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne starts off his solo outing living the good life…or so he thinks. Surrounded by his favorite things — darkness, solitude, and loud, angry music — he fights crime in Gotham and then crashes at his island mansion. His longsuffering butler Alfred thinks this isolation isn’t good for him and argues that he needs friends or at least some crime-fighting partners. Due to a crazy mix-up/misunderstanding, Batman accidentally adopts an orphan named Dick Grayson, who desperately wants to become Batman’s sidekick, Robin. Despite his frustration with Robin’s bubbly personality and overenthusiasm, Batman grudgingly admits having a sidekick isn’t such a bad thing, and his life actually might be better off with friends.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is very much in the same vein as “The Lego Movie.” There’s a lot of frenetic, wacky action in these films, and the screen is an explosion of color and moving parts. While all this stimulation can occasionally get a bit overwhelming, it’s tough not to fall under the spell of these delightfully silly movies.

Kids will enjoy watching Lego characters brought to life, but there’s plenty for adults to enjoy here too, including jokes about all of Batman’s past incarnations (expect to see some “Bam!” and “Pow!” word bubbles on the screen). There are also jabs about the Justice League, the Suicide Squad, and Marvel superheroes. As with “The Lego Movie,” you’ll see plenty of references to other films and TV shows, including “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” and a certain British timelord’s archenemies.

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The voice acting is top-notch, with Arnett playing on Christian Bale’s signature growl in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The film sends up Batman’s persona as a loner vigilante; Lego Batman may take himself too seriously, but the film certainly doesn’t. Arnett’s “Arrested Development” co-star Michael Cera is a good foil as the over-eager Robin, and Ralph Fiennes brings a dry wit to the long-suffering butler Alfred. I also enjoyed Zach Galifianakis’ take on the Joker, who’s desperate for Batman’s attention and deeply hurt when Batman won’t admit Joker is his greatest enemy.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is fast-paced and entertaining, though it is fair to say it ultimately isn’t quite as creative or inventive as the “The Lego Movie” was. By the end of the movie I was feeling a slight case of “too much of a good thing,” and the film’s message about the importance of family and friendship felt a little too heavy-handed.

Still, this is a clever, funny film that should be a hit with anyone who loved Batman in the original “Lego Movie,” and it’s actually the best DC Comics movie we’ve had in a while. Your move, “Justice League!”

Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon: ‘Memento’ (Week 1)

mementoAlthough I always have fun with blog-a-thons, it’s been a while since I’ve done one. The idea for this blog-a-thon actually came from my husband, Aaron. Although Aaron sadly does not love movies as much as I do 😉 (I’m still trying to convert him!), his favorite director is Christopher Nolan and we like to discuss those movies. We thought it would be fun to watch through his movies together, before the premiere of his new movie “Dunkirk” this summer. This week we’re starting off with Nolan’s first major release, “Memento” (2000).

My thoughts

“Memento” is a fascinating and decidedly trippy film about a man with a terrifying problem: the inability to form new memories. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, who is struggling to cope with his illness while also trying to find (and get revenge on) the man who killed his wife. He devises an elaborate system of organization, notes, and tattoos to help him keep track of the clues he finds. He does receive some help along the way from several people who claim to be his friends…but how much can he really trust them, since he can’t hold his memories for more than five minutes?

“Memento” would have been an interesting film even if the story had been told conventionally, but Christopher Nolan takes a risky gamble and forces the viewer to experience things from Leonard’s perspective. How does he do this? He tells the story backwards. We get approximately 5-10 minute chunks of Leonard’s story, starting at the end of the narrative and concluding at the beginning. This really keeps the viewer off balance — like Leonard himself — and we feel his same sense of panicky uncertainty. Do we know what’s actually real? Or is our version of the truth impacted by the limited facts we do know…or think we know?

This is one of my favorite Nolan films, and it’s actually pretty interesting to re-watch, even if you already know the surprise twist. It really makes you think about your own perception of reality and how our view of the world is impacted by the assumptions we make about others (whether they’re true or not).

Aaron’s thoughts

How do you make a movie about someone who can’t remember anything? It’s an intriguing question and a joy to watch in practice. A movie focused on someone who can’t remember anything for more than a few minutes would be very difficult to make in the traditional format. The audience would soon get exasperated with the shtick of the character having to say he can’t remember anything constantly and characters having to constantly explain what we just watched him do. So what do you do?

In traditional film, the future is in doubt and the past is known. Ideally we’d have both in doubt for a person who has no short-term memory, but film is bound in time and we have to see something before we see something else, so we have to see one.

So to help us sympathize and share the plight of a person with memory loss, Christopher Nolan gives us a movie where we share the main character’s condition. We don’t know how we got where we are. Though you think that seeing what ultimately happens would help us ground what’s happening, it actually doesn’t, and can even be deceptive. “Memento” does a brilliant job of showing that explanatory power lies in the cause, not the effect.

This is my third or fourth (depending on the day) favorite movie of all time. Number one is coming up later in this series, number two and three/four are “Donnie Darko” and “The Game.” If the idea of this movie intrigues you, I’d highly recommend “The Game” as it and “Memento” share many similar qualities. But I digress.

The first thing I think that “Memento” does brilliantly is to muddle timelines. It’s presented in two sections. The first is the parts that are shot in color. This is the backwards working action where we simply learn piece by piece how Leonard got where he was in the last scene. Each of these scenes begins with a quip or piece of memorable action and ends with the quip or action that began the last scene.

The second section of the movie is shot in black and white. These scenes are of Leonard alone in a hotel room explaining his system and history. Sometimes he’s talking on the phone, sometimes he’s talking to the audience as we watch him go about his business. These scenes are, more or less, shot in forward moving action. These scenes versus the backwards moving color scenes give good contrast and keep the audience on their feet as the two move from one to the other. Not until the very end of the movie is it made clear how and if these two sections are related. Are they happening simultaneously? Is one before the other? Are they related at all? You’re kept constantly guessing.

Another contributing factor to the timeline muddiness is that at the start of each new backwards moving section, you have no idea how far in front of the previous section it is. Nolan does a good job moving the scene location each time so that it’s incredibly difficult to guess where exactly the scene is moving even though you know how it ultimately ends.

The second quality I admire in “Memento” is the atmosphere of doubt and loneliness. The movie is plagued with doubt, despite Leonard being constantly sure of himself. His self-assurance is the only assurance the whole movie has. Characters’ motives shift. Lies are uncovered. Past events are left unexplained. Leonard is self-assured because if he wasn’t he’d be a helpless, nervous wreck. There are multiple core facts that are intentionally left wholly unexplained. Unlike the famous ending to “Inception,” there’s not even a hint in the entire movie regarding some of big important questions we have (would say what they are but spoilers.) This is coupled with an atmosphere of loneliness. Because of the backward moving nature of the movie, we have a cold relationship with the other people in the movie. We know that they’re involved with Leonard, but we don’t know why. Leonard’s relationship with them is cordial but in the way he’s cordial to strangers. On top of this is a soundtrack which is either hauntingly airy or subtly dissonant, depending on the scene.

I love “Memento.” It’s unapologetic. It doesn’t spoon feed you anything and doesn’t try to make you feel better about things at the end. It doesn’t answer your questions no matter how badly you want it to. It doesn’t gift wrap a happy ending that ties everything together nicely. It tries to be great and it is.

TV review: Looking back on ‘Downton Abbey’

downton_abbey_christmas_2013__131110163527I’ve been a bit at a loss of what to do on Sunday nights this January, because for the first time in a long time, there isn’t a new episode of “Downton Abbey” airing on PBS Masterpiece. The sixth and final season of the popular period drama aired a year ago, bringing an end to the always buzzworthy exploits of a wealthy British family and their servants.

“Downton Abbey” was a surprise hit and turned into an unusual cultural phenomenon. The series followed the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley, and their daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil, who occupy an elaborate estate in England called Downton Abbey. People who wouldn’t normally watch period dramas tuned in every week to find out what would happen next to the characters, and the show drew a wide range of fans. I watched it, my mom watched it, and my grandma watched it. I had friends who watched it and co-workers who watched it. One of co-workers’ favorite things to do on Monday mornings would be to discuss what happened on Downton Abbey the night before. We’d gasp at the scandals and gossip about what love interest Lady Mary would pursue next.

It’s easy at first to dismiss “Downton Abbey” as a glorified soap opera, and even fans will admit that yes, sometimes the drama got a little soapy — kidnappings, upstairs/downstairs romances, health scares, and secret babies. However, the show was more than just a series of plot twists. It had one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen on a TV show. Although it would take too long to name all the standout actors, one of the best was Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary. Lady Mary wasn’t always a nice person; in fact, sometimes she could be vindictive and downright nasty. Yet Dockery played her so well that she never became the villain, and I found her to be a complex, sympathetic character. And of course, no one will forget Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. The Dowager was a master of snarky one-liners and produced the show’s most-quotable bits of dialogue. Although she never passed up an opportunity to roast a fellow family member, the show also demonstrated just how much she cared for her family.

The show’s gorgeous sets and costumes always added a sense of elegance to the proceedings, and I still want to steal Lady Mary’s wardrobe. It was fun to watch how technology and fashion changed throughout the show as the characters entered a more modern era.

Perhaps what really made “Downton Abbey” resonate with fans, though, is the way it addressed social issues of the time — issues that are surprisingly still relevant today. While it was fun to watch the “upstairs” family and their posh lifestyle, this series also showed us the challenges and obstacles the “downstairs” servants experienced. Sadly, being born into a certain social class did restrict one’s future, although the modern era brought the promise of more opportunities. The show’s themes of discrimination, acceptance, and equality show that we’ve come a long way — but we still have a ways to go.

I’m not sure we’ll ever have a show again quite like “Downton Abbey,” although the series is certainly re-watchable (don’t ask me how many times I’ve re-watched my favorite episodes). While I’ll always wish we had one more season, I think it ended at a good place, and it avoided the trap that some shows fall into of outstaying their welcome. If you’ve never seen the show, I’d encourage you to give it a try, even if period dramas aren’t normally your thing. And for fans who are still going through withdrawals, let’s not forget those “Downton Abbey” movie rumors that are still going around!