Tuesday, August 19, 2014

I Know "The Giver" Looks Like All Those Other Young Adult Dystopian Movies, but It's a Bit Different...and It's Decent...Watch It, I Guess...or Don't...Whatever.

The Giver
This is The Giver at its best...save the chase sequences for Divergent.
Young adult (or YA) dystopian thrillers are quite prevalent of late with the popularity of The Hunger Games series to the point that many films, such as Divergent, don’t feel very different.  Because of this popularity, it was inevitable that Lois Lowry’s beloved novel The Giver would be up for adaptation.  Fans of the book will likely come away pleased (as long as they are willing to accept the inevitable changes an adaptation brings), though regular audiences might not see enough here to differentiate this from other properties.  The Giver deserves a bit of attention, however, if for no other reason than the fact that the filmmakers refrained from tacking on a love triangle.

The Giver is similar to other properties (or other properties are similar to it, since the book was written long before most of the other franchises) in that it takes place in a vaguely futuristic society in which individualism is seen as dangerous, and everyone should accept whatever fate the elders hand down to them.  The other mainstay of YA dystopian thrillers concerns the past.  In films like The Hunger Games or Divergent the characters know of a past that led them to their “harmonious” societies, but it is a fictionalized past drilled into them by the ruling class.  In The Giver, they simply don’t know about the past…and don’t want to.  It was decided that only one person, the Receiver of Memory, will keep all of humanity’s memories (good and bad) as a way to guide the elders so that the same mistakes are never made again. 

This makes the central idea behind The Giver compelling, both on the screen and page.  The message that the world, no matter how ordered and peaceful, isn’t worth living in if actual humanity ceases to exist is important, especially for younger viewers.  In fact, it might be even more worthwhile for older viewers who might be jaded about how awful the real world can often be since most can probably agree that our sometimes crappy reality is much more worthwhile than a society in which we have family “units,” receive daily “injections” that destroy our emotions, and are allotted “comfort objects” as children. 

Director Phillip Noyce (Salt) does an excellent job of making the world of The Giver the type of place a modern-day audience member would despise.  First off, it’s in black and white.  The world itself, not just the movie.  In an effort to create “sameness,” the creators of this society removed color along with memory, freedom, independence, and pretty much anything else that makes life enjoyable.  I was happy to find that the bulk of the movie is in black and white.  I was worried they would change it up fearing that teens would avoid a black and white movie (the previews, however, were almost completely in color).  The stark images of this society capture the mood of the book.

Of course, any adaptation of a book is going to include changes to the source material.  I was okay with most of the changes, but a few hurt the movie more than helped it.  First off, the attempt to add action to the climax of the film felt like pandering to an audience used to brutal fight scenes in their YA movies.  It didn’t look very good, and it just prolonged the movie rather than add suspense.  Second, and more importantly, it changed the world a bit in that it made it seem like more people knew about the past other than the Receiver and the Giver, and regular people seemed to be capable of feeling emotions at times, even if they had their injections.  All of this was done to add conflict, but breaking the rules of the established world weakens and/or alters the film’s message.  But perhaps I’m just being nitpicky since I read the book very recently.

Slight issues aside, The Giver still sets itself apart from the rest as a more thoughtful film.  This is helped immensely by the casting of Jeff Bridges as the Giver.  He looks a bit goofy (he tends to stare around with his mouth open) at times, but in his scenes with the Receiver (Brenton Thwaites, who holds his own in scenes with Bridges but seems to be on autopilot in the rest of the film) Bridges shows that he was the best choice for the role.  His voice is naturally tailored to deliver sage-like advice.  In fact, the film’s biggest flaw is that there are too few moments between Bridges and Thwaites.  It seems that the film is in too big of a hurry to insert some unnecessary action.  Ironically, those action moments are incredibly boring compared to the scenes with Bridges in a library.  Ten more minutes of memory sharing with Bridges would’ve have improved the film immensely. 

The rest of the cast is impressive, featuring Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, and Meryl Streep.  (Oh, and Taylor Swift is in the film for no discernible reason.)  Skarsgard and Holmes are fine as the Receiver’s brain-washed parents, and Streep is fine, but she seems unnecessary.  For one thing, her character, the Chief Elder, barely exists in the book, yet here she is given the villain role.  It would have been more effective if the villain had remained the faceless “Sameness” that pervaded society.  Also, it isn’t a good sign that her character first appears as a hologram.  It made me feel like the rest of her performance, and character in general, was phone in.

The Giver, despite its flaws, ultimately stands apart from the rest of the pack of YA stories.  Its message is similar, but dealt with in a more somber fashion.  In fact, the film is only weak when it tries to be like the films it should be striving to be different than.  This movie was never going to out-gross or replace The Hunger Games, so it’s unfortunate that the filmmakers even tried.  Despite itself, The Giver is a movie worth seeing, and, more importantly, thinking about.

Random Thoughts

I'm just going to ramble a bit about differences and interpretations that bothered me a little bit.

The mopeds or whatever were silly.  So was the Asher/drone scene.  It just took the whole escape-with-a-baby thing (which is pretty silly already) about five steps too far.  I can't help but laugh at the image of Brenton Thwaites (or his CG approximation) plunging into rapids clutching a baby.

Meryl Streep flat out mentions war.  How does she know about war?  If she's so afraid of information getting out, why allow the Giver to live at all?  Just kill him...problem solved.

I get the sled theme and all, but that ridiculous sled ride on lunch trays (or whatever they were) looked like garbage.  

This movie would have just been so much better had they not felt the need to pep it up.  It's as if someone was on set saying, "This for teenagers!  Remember that!  Every ten minutes someone either needs to do something slightly sexual or violent or both!  Otherwise everyone will already fall asleep!  Don't give me that look!  I'm already letting you do the artsy-fartsy black and white!"  Obviously I'm joking a bit, but it felt that way every time some random moment like that happened.  I get that the book isn't action-packed, but people obviously read it without throwing it down because of the lack of action.  I mean, if there can be teenage movie about romance that don't have tacked on action sequences, why can't teenage movies be about society and humanity without tacked on action sequences?

The Giver receives a:

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

"Guardians" Is the Weirdest, Possibly Best* Marvel Movie Yet

Guardians of the Galaxy

*I say "possibly best" because I need to let the movie sink in for a while before I claim it to be the best among a lot of very entertaining movies.

And you thought Thor was the weirdest part of the Marvel movie franchise.  As the superhero movies have branched out beyond Earth in recent years with the Thor films and The Avengers, I wondered how far mainstream audiences would go with Marvel into deep sci-fi territory.  Very far, it turns out.  Guardians of the Galaxy (which I will refer to as GotG from here on out because I’m lazy) presents an entirely new group of superheroes who only comic book fans will recognize in an entirely alien setting.  That’s exactly the kind of stuff I like, but I assumed regular audiences wouldn’t be so thrilled since they wouldn’t have an iconic character to get behind.  It turns out audiences and critics alike will go with a movie as long as it’s one of the most fun films of the summer.  (Side note: This shouldn’t be all that surprising since Star Wars could be described the exact same way, and people seemed to like that.  I would point out, however, that “Star Wars” didn’t get the marketing blitz that GotG did.)

GotG works so well because the titular galaxy it takes place in is so large and diverse.  Like most deep sci-fi works, there are many worlds in GotG, so when one is threatened it’s not as big of a deal as it normally is in a film.  What this means is that the film can still be fun while the stakes are quite high.  Characters can joke around at the direst of moments, and it feels normal.  That wouldn’t work if someone was trying to stop a nuke from blowing up America or something.  But when the planet on the line is Xandar, then who cares if we’re laughing while it is potentially destroyed?  (No offense to the fictional Xandarians.)

A goofy sci-fi action film needs a goofy cast of characters to inhabit it and GotG definitely has that covered.  This might just be the high of recently watching and loving this movie, but I’m leaning towards the Guardians over the Avengers at this point.  The group is led by Peter Quill, AKA Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), a kind of Indiana Jones/Han Solo hybrid.  He is joined by Gamora (Zoe Saldana), a green-skinned step-daughter of evil titan Thanos (and she’s not the weirdest member of the group by a long shot…); Drax (Dave Bautista), a literally literal (meaning he takes everything people say literally) vengeance seeking hulk; Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper), a genetically-altered raccoon who can talk and is a weapons specialist; and Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), a living tree that can talk, sort of (he only says, “I am Groot”).  With a group like this, the movie pretty much has to be goofy and fun.

Marvel has succeeded with all of these increasingly weird properties for multiple reasons.  The cast is usually spot-on, they spend plenty of money for each film, but, most importantly, they hand off the riskiest films to fellow geeks.  Joss Whedon was the perfect choice to helm The Avengers, and lesser-known geek-friendly writer-director (hey, that’s the first time I’ve used three hyphenates in a row!) James Gunn is equally perfect for GotG.  I am a huge fan of Gunn’s first feature, Slither, so I knew when he got this job that GotG would be something special.  Hats off to Marvel for handing off their properties to people who know what they’re doing.  By the way, if you haven’t seen Slither, check it out.

Gunn (and co-screenwriter Nicole Perlman) bring a great sense of humor and nostalgia to the film that makes it stand out even more from the “traditional” Marvel properties.  All of the films in the series have their comedic elements, but GotG is a bit different in that it’s a bit more self-aware.  An example of this would be the fact that Star Lord refers to the mysterious orb at the center of the movie (like the Tesseract or Aether from other films) as having an “Ark of the Covenant vibe” essentially saying the film is a bit like Indiana Jones and these movies always involve some mysterious powerful substance that is never clearly defined.  My least favorite part of all of these films are the Infinity Stones for the very reason that they’re mysterious, are simply called “powerful,” and bad guys want them for bad reasons.  It’s just too vague and uninteresting.  GotG at least calls itself out for it, which makes it easier to stomach.  Moving on, the nostalgia aspect sets the film apart even more.  Star Lord is taken from Earth in 1988 and happens to have an “Awesome Mix Tape” and a Walkman with him.  This allows the film to be scored to music from the late 70s and early 80s.  The contradictory nature of that music set to sci-fi action and locales is funny and kind of cool, really.  And since Star Lord is the only character from Earth (that we see, anyway), he gets to do some Marty McFly-esque referencing as he discusses Footloose in a mythical fashion and refers to John Stamos as a famous outlaw. 

Much of the humor is thanks to the delivery of the cast.  Pratt is a natural as Star Lord.  He has received the most attention for getting in such great shape for the role, and that is impressive, but what makes him stand out in a Marvel movie is his delivery of goofiness, which isn’t surprising given his work on Parks & Recreation.  Regardless of why he gets recognition, he definitely deserves it and carries the film easily.  Saldana is fine as Gamora though the tough sci-fi girl role she always plays is wearing kind of thin.  Dave Bautista surprised me the most with his matter of fact delivery.  The fact that he takes everything literally made for some of the funniest moments.  The voice work for Rocket and Groot is fine, but what’s more impressive about these characters is that they ended up being the most sympathetic members of the group, and they were created through motion capture. 

GotG is still an action film, though the action feels like an afterthought.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of impressive fights and whatnot, it’s just that, at this point, we’ve seen a world or galaxy or whatever saved from annihilation by some vague cosmic power so many times that it’s no big deal.  How many times can we see a giant ship of some kind crash into stuff before we get kind of bored with it?  That’s really not a knock against the movie; it’s just that this film handles everything else so much more interestingly that the action isn’t the focus. 

Guardians of the Galaxy (I’ll write it out one more time) is also unique in that almost everyone seems to love it.  That is truly refreshing because I am very used to loving a movie only to see the message boards filled with hate (to be fair, that’s still happening, but it seems much lighter than usual for a movie this big).  That said, I don’t think everyone will love this, and I certainly don’t recommend it to everyone.  The first fifteen minutes of the film involve so many different extremely sci-fi settings and situations that it starts to sound like gibberish.  That could possibly put people off of this movie.  If you can get past that kind of stuff, however, I think there is a movie here for everyone.  It looks pretty crazy, but it offers the kind of fun entertainment that almost anyone can enjoy.  Now let’s see if The Avengers: Age of Ultron can top this next year.  Honestly, I don’t see how it can.

Guardians receives a:

"Snowpiercer" Is On Demand Right Now, So You Should Just Go Ahead and Watch It and Read This Review Later


South Korean filmmakers have been producing some great, memorable films for a long time now but only recently has Hollywood invited them to create English-language debuts.  Unfortunately, the track record of the first releases has been disappointing.  Kim Jee-woon (I Saw the Devil) made The Last Stand, a goofy (in a good way), but underwhelming Schwarzenegger comeback film.  Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) made Stoker, which was certainly a unique and interesting film, but it was pretty much abandoned by the studio.  Now, and this is the most unfortunate of the three, Bong Joon-ho (The Host) has made Snowpiercer, an ambitious post-apocalyptic film that is equal parts entertaining and thought-provoking.  What’s unfortunate about this is that it spent months in limbo as The Weinstein Company considered editing it so Americans could “understand” it (thankfully, the final release is the director’s version) and, despite the film making over $80 million overseas, the widest release the film had in America was around 350 theaters a few weeks ago.  In other words, this film wasn’t given a chance to become traditionally successful in America because it was assumed mass audiences wouldn’t get it, like it, etc.  Here’s where the good news comes in, however.  Rather than expand to theaters nationwide, the film was released on demand (for roughly the same price as a theater ticket).  While I would much rather have seen this on the big screen, I was still very appreciative to get a chance to watch it at all.  More importantly, for those of you who don’t venture to the theater very often, you have a chance to check out a unique sci-fi film in your living room.  Now for the actual review of Snowpiercer.

Post-apocalyptic movies are almost too common these days, so a film in the genre needs to set itself apart.  Snowpiercer easily does that as it’s about the last of humanity on a frozen Earth surviving on a train (the titular Snowpiercer) that never stops.  Because of this premise (based on a French graphic novel), some people might be turned away.  Obviously some suspension of disbelief is required (as it is for nearly all movies, I might add).  The logistics of how it all works could easily distract the viewer from the film, but I was impressed with the world Bong Joon-ho created.  But, if the message boards at IMDb.com are any indicator, some people can’t get past nitpicking the premise.  My advice is to just go with it.

The reason that the film takes place on a train is to allow for an easy metaphor for humanity.  Even with the world essentially dead, there are still social classes on the train: poor in the back, rich in the front.  But the film is more than just a “rich people are evil” metaphor.  We’ve seen that scenario played out in film and reality enough anyway.  Snowpiercer made me think more about humanity in general.  It made me think about how some of us go about our daily grind and try not to think about the less fortunate.  Or decide that people are simply meant to inhabit certain stations of the social ladder.  What stuck out to me more than anything is how the film demonstrates on a small scale how humanity works things out (usually through awful actions) by being only slightly nudged into action.  The conspiracy theorist in me sometimes likes to imagine that there is a small, powerful group of people out there controlling the world and causing wars and atrocity behind the scenes.  That part of me got into this film as it showed that happening on the smaller scale of a train.

The action of Snowpiercer is that of a revolution spearheaded by Curtis (Chris Evans) who has spent equal parts of life on Earth and the train (seventeen years each).  The film opens on the back section at its worst.  People are crammed into the back cars, fed gelatinous “protein bars,” and subjugated by the front section.  Their children are sometimes taken away never to be seen again without explanation.  Severe punishments are doled out for any rebellious action (there is a disturbing limb removal early on).  Life is awful for everyone, and they’ve reached their breaking point.  Not to spoil anything, but a revolution does occur fairly early in the film, and Snowpiercer becomes equals parts action film and social commentary.

 The action and overall look of the film affected me the most.  The world Bong Joon-ho created for this train is amazing.  The cobbled together living quarters of the back of the train contrast greatly with the front cars, which is probably the easiest feat of the film (just look at The Hunger Games, Elysium, etc. for more examples of extreme class differences).  More impressively, this world feels real and lived in.  There is a history of failed revolutions and trying times that is only referenced but feels present in each character.  Since the film takes place on a train, it allows for some great framing in scenes featuring the powerful speaking to the downtrodden.  You get to see all of the miserable faces while someone in power, like Tilda Swinton’s Mason, speaks to them about accepting their place in life…and the train.  All of this is and the excellent, brutal action is set to diverse music by Marco Beltrami.  It all just comes together in a unique way for this film, and all involved deserve credit, like the creators of the source material and co-screenwriter Kelly Masterson. 

Snowpiercer is my favorite film of the year (so far) for three reasons beyond the aforementioned praise I’ve heaped upon it: the absurdity factor, its similarity to the Silo series by author Hugh Howey and the Bioshock video game series, and the unpredictability of it all.  First, the absurd.  As I mentioned before, many people who take issue with this film immediately attack the premise which they find too implausible.  Defenders of the film usually state that you should accept the “problems” so the metaphor of society through train can work, but I defend the absurdity of the premise on the grounds that the film acknowledges it.  There are many moments that could leave you scratching your head (the use of a fish before a fight, a ridiculous shootout across train cars, impromptu holiday celebrations in otherwise serious fights, Tilda Swinton’s strange mannerisms and dialogue, etc.).  These moments gave the film some much needed levity at times, made the film unique, and showed just how messed up the human race could get if forced to survive on a train for years.  That, perhaps, is most important to me: showing that this world is not the old one.  A new, weird, terrible, absurd world has been created.  It’s enough to make you wonder if you want anybody to survive which is certainly a credit to the ideas of the film.  Secondly, the Silo and Bioshock series are near and dear to me, and since there is no film version of either (yet), Snowpiercer appealed to me because I found it to be a spiritual sibling of those stories of failed utopias, world-building gone wrong, and revolution.  Finally, this was a film that I didn’t have figured out early on.  Not that there aren’t movies that completely confuse me (hello, Holy Motors), but when it comes to movies about social injustices or sci-fi struggles, I can usually guess where it’s going to end up and who’s going to end up there.  With Snowpiercer, the majority of my expectations were upended by the end of the film.  I enjoy unpredictability in a movie more than anything because after watching so many, it’s easy to end up on autopilot as you watch, especially if you’re watching at home.  But the surprises of this film kept me glued to it as if I were in the theater.  So I suppose they knew what they were doing when they released it on demand.

My focus on the weirdness and style of the film should not be seen as a slight against the actors.  Chris Evans is still in action mode here, but he gets plenty of strong character moments which he handles very well.  Plus, he pulls off the revolutionary look very convincingly.  John Hurt is perfectly cast in a mentor role.  Tilda Swinton is likewise a great choice for the quirky Mason.  Kang-ho Song and Ah-sung Ko are fantastic as a father-daughter duo.  I could go on and on; the point is that there is not a weak point in the diverse cast.

That’s about all there is to say about this film (as if I haven’t gone on long enough).  I typically don’t like to write this much about a film (I like to keep it about half this length), but when I see a movie that works on so many levels for me it gets me excited about writing reviews in general again, especially since many people might not even be aware of this movie.  So if you’re into sci-fi, social struggle metaphors, cool action, or just weird movies in general, check Snowpiercer out.  You don’t even need to move from your couch to do it, either, so stop reading me gush about it, and watch it for yourself.  

Snowpiercer receives a: