Friday, September 26, 2014

Why the Nostalgia Sequels Need to Stop.

In recent years the market for nostalgia has gone further than any of us really wanted it to go. With things like high-waisted shorts, vinyl LPs, and -- dear God -- even the scrunchie coming back to life, it was only a matter of time before this spread to other things.

Like film.
And pogs.
(Only a matter of time...)

In the past few years, there has been a scramble by media executives to pump out sequels to beloved characters and films of decades gone by. Capitalizing on a public crazy enough to revamp the pop beverage Surge in the name of feeling like it's 1995 again, studios have begun an insane race to see whose "where-are-they-now?" movie can cash in the most at the box office. From Dumb and Dumber To, to the recently dropped sequel to Mrs. Doubtfire, to the most recently released news of a Bill and Ted sequel, these movies are popping up out of the woodwork.

But in creating these harebrained, half-planned sequels the movie industry is destroying the original essence of the movies that we hold closest to our hearts. 

Let me tell you all a story. It's about a time I went and saw Eddie Money in concert.

The Eddie Money I knew.

Once upon a time, I was (and, let's be honest, still am very much) in love with 80s rock. After hearing tales that Eddie Money was going to be performing a free(?!) concert at a local sports bar for Labor Day, I harassed my best friend into going with me. Arriving a bit later than anticipated, we both half-sprinted to the venue to be sure that we'd catch the rest of the set. Grinning like an idiot, I walked up to where the stage was for his last three songs, one of which was "Two Tickets to Paradise," a personal turn-the-volume-all-the-way-up car jam of mine. But when I got to the stage I realized that the man in front of me was:

1. Very drunk
2. Very old
3. Very over the song
4. And very over being there.

The Eddie Money I got.
Sweet Jesus...the Eddie Money I got...

While I was still pretty happy to be enjoying one of my favorite tunes (something to be said for jumping up and down to 80s rock with your best friend), it was clear that the glory that was once Eddie Money was no longer there. After the song ended, the man before me started blithering about some tee shirt that his wife bought at a Rolling Stone concert and how we should buy some of his tee shirts too. And things became weird. And we left.

I still seriously enjoy "Two Tickets to Paradise" and "Take Me Home Tonight" every time I blast them in my car, but there's something to be said for letting glory stay immortalized in its original nostalgic time frame. For example, which would you rather hear on your radio: "Two Tickets to Paradise" original studio version? Or "Two Tickets to Paradise" live version circa 2014 by the half-terrifying old, drunk man in the above photo? Yeah.

Half of the reason that things are nostalgic is the knowledge that we can never really fully return to the time and place that they were originally. Yeah you can buy Dunkaroos, but you're not gonna turn into a 12-year-old the minute you pop them into your mouth.

May they rest in peace.

The same goes with these movies that are trying to recapture their former glory.

Watching Dumb and Dumber To is not going to transport you back to the 90s to see what Harry and Lloyd were up to the day after they started walking back to Rhode Island. It's picking up in present day. And while that gives you an interesting perspective on what has happened to them in the past 20 years (although it doesn't look like they've been doing much judging by the trailer) it's not going to be like the first experience you had watching the first film. 

For one thing, humor is relative. Jokes that worked 20 years ago won't necessarily work today. While slapstick is the most constant of most forms of humor, as is idiocy, the best selling comedies in recent years have been self-depricating and goofy. It's an uphill battle for movies that were successful decades ago because outside of the 80s or 90s, that kind of humor is just going to
That bowl-cut looks a little weird outside of 1992...

For another, these nostalgia sequels hit familiar territory hard, hoping to capitalize on the audiences that are attending them. As a result, most nostalgia movies take whatever the audience relates to most in their originals and turns it into a caricature of its original greatness. The resultant flicks then end up being strange, warped versions of the characters and situations that we originally loved so much.

If you're going to revisit something beloved and try to make it as good as it was the first time, here's some advice: you can't.

(Even the trailers are totally different...)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Lisa Limone and Maroc Orange: A Rapid Love Story

When life gives you lemons, maybe don't make a nonsensical musical about them and their immigrant orange slaves.

Huh. I was pretty disappointed by this one, especially because it was the only feature-length stop-motion film (and y'all know how I love me some stop motion) and its plot looked really interesting.

The film (inexplicably) begins with a tomato-man who promises to tell his audience the story of Maroc Orange. Maroc Orange and several others are sneaking into a foreign country by way of sailboat. When the boat is attacked by sharks, only Maroc survives, and is mistakenly apprehended by Mr. Limone to become a worker in his tomato fields. Limone's daughter, Lisa, is a bratty teenager who's looking to find love, and is sent to Maroc's rescue by his friend, an opera-singing seashell. Their fates are held in the air as things come to a head at the plantation.

Well I can't read Estonian, but it probably says
"Lisa Limone and Maroc Orange: Totally Armulugu"

Gaahhhh, it just sounded offbeat enough to be really freaking cool! But Lisa Limone and Maroc Orange ends up just being a jumble. There were so many confusing elements that I'm not even 100% sure of where exactly to start critiquing. So let's start with what I liked:

1. The first scene is pretty insanely moving. This is not a film where cartoon logic exists. After a very realistic look at these poor oranges taking flight by way of sailboat in open water, we are next greeted by the harsh reality of their shipwreck. While the images are made of clay--and yeah, they're also oranges--there's something about the realistic fantastical gore of these poor things that makes the imagery effectively disturbing. Whereas human gore is a bit of a shock and 2D imagery might not be as effective, this opening scene really set the film up to be something hugely different.

2. I really liked the tunes. Each character has a different style of voice and song. Maroc's songs are very clear and natural, Lisa's are very pop and up-tempo, then there's the robotic songs of the lemons, and the operatic voice of Maroc's friend the seashell. I kind of wish they had broadened the songs to be about wider themes rather than honing in on an unimportant character's life (i.e. the lemon guard) or just cut down on the characters, but what can ya do.

3. I liked the stop-motion. While it's not as advanced as some of my faves (see Coraline or Paranorman) it's always refreshing to see someone who has the time to finagle a movie like this, so hats off to them for that.

Taking off for a foreign country in a boat does not look awesome.

Other than that, I found the movie to be a bit confusing. I'm a huge fan of magical realism done right, but there are so many elements of this that it weighs down the plot and becomes bewildering. Like okay, there's a tomato-man telling us this story. Cool. Tomato man talks about a ketchup factory. A little weird, since that forces the audience to reconsider what is considered a tomato in this framework. Are all the tomatoes sentient? If not, then why is this one? Continuity.

Same thing with the seashell. For some reason, the filmmakers made it so that all seashells in this unnamed place can play pop music. Why? No idea. This does create a distinction for the opera-singing seashell. But at that point the could've eliminated all of the shells and just had that one guy and still have the stoy make sense.

Another thing that bugged me was the story structure after Maroc is apprehended by Limone's Ketchup Factory workers. I'm not sure if it was time constraints that held them back or if it was an overactive imagination, but having Lisa Limone pursue Maroc with the notion in her mind that she'll finally have a teen love who will appreciate her seems weird. Points for going outside the box and maybe trying something more realistic. (Let's be real, people marry for the wrong reasons all the time in real life.) But within the framework of the story it just seems weird. After hearing the seashell's sad song of Maroc's past in his native country, Lisa seems more compelled to help him because it would be like a storybook than actually having compassion for his situation.

Yeah, she sucks.

The whole movie is just very odd. And while I'm a fan of things that go outside the norm, this was not in a good way.

5 outa 10. Would be lower, but I do admire stop-motion and this movie is pretty well-made on a technical level.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Until Sbornia Do Us Part: A (Pretty Funny) Commentary on Cultural Appropriation

I wasn't expecting much going into this film, honestly. I thought it would be one of those straightforward, preachy pieces; a clashing of cultures that didn't necessarily bring anything new to the table. But the comical nature of the film, along with some great characterization and funny cultural misunderstandings, really won me over.

The story takes place on a land mass called Sbornia. Sbornia is connected to what they call The Continent by a small strip of land, but is kept completely isolated from it by a wall made out of volcanic rock. (It should also be noted that Sbornia is home to a huge volcano that makes up over half of its mass.) One day, during a Sbornian game of Axe Ball, the wall comes tumbling down, and in come the opportunists from the mainland. Taking advantage of a little-known beverage that the islanders drink called Bizuwin, The Continent then moves in to reap the one natural resource that Sbornia can claim as its own -- with disastrous results.

What really drives this movie is its reliance on the two main characters, who foil each other perfectly. Kraunos and Pletskaya, two Sbornian musicians, have to deal directly with the consequences of The Continent interfering with their personal lives. Kraunos, a quiet and traditional man, is sent over the edge by his wife's new fascination with Continental culture. And Pletskaya, a hopeless romantic, has to deal with the very rich, Continental parents of his new love Cocliquot. Their reactions (and, in the case of Pletskaya, nonreactions) to the changes unfolding around them contrast each other in a way that keeps the story from getting too serious.

Laughs also come in the form of the cultural misunderstandings between the people of Sbornia and their Continental counterparts. Sbornian people sleep upside down, lick faces in greeting, dance by shaking their heads, and play a sport that relies on the throwing of actual axes. They really indulge the fear of completely different (yet largely harmless) cultural differences. The looks on the Continental people's faces when Kraunos hocks a loogie on some aristocrat's kid (to say hello). Hilarious.

In terms of animation style, this one stood out for its interesting color palette, made up of mostly sepia-toned red, blue, and yellow. The muted tone helps to reflect the old-timey, time-gone-by impression that the plot highlights. It's also nice to see a straight-up cartoon. Great sound editing, songs, and playful shots that really only read well through cartoons (i.e. getting hit in the face with a 20-lb. wooden ball and having it sink into the chest cavity instead of some pretty gross carnage).

A small issue that I had with this movie, was their flitting between seriousness and comedy. While the impression I got of this film was overwhelmingly funny, at times they seem to be like "oh wait, but this is an actual problem, we should take it down a notch." Because of this seeming conundrum, they get a bit caught between going for real physics and cartoon physics. At a more serious point in the story, Kraunos discovers that his wife has bought some things from The Continent and throws them into the fire, burning his hand. In the next scene, his hand is bandaged. Contrarily, another character, at one point, (as aforementioned) is hit in the head with a heavy wooden ball and hoists it off of his shoulders, completely unharmed. I get it. It's a cartoon. You can kind of do whatever you want. But have some continuity.

Really solid film, and really funny (though I'm not sure they were going 100% for laughs). 7 outa 10.

An American in Ottawa (Yes, that's apparently the capital of Canada)

Well this past weekend marked my first ever trip to our northern neighbors for the annual Ottawa International Animation Festival.

Oh. Canada.

I don’t know what exactly I was expecting. Going to the New York Film Festival last year opened a thrilling new world of brand new yet-to-be-seen exclusive films, but in hindsight, I wasn’t really that invested in exploring NYC itself. I mean, there isn’t a ton to do Uptown. (Seriously, I was hard-pressed to find a restaurant within, like, five blocks of the Lincoln Center.) But I, ever the optimist, decided “Y’know what, let’s think outside the box here. Let’s check out a different film festival.” Thinking that I was signing up for a weekend of funtimes in Canada, this year’s Ottawa International Animation Festival, held in Ottawa, Ontario. Interestingly enough, it was not quite the same experience that I had in NYC.

Now, this is not the festival’s fault. All of the screenings that I saw were amazing. It’s so hard to find new and different animated films that aren’t just made for kids. Even animated films that are made for kids can sometimes be a bit bland or just cookie-cutter. And the films that were screened were seriously anything but (we’ll get to those in the next few posts).

However, by and large, I would like to warn those looking into going next year. Or looking into going to Ottawa. Or looking into going to Canada in general.

First of all, you’re in Canada.

Now, I know what you’re thinking (those of you with consciences): “Canada can’t be all that bad! Really, they’re not very different from us Americans!” And my sweet, beloved little baby optimists, I thought that same thing. But I was unfortunately proven…wrong? Well, not wrong wrong… It’s hard to explain. Really, Canadians aren’t a ton different than Americans…that you’d find in the Midwest. The hilarious thing that struck me about Canadian culture is its lack thereof. Now, to be fair, we were situated in Ottawa, which (as it turns out) is the entire nation’s capital, so there was a palpable blend of different cultures everywhere. But, that being said…we were in the nation’s capital. This place should’ve been a hub of excitement and action. I mean, I wasn’t asking for a Washington DC or anything, but what you get in Ottawa is basically the equivalent of a glorified suburb. Or something like Puerto Rico. A mixture of different languages, a smattering of restaurants that serve generic staples like burgers and poutine, and a metric ton of retail stores. And—here’s the weird part—nothing is ever crowded. Josh and I wandered around in search of a dive bar the first night that we arrived and not only couldn’t find a regular ole bar; couldn’t find even one of the fifteen existent sports bars that was actually full.

The problem that I had with Ottawa is that it didn’t really seem to have any actual flavor to it. It’s like someone woke up one day and thought “Huh. We’re actually the capital of the country. Maybe we should have stuff to do here.” And, after consulting with some people that hailed from cities like Cleveland or St. Louis, plopped down some high-rise buildings and some shops and said “Does this look good?” and they were distractedly like “Yeah…that looks right…”

True photo.

Secondly, you are far away from everything.

While I have come to learn that that is somewhat the norm up in the northern country, I still can’t quite get over how freaking far apart everything is. Ottawa is a city that is, by and large, unto itself. It would be like the equivalent of the US sticking our nation’s capital in the middle of rural PA. Also, it took us a seven-hour drive to get there. And we were driving…pretty fast (don’t want to get implicated in any kind of legality here, but I’m pretty sure we only drove the actual speed limit about twice). I’m pretty sure that this description gives you an accurate idea of what the cultural scope is here.

Everything is bigger in Ontario. (Well...more spread out...)

And lastly, if you are from the United States, your smartphone is not going to work up there.

This seems trivial, I know. However, when you have booked half of your tickets online in advance (planner that you are), it’s going to be a real bummer when you have to launch into an explanation with these benevolent Canadians about how your phone contains the information that they need but you literally cannot access it until Wi-Fi becomes a universal thing. It is also not awesome when you are 7 hours into your road trip and your GPS app decides it has had enough, dammit, and that it’ll see you back in rural NY where it is appreciated. And you have to stop for directions. And you get lost on the way home for half an hour.

Basically, if you’re thinking of going up to Ye Olde Ottawa Film Fest next year ye be warned:

1.     Book a hotel that is close to all of the movie theaters. That way we you capitalize on screen time and spend as little time taking in the sights as possible.
2.     Fly. Don’t drive. I know that driving sounds cheaper, and it is, but you will want to stop driving and just set up house in the middle of one of the 800,000 fields that you will pass on the way. Because you will feel like you’re never going to get home.
3.     Plan on not having a working iPhone. Because then you will have researched all of the good screenings, interesting restaurants, and points of interest without having to aimlessly wander around.
4.     Also, pack an umbrella. It rained for half of the time we were there.

SO! Now that THAT rant is out of the way, let us make way for some reviews. After all, this blog is a prestigious film review source, dammit. And the movies that we got to see were actually pretty interesting (if not all wonderful).

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Submarine: If You Like Wes Anderson, Amelie, and Getting Caught in the Rain...

There are a handful of movies on my Netflix queue that I always happen to skip over for one reason or another. Bread and Tulips took me literally about two years to watch and then when I finally did I loved it. The same is true of Submarine, whose cover has intrigued me for years, but which I also suspected would end up being a lofty indie drama that I wouldn't like. Well, this is a quick thank you to the Netflix algorithms: for your patience and persistence. God bless you.

Submarine follows a boy named Oliver Tate (played by Craig Roberts), a teenager living in Wales (which is next to England/part of the UK, just sayin). Oliver has two main halves of his life that are constantly occupying all of his time. On the one hand, his parents (played by Sally Hawkins and Noah Taylor) are having marital issues, which have only worsened since his mother's high school sweetheart just moved in next door. On the other, he's just fallen in love with a girl named Jordana (played by Yasmin Page), and his relationship is a little bumpy as well. A well-intentioned kid, the movie follows Oliver as he tries to patch up his parents' marriage and pursue the girl of his dreams.

Too cool.

I'm a sucker for movies like this. What I was expecting was something along the lines of I Heart Huckabees or something equally stupid. But Submarine ends up being something like Amelie crossed with a Wes Anderson movie. The cinematography is gorgeous. Following Oliver's every mood, it can go from quick, clean, and observational to romanticized and warmly lit, to even upright absurd and almost avant garde at times. But every scene is meticulously thought out, and voiced over with Oliver's clever and overly adult insights. Really, visually, this movie was a treat. It's hard to pull off clever editing without falling into the trap of trying to copy another film auteur, but I thought that the pacing of this was original and downright beautiful. The chill, placid soundtrack is a great compliment to it as well.

Craaazy cool

Oliver is an extremely likeable character. Well-versed in Neitzsche, Salinger, and Shakespeare, he tries to help his parents, Jordana, and even more minor characters to resolve their problems. A fascinating mix of flat deadpan and touching sincerity, Oliver has trouble fitting in at school and doesn't have a ton of friends. But his relationship with Jordana proves to bring out his personality, which he hadn't fully tapped into before. And his overanalyzed and sweet approach to everything is extremely well played by Craig Roberts (who, IMDB tells me, was also recently in Neighbors and 22 Jump Street, whaaat...).

Lil obsessed..

Submarine is also subtly hilarious. From Oliver's ill attempts at being the "Best Boyfriend in the World" to the tiny idiosyncrasies of each character (He always types on a typewriter, his dad drinks hot water and lemon when he's in a funk, and Jordana is a mild pyromaniac.), there are a lot of quirks that the underplayed performances keep from being too zany.


The story is extremely sweet, and hearkens to the teenage mindset without being angsty.

9 outa 10. Full disclosure: I watched it twice.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Is the Bible the New Comic Book? Hollywood's Growing Interest in the Old Testament

Anyone notice a certain trend in the movies lately? It has to do with God. And no, I'm not talking about those hyper-Christian heaven-is-for-real movies, because they've always been around. But Old Testament, heavy-hitting, weeeird story stuff.

Seriously. Murder, animal sacrifice, the discovery of alcohol,
and much, much more!

In a time where there is literally nothing new under the sun, Hollywood seems to be investing more and more into big Bible sagas. In the sea of sequels, prequels, and "re-imaginings" there is a growing force in movies like Noah (directed by Aronofsky) and upcoming flick Exodus: Gods and Kings (directed by Ridkley Scott), I feel like we're going to see a bunch more movies of this caliber on the horizon.

But why?

With the indie industry taking over the consumer demand for films that are different, quirky, and a little more edgy, Hollywood seems to be running out of formulas that work with a larger audience. I'm actually a bit astonished that it has taken Hollywood this long to discover their missing ingredient. Anyone who has ever read the Old Testament knows that the stories in there are straight-up crazy a good 70% of the time. Murder, war, floods, famine, plagues, and everything else that you can think of is covered in those beginning books -- and in every top grossing movie in the past several decades. You can do a disaster movie, you can do a drama, you can do an ethical movie, you can do a religious movie (obviously), and the list goes on and on. There's a ton of plot flexibility with the Bible and they should be taking advantage of it.

Oh, and they are.

The other thing is the fact that no one has really tackled anything other than a straight reading of the Bible in the past couple of decades. Epics like The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur are of course classics, but a little dated. In this day and age, when we can design an entire world from scratch via computer, the time has never been more ripe for a fresh imagined look at what the world looked ike at the beginning of recorded time. They definitely took advantage of this in Noah, where some pre-Ark creatures and scorched landscapes came into play, creating a world that this both familiar and alien. Hearkens back to films not unlike The Lord of the Rings saga or even like the series Game of Thrones.


That's the other cool thing about delving into the Bible for some new film fodder: it's both familiar and unfamiliar. The book is so old that in a lot of ways it can adapt to fantasy and space flicks that have become so popular as of late. The writing in the Old Testament can be incredibly sparse, which allows a lot of room for imagination. While most other books have to take into account a lot of naysaying superfans, the Old Testament has enough wiggle room to allow for some creative expression without pissing off the uber-religious. Since there isn't a lot of descriptive detail put into each book, there is a lot of room left for bulking up plot with fight scenes and internal battles (which I'm sure they will play to their advantage and, again, already have with the likes of Noah).

The only thing that bugs me a little about this big idea is the probability that they will choose to ignore or rule out important details in favor of upping the drama to these movies. To bring up Noah again, one of the things that drove me NUTS towards the end was the fact that Noah didn't allow his sons to bring wives onto the ark.

BUT HIS SONS ALREADY HAD WIVES, according to the Bible.*

Come on, people! Learn to read!!

Yeah, it would be pretty messed up to just go out and PICK a poor girl and be like, "Hey, you're my daughter-in-law now. Hope that's cool. Now let's get you on this giant boat where you'll be stuck with us for God-literally-only-knows how long! Good? Good!" But he didn't have to! And as a result, the movie ends on a kind of question mark as to how the hell everyone is supposed to repopulate the earth...

Although, to be fair, I'm pretty sure crazier things have happened
in the Old Testament. Book is all cray...

So, yeah. In conclusion: I'm down with Hollywood finding an outlet for their blockbuster market. Especially because it is an untapped market. It's nice to see that studios can get a little imaginative with old Bible tales without everyone getting up in arms and asking the Pope to burn the director with fire. And there's a lot of room for "ancient" to become the new "future."

That being said, studios, please don't play around with the little information that you have. You have SO MUCH ROOM for creativity, leave the bare bones of the tale and appease us old Sunday School kids. Kthanks.

*Yeah, I'll provide that verse. Bring it. Genesis 7:13 "On that very day Noah and his sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth, together with his wife and the wives of his three sons, entered the ark." Bam.