Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Why is Every Movie a Thousand Hours Long?

I've been noticing an increasing trend in Hollywood to make every movie a million years long.

What's up with that.

Seriously, most movies before this millennium clock in at a reasonable time. An hour and a half, two hours tops. Storylines were concise, characters were maybe a bit more simple, but endings were firmly closed and didn't remain ambiguous in hopes of spurring a franchise. I feel like we're wandering away from that beautiful world of short-but-good movies.

Full disclosure: I don't write about every single movie that I see. Despite the serious lack of posts in November, I actually went and saw about three movies. Granted, sometimes I am too busy being an adult to take the time to write a review, but sometimes I opt out of writing reviews if I think my opinion has been skewed for some reason. Example: I did not write about the second Hobbit film because I fell asleep for a few minutes in the middle and struggled through the ending with a bouncing foot and an impatience to go home.

"Giant spiders, eh..?"

And I've been having this issue a lot more often lately. Like, okay, that's enough, time to end your tale, let's wrap it up now please.

It's not that I have a short attention span. Honestly, I'm a huge fan of long movies that are actually good. Gone With the Wind is nearly 4 hours long -- but Vivienne Leigh as Scarlet O'Hara is captivating. The Fellowship of the Ring is about 3 hours long -- but isn't bulked up with things that happen in The Silmarillion. And sure, there are tons of great movies that are longer than two and a half hours.

But can we stop acting like every movie is going to be the next groundbreaking piece of cinematic art?

Maybe directors are getting self-important to the point that they think every film they make is going to be of 7-hour-long Lawrence of Arabia quality or something. Maybe they think that a top quality movie HAS to be long in order to be as in depth as it needs to be. Or maybe we're so caught up in the minutiae of "authenticity" that we spend more time on subplot and characterization than is really necessary.

Take Interstellar. That was a very intriguing film that was very well put together and different. But they add an entire subplot that didn't have to be there in the first place and, as a result, the ending gets short-changed because you're like "Okay, let's wrap this up, McConaughey." Now, I'm sure that the director/writer had a reason for keeping the subplot in there (maybe it gives us a better look at human isolation or something), but honestly, by cutting that out, the movie would end at a much more comfortable pace.

The Hobbit franchise, as well, is getting into hot water for just being too damn long. Who wants to go to the theater to sit a through a mediocre movie that ends up being nothing like the original book it was based on? While I was happy enough sitting through the first film, they become so beefed up that the whole point of Bilbo's journey gets lost in the attempt to tie it to the Lord of the Rings story. In the interest of streamlining the story and keeping it a little more loyal to the book, they could've kept it as one film (or, dare I say it, even two) and probably would've done much better at the box office.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Pretty Much Every Geek Ever

Now, maybe I'm biased. I'm prone to migraines and 2.75+ hours staring at a giant screen in the dark is asking for trouble. In fact, the reason I didn't write about Interstellar was because for the last half hour of the movie I was having trouble caring about Matthew McConaughey's character through my brain pain and nausea. But medical reasons aside, I really don't think that most movies have to be that long.

I guess that's what I'm getting at. No movie has to be super long. If you're going to make a movie long, it should be because each scene is indespensible to the plot, to the characterization, or to main message of the story. Or because you're following an original work and want to remain faithful to it. Those should be the only two reasons that you have an ungodly long film. Otherwise, all you're doing is dragging your audience through an afternoon and making it that much less likely that they'll come back to the theater at all.

I'm a huge movie fan (obviously) but life is too short to be spent staring at a mediocre film for more than two hours.

Mockingjay Part 1: Hunger Games Again Again

It may be hard to believe, but I continue to get blown away by this franchise. Mockingjay Part 1 presents us with an increasingly dark storyline that holds our interest and provides us with a scary look at how revolutions play out.

When last we saw our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), she had just gotten airlifted out of The Games and was separated from Peeta. Mockingjay Part 1 starts off with Katniss in District 13, a part of Panem that was previously thought destroyed. Untouched by the increasingly violent battles between the various Districts and The Capitol, they hide and build a propaganda campaign. The leader of District 13, and of the revolution itself, President Coin (Julianne Moore), has grand plans for Katniss as The Mockingjay and the head of their efforts towards the revolution. But Katniss is reluctant. Unwilling to see more harmed by The Capitol, she agrees to help the revolution if they rescue Peeta, who has fallen into President Snow's clutches and is spearheading the Capitol campaign for a return to "peace." The rest of the movie follows the results of each side's efforts.

This newest installment is much more akin to a political thriller or even a war movie than the previous action-packed movies -- but that doesn't make it any less engrossing. While it clocks in at more than 2 hours long, there wasn't a moment towards the end where I got impatient for the ending. 

Also they blow up way too many things for you to get bored.

Honestly, I think that there are two things working for this franchise that Divergent and others don't have going for them: Jennifer Lawrence as a main character and the fact that she's an actually strong heroine.

First of all, whatever your feelings may be on J-Law in real life, you really can't deny that she's a fantastic actress. She plays the character of Katniss in a way that's totally believable. Katniss isn't some damsel in distress waiting to be rescued, nor is she some terrifyingly aggressive character out for revenge. Katniss has a duality that is incredibly believeable. While she doesn't want to be in the spotlight for a revolution that begets death and destruction, she sees the bigger picture of the ends justifying the means. Lawrence plays Katniss with a steely resolve and a hidden vulnerability that makes sense. And while she's awkward at times, it's not the ham-handed nonsense that we get from actresses like Kristen Stewart. Basically, I guess what I'm getting at is that Lawrence plays the character in a way that prevents her from being a caricature of herself. It's very understated and very well done.

I don't care who you are, girl's got skillz.

Second of all, what makes this series so cool is the fact that Katniss is a true hero. She doesn't rely on Peeta or Gale to keep her safe (in fact, she keeps herself pretty occupied in the first two films trying to save both their asses), she doesn't shy away from combat or conflict, and she doesn't revel in vanity or appearance.  In fact, in this movie we see her basically stripped of all makeup and costume. She's purely consumed with a desire to make life better for the Districts, taking her memories of the Hunger Games and using that horror to power through to a better future.

8.5 outa 10. Really well shot, well acted, and well done.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Exodus: Another Biblical Blockbuster

The boils. The frogs. The flies. The locusts. It's a pretty well-known tale. Between Judaism and Christianity, the story of Moses lays some pretty thick groundwork conveying the strength and power of the terrifying God of the Old Testament. (Homie did not mess around.)

For those of you who might not know this story, skip on down to the bottom and enlighten yourselves.* For everyone else, let's stay up here and talk about the movie.


All in all, the film is pretty neat if a tad long. Since Scott chooses to go very introspective and very modern with the personality of Moses, we see something much more realistic than Moses as he's portrayed in The Prince of Egypt or The Ten Commandments

At the risk of repeating everything that I said in that other post from September, I find this new trend in biblical movies pretty fascinating. For any person that went to church every Sunday as a child, it's interesting to see the stories you've heard 10,000+ times reimagined and made realistic. Such is definitely the case with Exodus: Gods and Kings, Ridley Scott's version of the famous Old Testament tale of plagues, miracles, and freedom.

Much like Noah of last year, Exodus is an interesting watch in that it takes the biblical story and then builds on it and gives it depth. If you've ever read the story as it is written in the book of Exodus, things can be a little sparse on detail. You see the words on the page that Moses trusted God to do the right thing but a lot of times you forget how emotional Moses's ties were to Egypt. Seeing the film unfold is a great reminder that these weren't made-up characters, they were human beings with thoughts, feelings, and opinions.  From his personalized sword, which was given to him by Ramses's father, to the fact that he was basically Ramses's right hand man for the first half of his life, them ties are deep and hard to cut.

lolz totes broz

Another thing that I found interesting was the fact that in this movie Moses isn't always unflailingly accepting the things that God was asking him to do. He weighs possibilities and discusses things with him, and God even seems to ask his input on things. God seems a little more on our level than he does in the bible. Scott chooses to make Moses an atheist at the beginning of the movie which I also found interesting.

Now, this is a little different than what I learned and a little different from what's in the bible. We don't really get a glimpse of what Moses's personality was like, nor do we learn from the actual book of Exodus what he was at the time of his banishment from Egypt (Prince of Egypt has him as the chief architect and Exodus portrays him as one of the pharoah's top generals of war), so there's a lot of wiggle room for creativity. But I found that kind of cool. When you're taught these lessons as a kid (and honestly, the way that Exodus is written reflects this as well) it's very God-is-omnipotent-so-we-do-what-he-says, but Exodus portrays this relationship as more two-sided than that, and by the end scene we see that not only do God and Moses respect one another -- they're kind of buds.

I was a little bummed out by the fact that God is kept more mysterious in this version of the story -- and honestly if you're cynical enough you could make the argument that Moses suffers a massive concussion and that is why he goes through this whole ordeal to free the Hebrews. When you read it, God is with Moses almost constantly, telling him to turn his shepherd's staff into a snake, making the Egyptians uncomfortable, and all kinds of other direct God-to-Mo contact. Moses shouts at one point in the film "I'm tired of speaking to a messenger!!" but this is not so in the bible. We know that God originally appears as the burning bush but after that he pretty much is talking to Moses one-on-one.

"Yo, Mo, lemme part that sea for ya right quick."
"Kthanks, God."

The only qualm that I have with the movie is that I only wish Scott had chosen a bit more of a racially diverse cast, and that he should've added some more character development. In scenes where major Egyptian and Hebrew characters share the screen, there's no markable difference between them besides cleanliness. And honestly, characters range from being bizarrely super-white (Sigourney Weaver???) to wearing too much bronzer (yes, you, Ben Mendelsohn). The only ethnic characters that we get to see are the wives of Moses and Ramses and, while they do a terrific job, they make the major casting even more obviously whitewashed.

The accents, too, are a little weird. I think Americans have a tendency to be like "Well obviously we can't expect everyone to learn a foreign language so let's slap the audience with some British accents. That'll make it fancy." Weaver's heavy American accent is a bit of a jolt next to the clipped British tone of the film (I mean, come on, even Aaron Paul pulled it together and sounded okay). While the casting is a little weird, though, if we're being honest, Christian Bale has a hell of an audience draw and such a decision, while regrettable, is obvious in the eyes of stupid studio execs. Kind of a shame, but they do have to make a profit and it makes sense why they chose the stars the way they did.

All in all, I enjoyed Exodus: Gods and Kings. If the whole bible thing doesn't appeal to you, go and see it for the special effects. Between the shots of ancient Egypt and the different plagues that we get to see realistically, it's pretty damn cool.

6 outa 10. Refreshing perspective, beautifully shot, contemplative movie; but a little long and would've been nice to see a more ethnic cast.

Also, it must be said that Prince of Egypt wins Best Moses Story for tunes:

*Moses was a Hebrew baby at the time the Hebrews were enslaved by the Egyptians. He was sent down the Nile in a basket by his mother to save him from being killed. The pharoah at the time had heard a prophecy that a Hebrew baby would be born that year and basically screw up everything that they had built. Ironically, the pharoah's servant/wife/somebody found Moses in his basket and they decided to raise him in the palace. When Moses grew up he fled Egypt after killing an Egyptian who was beating a slave. After hearing a message from a burning bush telling him that it was time to go set his people free, Moses set out for Egypt to bargain with the pharoah he grew up with as a kid. Long story short, the pharoah was not willing to free the Hebrew slaves. As a result of his stubbornness, God, working through Moses, hit the Egyptians with ten awful plagues. Livestock died, people grew boils and sores, there were unspeakable swarms of locusts and flies and frogs, there was hail the size of softballs, it rained fire, and (most horribly) God decided to kill the oldest child of every Egyptian family. (Fun fact: this is why Jews celebrate Passover, because God passed over the houses of the Hebrews and let their eldest children live. Hey, I told you he was terrifying...) After this, the pharoah finally let the Hebrews go. Then he changed his mind and tried to chase them and kill them all, but Moses parted the Red Sea and they got away, free to wander the desert for 40 years. But that's a whole other tale.