Monthly Archives: May 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road Review

Okay, let’s do something weird.  Let’s compare Mad Max: Fury Road to Avengers: Age of Ultron.  I think this is an interesting comparison since they’re both sequels in big action movie franchises that happen to be out in theaters at the same time right now. They both have large fan bases since their characters have been around for many decades.  What makes this comparison especially interesting is that they both have simple, largely cliché storylines that we are all familiar with, but everyone seems to be mostly okay with this since a strong, unique story is not the focus of either film.

As I noted in my review of the Avengers sequel, Age of Ultron’s story seems to be an excuse for the characters to play off of one another, and that is the story’s only purpose.  The story is not meant to surprise and wow, but there is the obligatory surprise death, as well as some unique twists and turns in the story to make it more interesting.  Fury Road is fascinating since the story is an excuse to do some crazy action sequences.  The story is simply about getting from point A to point B, then back to point A.  Again, there are some surprises and unique touches, and this film does go out of its way to add several clever little details that make its post-apocalyptic world absolutely ingenious.

That being said, there is a serious problem in this focusing choice.  As I have said before, you can say that film is a visual medium, but the medium is really about telling stories.  At the heart of a story are its characters, so it follows that an old, cliché story can be made new and interesting just by having strong characters driving the story, as seen in Age of Ultron.  (It is incredibly important that the audience is invested in the characters in order for this to work, and the investment must not be exclusively from circumstances, or else the empathy may run out when the circumstances change as the story turns.)  So, there is danger to putting characters over story, but it can be done well, which I cannot say for putting action and visuals over both story and characters.  This focus puts the technical aspects involved in achieving investment in the characters and story over the investment itself, which is rather silly.

In regards to very visual-oriented films, I have three main criticisms, all of which can be avoided if a visual film is very careful. First of all, visual storytelling is very desirable only if the story is worth telling in the first place.  Secondly, there’s an old saying that reminds me of the place of visuals in film: “Computer Science is no more about computers than astronomy is about telescopes.”  What concerns me whenever I hear someone say that film is a visual medium is that they may get the impression that film is about the visuals, even though visuals are merely film’s means of expression, which I know because of the meaning of the concept of communication itself. Third, what is the purpose of a beautiful window that looks out to nothing but a brick wall?

The question that must now be asked, as I have been asking myself that since I saw the first ten minutes of the film, is this: is Mad Max guilty of the pitfalls mentioned above? Well, addressing the first crime, the story may very well be worth telling, but it has actually been told before. The plot can basically be summarized as follows: a girl escapes her dreary civilization and goes on a journey with some friends and new acquaintances to get to a beautiful green place where their dreams can come true, only to go right back home to where she started in the first place.  That is the plot to The Wizard of Oz.  Oz also had a brilliant visual style, but people remember the characters, and what the characters said, far more than the visual style, which I don’t think could ever be said for a film like Mad Max.  In regards to the second and third criticisms, the point of the film, from what I can tell, was to make a good-looking action movie, and everything else was secondary. So, yes, it is very guilty.

I suppose that means I should hate this movie, but I don’t. Throughout the movie, I was constantly experiencing overwhelming admiration, which is a credit to the film.  That being said, what I wanted to experience was not only admiration, but entertainment, and that was lacking because of the criticisms explained above.  Compare this to Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors, which is visually excellent, but the visuals are always serving to express the mood of the piece, the context of the story, the emotions of the characters, the theme of the music, and other elements that make the story work better.  In Mad Max, I see the visuals serving to create an interesting and visually amazing context for the story, but the story still seems to be lacking. Part of this is due to the characters.

Many of the characters are just fine, but there were few who really made me care about whether they lived or died.  The titular character, Max, was not one of the few. As noted in the Walker brothers’ fantastic review of this film, Max is really more of an observer than anything else, and he could essentially be played by anyone.  By the end of the movie, viewers should ask themselves, “What do I really remember about Max that makes him unique?”  The answer is probably, “very little,” which is unfortunate. The real protagonist in the film, Furiosa, is a bit more interesting, but not by all that much.  The best scene in the movie, however, is a short scene in which the film actually takes a breather (thank heavens) and allows for a nice conversation between Nux and Capable, which made me finally CARE about some of the characters.

My final point, which I once again borrow from the Walker brothers’ review, is that this movie is a great experiment.  Much like with Pulp Fiction, I like it a lot as an experiment or project, but I have a hard time calling it a movie.  This is so vastly different from my schema of movies (or at least good movies) since I have always seen the movie theater as a temple built to glorify great storytelling, and I do not see Mad Max as such.  I do see Mad Max: Fury Road as being great art, and a groundbreaking achievement in cinema.  I admire and respect what it brings to the table for moviegoers and filmmakers, and I hope it will lead to many great action movies in the future, which is why I recommend that fans of film see it.  (Not to mention, everyone must see the guy with the fiery guitar, who adds a lot to the already impressive soundtrack.)  However, I will continue to criticize the film harshly because I stand by my strong ideology that people do not go into a movie theater to watch a movie, but rather to experience a story.

56 Mad Max Fury Road

JD’s Favorite Movies – May, 2015

I decided that, since it’s Geek Pride Day and I’m a movie geek, I’d share my all time favorite movies. Please note that this list changes by the minute, and each of these might be about 15 spaces off from where it ought to be. Still, if you haven’t seen any of the movies in my top 50, I recommend you go check them out ASAP.

All-Time Top 100:

  1. The Muppet movie series (’79, Caper or MTI, MMW, 2011, MTM or Carol, then Space)
  2. Labyrinth
  3. Duck Soup (1933)
  4. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  5. The Gremlins series
  6. The Naked Gun series (1, then 2, then 3)
  7. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (MST3Ked)
  8. The Dark Crystal
  9. High Anxiety
  10. Mary Poppins
  11. Little Shop of Horrors
  12. Some Like It Hot
  13. The Back to the Future series (1, then 2 and 3)
  14. The Truman Show
  15. The Wizard of Oz
  16. Play It Again, Sam
  17. Monty Python and the Holy Grail
  18. The Ghostbusters series (1, then 2)
  19. The Breakfast Club
  20. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story
  21. Being Elmo
  22. Young Frankenstein
  23. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
  24. Follow That Bird
  25. The Princess Bride
  26. Ever After
  27. Wayne’s World
  28. Beetlejuice
  29. Silver Linings Playbook
  30. Annie Hall
  31. The Lego Movie
  32. Citizen Kane
  33. The Lion King 1½
  34. Prince of Space (MST3Ked)
  35. Space Balls: The Movie
  36. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home
  37. Airplane
  38. The Pink Panther
  39. Silent Movie
  40. The Harry Potter series (5 or 2 first, then 1, 8 or 7, 4 or 6, then 3)
  41. Sleeper
  42. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
  43. Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan
  44. Crazy People
  45. The Hunger Games series (3 first, then 2, then 1)
  46. The Sound of Music
  47. Doctor Who: The Movie
  48. Batman (1966)
  49. CLUE
  50. Hot Fuzz
  51. Hook
  52. Scoop
  53. Robin Hood: Men in Tights
  54. Metropolis (Giorgio Moroder version)
  55. The Graduate
  56. Blazing Saddles
  57. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  58. Back to the Beach
  59. Babes in Arms
  60. Singin’ in the Rain
  61. Batman (1989)
  62. Strike Up the Band
  63. Amelie
  64. The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle
  65. Matinee
  66. Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (MST3Ked)
  67. The Road to El Dorado
  68. The People vs. George Lucas
  69. The Hand Behind the Mouse: The Ub Iwerks Story
  70. With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story
  71. Her (2013)
  72. The Parent Trap (1961)
  73. Twelve Angry Men
  74. Cinderella (1950)
  75. A Night at Casablanca
  76. The Little Mermaid
  77. The Lion King
  78. Comic Book Confidential
  79. Beauty and the Beast
  80. Charlotte’s Web (1973)
  81. Shaun of the Dead
  82. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles
  83. Haunted Honeymoon
  84. Ed Wood (1994)
  85. Flushed Away
  86. Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex
  87. Now You See Me
  88. Alice (1990)
  89. Delirious (1991)
  90. Guardians of the Galaxy
  91. The Spy Kids series (probably 2, 4, 1, then 3)
  92. Annie (1982)
  93. I Know That Voice
  94. Aladdin
  95. Forbidden Planet
  96. Footloose (1984)
  97. The Avengers movies (Age of Ultron, then 1)
  98. Saving Mr. Banks
  99. A Night at the Opera
  100. Sound City

As a bonus, I’ll throw in what my favorite movies are in terms of visuals, which is a pretty different list. Please note that I haven’t watched Dick Tracy yet, but I think when I do, a lot of these movies will get bumped down a peg. So, just assume that Dick Tracy belongs somewhere in the top ten.  Also, I think that both The Wiz and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory should get honorable mentions.

Top 25 Visually:

  1. Little Shop of Horrors (1986)
  2. Labyrinth
  3. Mary Poppins
  4. Beetlejuice
  5. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
  6. The Gremlins series
  7. West Side Story
  8. Back to the Future Part II
  9. The Ghostbusters series
  10. Back to the Future
  11. The Wizard of Oz
  12. The Dark Crystal
  13. The Muppet Christmas Carol
  14. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure
  15. Metropolis (Giorgio Moroder version)
  16. Hunchback of Notre Dame
  17. The Lion King
  18. The Little Mermaid
  19. Singin’ in the Rain
  20. The Great Muppet Caper
  21. Batman (1989)
  22. Doctor Who: The Movie
  23. The Road to El Dorado
  24. Aladdin
  25. Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The Rocketeer Review

(MINOR SPOILERS)

I really like Timothy Dalton.  I greatly enjoy watching Jennifer Connelly.  This movie was recommended to me by a friend, and I was pretty sure I would love it.  Unfortunately, the movie was largely dull and uninteresting for the first half.  The protagonist was a bore, and the antagonist was honestly more likable and charming.  The concept could have been very interesting, but I just couldn’t get into it for quite some time.

Then, much like in Hannah and Her Sisters, there was a redeeming scene.  Finally, when the story was starting to get interesting, they gave a scene to Jennifer Connelly’s character, who had to give the best performance of her life.  The scene was an absolute delight, largely because I could finally focus on a couple of the characters that mattered to me.  Seeing this scene in this movie felt like the geeky kid on the sidelines had just jumped up and did a slam dunk, so I couldn’t help but applaud.

On the whole, it’s not a bad movie.  Some of the characters are interesting, the concept is rather unique, the screenplay gets better and better throughout, the visuals and soundtrack are frequently impressive, and I could easily see why someone would really like this movie.  For me, however, I like a protagonist who’s likable.  Say what you want about film being a visual medium, but let’s not forget that visuals alone are not the point – otherwise you could just go to a Smithsonian art museum for free and see better visuals than most great films have to offer.  The point is storytelling, and at the heart of every story are its characters.  If the movie had a stronger main character, the story would have been much stronger, which would have made the film rise above “okay.”  The one redeeming scene, however, earned this film an extra half a star above par.

55 The Rocketeer

Avengers: Age of Ultron Review

First of all, everyone needs to see the first Avengers movie, preferably after seeingCaptain America and Iron Man.  Then, watch Avengers, and after that, Capt 2 and maybe a few of the others in between.  After that, you care about all the characters in Avengers: Age of Ultron.  That’s really all that matters with this movie.

The movie is an excuse to hang out with the characters.  That’s all.  The story is not really special, and the visuals are typical for this kind of film.  (I will give it props for its excellent opening, which is very impressive, but I prefer the look of the current Daredevil series to the look of the Avengers films.)  The movie is really a blast so long as you really enjoy seeing what the characters throw at one another (figuratively and literally) and you enjoy good bantering, drama, one liners, and character development.  The story is, at the very least, set up so that the audience is very interested in seeing what the characters will do next, and how they’ll get out of tricky situations.  It’s a fun summer movie, and that’s all it needed to be.  I highly recommend it.

54 Avengers Age of Ultron

Campfire Art

Upon reading the critically acclaimed short story “Sleep-over” by Bonnie Jo Campbell, I started pondering the duality between the concrete and the amorphous that seems to tear apart the enthusiasts of artistic works.  This story, like much of the amorphous literature that appears in many textbooks and highbrow publications, lightly touches on the elements that make up a traditionally story, without making them the focus.  There are people with names, but very little is established about them, making them seem to be empty characters.  There is a series of events, and there is a little bit of a conflict at one point in this series of events, but there is little in the way of story building (by which I mean a conflict-driven escalation from one event to another with “but” or “therefore” transitions).  The story offers some little facts and ideas, in this case suggesting a connection between Frankenstein’s monster and the sexual desire to piece together the perfect woman, but it artistically leaves the meaning of the story up to the viewer.  While intellectuals naturally cling to amorphous art because it requires thinking, this type of work tends to lack substance to the same degree as that which is entirely concrete.

To clarify what I mean by concrete, I am not simply referring to work that is physical.  Work that is concrete is structured, based upon guidelines that have been previously established, and its meaning is perfectly visible.  Pop music, for example, is generally concrete in that the structure is standard and predictable, and one does not have to think deeply to understand the meaning of the song.  The concrete art is easier to sell, in much the same way that processed foods are more accessible to the public than filet mignon, but is also easier to criticize.  Concrete art is cliché, lacks depth, and requires no thought.  For this reason, lovers of music that is abstract and rule-breaking have a great excuse to enjoy scoffing at Beliebers and Directioners.  The concrete art, to the thinking person, tends to sit in the mind rotting like a useless, dull log.

The amorphous art, however, is harder to criticize, although it too frequently lacks substance.  It refuses to take the form of its predecessors in its medium, flowing and expanding in any direction the mind takes it.  Modern poetry very often – although certainly not always – strives to defy guidelines and let the language run wild, without conveying any particular meaning, but instead vaguely suggests potential meanings.  The meaning comes from the interpretation, not from what the writer infused into the work.  The potential problem here is that, by leaving meaning up to the interpreter, the work lacks intrinsic meaning, and can therefore be said to be meaningless.  This is dangerous because, without a defined meaning or purpose at the core of the work, there is no gravity to keep the interpretations (which may be foolish if the interpreter happens to be an unintelligent person) from flying out to idiocy and beyond.  The boundless nature can allow the art’s supposed, projected, or imagined meanings to spread like wildfire.

In the Web 2.0 age, fanfiction is blossoming like never before.  While the best television series are developing clearly defined characters dealing with blatant conflicts, they are also gesturing towards possible alterations in the story, and new ideas that could be explored with many of the shows’ core elements.  Since fanfiction is so enjoyable for so many people, it would be fascinating for a television series to suggest possible character traits and storylines, and then leave the rest to the viewer to determine.  This would, of course, not be a television show, but rather a prompt for creating one.  It is the established structure upon which an infinite number of ideas can be built that seems to make media great.  This allows fans to have more fun building things in the sandbox than they could in a bottomless pit.

That being said, it should be obvious that not all artwork that has depth or mental malleability is necessarily bad.  Science fiction series such as The Twilight Zone and Star Trek may be mostly remembered for the concrete elements, such as spaceships, robots, and scary aliens, but they have had a lasting impact because of the concepts they explored and the ideas they proposed for us to ponder.  The works of Robert Frost have been analyzed to the extreme due to their vast interpretability, although the non-thinker can see the stories and concepts that he made apparent.  Once, after saying his poem “Stopping by Woods,” Frost asked his audience about the meaning of its repeated last line, with a tone that scoffed the critics and commentators who had assumed great and deep meanings.  While some might suggest it meant “bringing his off-balance terza rima to closure,” but Frost informed them that it simply meant he wanted to go to bed.  Perhaps we ought to join Frost in mocking the sophists who attribute to artwork meanings that are not apparent, since seeking deep meaning in that which lacks it is more superstitious behavior than intellectual behavior.  Instead, we should appreciate a work’s interpretability, if it has depth allowing for such (as Frost’s works certainly do), but at the same time appreciate what the apparent, intrinsic meaning is just as much.

Imagine, then, a Brubeck world in which works are strong both concretely and amorphously.  Ideally, this creates a concrete-amorphous balance, with great weight and power on each side of the scale.  There is great danger in going too far either way, although it is not necessarily completely unacceptable.  The deep thinker is certainly free to sit happily on one side of the see-saw enjoying 2001: A Space Odyssey, so long as he/she does not despise the fellow on the other side enjoying Transformers 17: Age of Explosions.  It is best, however, to create works that limit the extent to which they lean to either side – Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things” leans towards the boundless while still maintaining a hummable tune, and The Lego Movie is formulaic while still suggesting ideas about theology and society.  Rather than creating works that are dull as a log or run rampant as a fire, try building a campfire that uses both elements to their maximum amount of enjoyment, with the log and the fire each giving meaning and purpose to the other.  In other words, when people criticize films, songs, or any similar works for being too simple, shallow, and formulaic, what they are truly criticizing is a lack of balance in the concrete-amorphous duality.

Ever After Review

Do you know how often I give a movie four and a half stars?  I’ve done over 50 movie reviews and I only gave such a rating to two of them … but today you can make that three.  To be honest, I probably should have given this rating to a couple other really good movies I’ve reviewed, such as Annie Hall, but I really wanted to save such a high number for the absolute best of the best.  For this reason, it is odd that I would choose to give this rating to a film that stars one of my least favorite actors in the lead role.  (What, you don’t see why I don’t like Drew Barrymore?  I can’t really explain it, but I find her voice pretty annoying, and the roles she plays are often the kind of characters that seem like they were written just to bug me.)

Here’s the thing: that’s pretty much the movie’s only flaw.  Everything else, from the story to the dialogue to the performances to the visuals to the music, was done right.  The world of the film is enchanting, the characters are delightful, and the story manages to capture all of the best elements of the story upon which it is based, Cinderella, while carefully adjusting what does not hold up.  The story of “Cinderella” is a timeless one, which means it does not need an update unless something extra special will be added.  Rather than adding anything too terribly brilliant or different, this film adds the basic thing that “Cinderella” lacked – a love story that’s actually a love story.  And it’s a good love story at that.

The movie owes much of its success to the main character, and while I think it was the writing that made the character great, Barrymore’s performance was really not bad.  The character could have been ruined by someone who lacked talent, but Barrymore’s acting talent allowed for the character to shine through in exactly the way it needed to, making aCinderella that the audience really cares about.  It helped that she was doing an accent, but what really helped was the way the dialogue was written.  It was done in such a way that the character is strong, smart, independent, and brave, without seeming like an annoying know-it-all.  This is a fine example of the type of character I would like to see more often in cinema.

If I may note one other thing, and I do believe this is key, I think it helps to have the writer be the director, or at least have some additional control over the project so his/her vision gets across.  Many of the other movie’s I’ve reviewed that I enjoyed the most had Woody Allen as both the writer and the director, or at the very least as both writer and star.  Planes, Trains, and Automobiles came very close to getting four and a half stars out of me, and Silver Linings Playbook succeeded in doing so.  Both of those had the writer direct as well.  Perhaps this is just the wishful thinking of a screenwriting control freak, but I want to see this become common practice.

53 Ever After

Left Behind (2000) Review

Oh boy, here we go …

For the most part, you can just take Kevin McCreary’s review and insert it here.  I would, however, like to address a few things myself, and I’ll start with the positives.  First of all, there are actually some really nice shots in this film that are theatrical enough to be right up my alley.  Second, the film takes its time before it starts shoving the Bible in our faces, allowing the story’s development to take center stage for a while.  Third, it’s tough for a religious movie to say “this is the world you’re living in” without it feeling both preachy and unrealistic, so I think it may work in this movie’s (or perhaps this genre’s) favor to do something more in the vein of sci-fi/fantasy.

That being said, the movie is still pretty silly, rather preachy, a little unbelievable, and a bit too cliche.  I always like the rule that events can be unrealistic, but the reactions of the human characters to these events must be realistic if we are to take the story at all seriously, and I don’t think this movie makes the human characters quite believable enough for the story to work.  The movie begs to be riffed, as I did throughout.  It doesn’t do the best job at holding my attention, so I actually paused the movie one day and abandoned it for a few weeks.  My long break from the film was also due to the fact that I found it kind of depressing – several cars and planes crashing, people losing loved ones, and especially dogs lost without their owners are all ideas I’d rather not associate with a benevolent supreme being.

So, in the end, it’s not the worst movie I’ve seen, but it’s far from the best.  Oh, and please, no more bookend voice-overs in religious movies ever again.

52 Left Behind (2000)