The People Vs. George Lucas (11/28/12)

The People Vs. George LucasMovie two Hundred Seventy Four

The People Vs. George Lucas covers the intense feelings towards George Lucas over the years.

This documentary, loosely in the form of a courtroom debate, gives both sides of the debate about George Lucas’s recent changes to the  beloved Star Wars and Indiana Jones franchises. Many die-hard Star Wars fans abhor the changes made to the original trilogy and also the newer prequel trilogy, but some fans argue that Lucas has artistic license to make these changes. The film also gives a brief biography of Lucas himself and the release of Star Wars.

I am a huge Star Wars fan, my basement is littered with memorabilia and I’m not ashamed of it. Since I grew up with Star Wars, many assume I hate the prequel trilogy which isn’t true. Yes, they are disappointing films and pale in comparison to the original trilogy in my mind, but I’m not going to get worked up about it. Same goes for the changes made to the original trilogy over the years. Do the changes ruin the film? Not for me. However, at its core, what The People Vs. George Lucas is really asking for is the release of the remastered original trilogy in their theatrical forms and this is a viewpoint I share.

The People Vs. George Lucas is fairly interesting, as a Star Wars and Indiana Jones fan, but for non-fans I’m not sure it would be much more than “wow, look at those nerds get so angry about nothing”. Well, even I was kind of thinking how I was glad I wasn’t at that level of nerdiness that I would throw a tantrum just talking about George Lucas. The back-and-forth between differing viewpoints in The People Vs. George Lucas is interesting and works really well given the largely strong contrast between opinions but the entire thing goes on slightly too long and the filmmakers opinions start to become evident through what is portrayed.

The only people I would recommend The People Vs. George Lucas to are fellow Star Wars nerds. The downside is that we all have our own opinions and the film does nothing to persuade, only presents the opinions on both sides. It’s interesting, for sure, but it’s probably a limited interest group that would care to watch The People Vs. George Lucas.

I give it 3 HAN SHOT FIRSTs out of 5.

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Beyond the Black Rainbow (11/27/12)

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A woman is held captive by a strange corporation and a strange doctor in Beyond the Black Rainbow.

[I was having difficulty recounting the plot, so here is Wikipedia‘s version]

“In 1983, deep within the mysterious Arboria Institute, a beautiful girl (Eva Allan) is held captive by a scientist, Dr. Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers). Her mind is under the influence of a sinister technology (a mysterious pyramid-shaped light). Speechlessly, she waits for her next session with the deranged Dr. Nyle. She eventually escapes her cell and journeys through the darkest reaches of the Institute – but Dr. Nyle won’t easily part with her.”

Do not watch Beyond the Black Rainbow, it has few redeemable traits. When I first saw the trailer for Beyond the Black Rainbow I was mesmerized by its 80s style and unique feel, but the film itself is a true exercise in patience. The synthy 80s soundtrack is mostly a droning buzz, and it is nearly constant throughout the movie. This may not be so annoying except that there is very little dialogue and after 15 minutes of nothing but droning synth fuzz, I was gritting my teeth – then I had to make it to the end of the movie. The plot is also pretty nonsensical, which doesn’t help.

The only thing Beyond the Black Rainbow really has going for it are the admittedly cool visuals and 80s sensibilities. It’s a film that hearkens back to films like 2001 but with a dark twist. I would swear there was a VHS-like grain added to the whole film too, despite watching it in high definition. It’s true to its roots on a visual front, I do applaud it for that. However, as a film it’s a mess. I can sit through some pretentious stuff and sometimes come out enjoying what the director was aiming for, but Beyond the Black Rainbow seems to have no aim other than the visuals and soundtrack. Not good enough. What a shame too, because even watching the trailer now makes me wish this was a better movie.

I give it 2 watch the trailer and forget the full movie exists out of 5.

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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (11/25/12)

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In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, during his third year at Hogwarts, Harry learns that a dangerous killer is on the loose and is coming for him.

After leaving Privet Drive for making his aunt inflate like a balloon and fly away, Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is picked up by the Knight Bus and taken to the Leaky Cauldron. After reuniting with his friends Ron (Rupert Grint) and Hermione (Emma Watson), Harry learns that Sirius Black (Gary Oldman), a convicted murderer and supposed Voldemort supporter, has escaped from Azkaban prison and is looking for him. While on the train to Hogwarts, the train stops and fearsome creatures known as dementors attack the train looking for Black, but greatly affect Harry as well. Harry is protected by the new Defense of the Dark Arts teacher, Remus Lupin (David Thewlis). Harry’s safety is a top priority as everyone is fearful that Sirius Black is on the loose but Harry eventually learns the truth.

Now free from the shackles of previous director, Chris Columbus, the Harry Potter franchise really comes to life with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón gives Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban a completely new sense of style when compared to the first two films and also sets a fairly dark tone that would carry throughout the rest of the films. Another change is the actor playing Dumbledore becomes Michael Gambon, who gives the role a bit of mystery and I think is a much better fit. Visually pleasing and easily one of the most interesting plots of the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite of the series.

While I wouldn’t say there are any short Harry Potter movies, Cuarón was able to keep the runtime under 2 1/2 hours but still cram all the plot points in the film. I don’t think there is much, if anything, that is superfluous in the film. One thing that bugged me at the time of the release of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was that the students don’t really wear robes in this film, they wear trendy clothes most of the time. A small detail but for some reason it still sticks out to me. Some may not like the departure from PG films to PG-13 with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, but I think the decision makes sense and doesn’t feel out of place in the franchise.

Giving several different directors control over a film in a franchise is risky, both for the director and the financiers. If the director changes too much, the franchise could suffer but the director could be hobbled creatively. If too little is changed, the director will certainly be hobbled and the movie may suffer as a result. I applaud the decision to bring different directors on, and Cuarón seemed like such a crazy choice for an English film, but he really works his magic (I can’t believe that’s the first magic pun I’ve made in these Harry Potter reviews).

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the watermark for the Harry Potter series for me. While other films come close, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the perfect blend of story and style. I could even see myself recommending this film for newcomers to the Harry Potter franchise.

I give it 5 Buckbeaks out of 5.

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Life of Pi (11/25/12)

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In Life of Pi, a boy must survive on a small life boat with a tiger and discovers a sea of wonders.

A novelist (Rafe Spall) visits an adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan) to hear a story that will supposedly make a great book and make him believe in God. Young Pi, originally named Piscine Molitor after a French swimming pool, has a strong fascination with all religions. His family owns a zoo but his father decides to sell the animals and take his family to Canada. Now a teenager, Pi (Suraj Sharma), travels on a ship with a full crew, many animals in the cargo area, and his family. During a violent storm, Pi is able to get on a life boat along with a frantic zebra. The zebra breaks its leg in a fall, but the life boat is drifting away while the ship sinks. An orangutan finds its way to the boat and is brought on board, but a hyena makes trouble for two animals. Then the Bengal tiger, named Richard Parker, emerges from beneath a tarp on the boat and Pi must survive the open seas alongside the beast.

If you want to read my Life of Pi preview, you can find that here. I still have not yet read the novel Life of Pi, but seeing the film certainly increased my interest in doing so. Life of Pi is one of the most visually stunning movies I’ve seen and while the plot is low on action, I would struggle faulting it too much. To think that Richard Parker, the tiger, is almost entirely animated is simply staggering. Most of the imagery is fantastical and at times even surreal but that all pales in comparison to how amazingly realistic that tiger looks.

We saw Life of Pi in 3D and it would be hard to recommend seeing it in any other format. The use of 3D is mostly subdued, though at times things do fly at the screen. I don’t think it’s too late to see this in theaters and I strongly urge everyone to try to see it in 3D before it’s too late. It’s weird to think that an existential film about a teenager and a tiger trapped on a small boat would be a special effects powerhouse, but it truly is a wonder and it also happens to be a beautiful story.

If I had to choose a downside to Life of Pi it’s that the ending is far too swift. If you aren’t paying close attention to the dialogue in the final scene you will miss out on what Life of Pi is really about. I’m not sure how closely this mimics the book, but there could have been some floating at sea trimmed to beef up the finale. I’m not sure if you will have your faith in God affirmed by the end of Life of Pi like Pi proclaims, but the story will likely stay with you regardless of your faith.

I give it 5 amazing CGI tigers out of 5.

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Lilo & Stitch (11/24/12)

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In Lilo & Stitch, a lonely Hawaiian girl finds a friend after an alien fugitive crash-lands nearby.

Dr. Jumba Jookiba is under galactic trial for illegal experimentation and his experiment #626 is used as evidence of this, a creature of his own design. Jookiba is to be transported to prison and 626 is to be sent to an abandoned asteroid, but 626 takes escapes from the ship and ends up landing on Earth, in the Hawaiian Islands. 626 gets hit by a truck and is taken to an animal hospital, thinking it’s a weird breed of dog. A young girl named Lilo, who is being taken care of by her older sister, adopts 626 and names him “Stitch”. As the galactic council searches for 626, Lilo and Stitch bond and they learn the true meaning of ‘ohana (family).

When my wife (then girlfriend) and I traveled to Disney World about 6 years ago, Lilo & Stitch merchandise was freaking everywhere and we felt kind of out of the loop since we hadn’t seen it. Flash forward to present day and we decided we needed to finally see Lilo & Stitch before heading to Disney World again. Neither of us were very impressed by the film, and Stitch had a lessened presence, but at least we understood it.

Oddly enough, Lilo & Stitch is the film that brought back the use of watercolor painted backgrounds in Disney features, a practice mostly given up around the 1940s. The animation style is also unique to Disney films and even the character design is atypical. I found the entire art style pretty fantastic and when the story started to bore me I found myself staring at all the backgrounds. It is easily the strongest single aspect of Lilo & Stitch in my mind.

One thing that has always bugged me about central characters that are horrible people but we are supposed to cheer them on, even if they aren’t improving themselves or anyone around them. For most of the film, Lilo is an annoying kid. Yeah, she’s had some hard times…but she punches a classmate in the face for no real reason. Cute behavior to teach kids, Disney. The dysfunctional family life (sister raising kid, social worker trying to take the kid away) also seems really deep for a movie with such juvenile jokes. It would be hard to recommend Lilo & Stitch to really young kids, but most of the stuff would go right over their heads and they would be in it for Stitch acting silly anyway.

As an adult, I found very little to like about Lilo & Stitch outside the production values of it. The story didn’t grab me, nor did the characters. It wasn’t a movie I hated watching but seeing it once was probably enough for me. However, Lilo & Stitch is certainly a unique Disney animated film, for better or worse.

I give it 3 Elvis Presley plays a large role for some reason out of 5.

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Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (11/23/12)

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During his second year, Harry Potter must discover what is really happening to students through a revelation from the past in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

After borrowing their father’s flying car, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and his twin brothers, Fred and George (James and Oliver Phelps) rescue Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) from his aunt and uncle’s house. They gather their school supplies for the year with the rest of the Weasley family, including Ron’s younger sister, Ginny (Bonnie Wright), and Hermione (Emma Watson), but Ron and Harry miss their train to Hogwarts and decide to take the flying car out again where they wind up crashing in the nearby Forbidden Forest. After being punished for their stunt, Harry begins to hear a menacing disembodied voice seemingly coming from the walls of the school. He soon finds a message, seemingly written in blood, that the Chamber of Secrets has been opened and nearby, the caretaker’s cat is hanging, petrified. Soon, students begin getting petrified and Harry needs to find out what the Chamber of Secrets really is.

While Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is miles better than the first movie, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone, director Chris Columbus seems almost too focused on pulling in every detail from the books. While it seems strange that I would consider this a negative point, the pacing of the novels lends to suspense, but doesn’t translate to movies very well. Not that Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is overly long or uninteresting, but it (along with the first film) almost seem to hung up on ALL the details instead of streamlining and focusing on what’s important. While I don’t think the first film has held up very well, as evident in my review, but Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is the film that gets the series on the right track.

At the time of making Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, it was clear that Warner Brothers had a major hit franchise on its hands and where the first film felt hobbled financially, Chamber of Secrets is a visual treat. The special effects are all quite well done and the film feels like it had a budget that was inline with what was needed to tell the story properly. For most movies, special effects should not be a priority, but in a film with magic and wizards and what-have-you, it sells the reality of the story as best it can.

While Harry Potter and Chamber of Secrets is still one of my lesser enjoyed entries of the Harry Potter franchise (book and film), it is a much better film than the first outing. Not only does Chris Columbus seem confident behind the camera, but everyone in front of the camera does as well. The young actors seem comfortable in their roles here and the picture as a whole is all the better for it. It’s hard to recommend any individual film from a series like this, so start at the beginning, but stick with it through this movie to see if you like the Harry Potter films; don’t judge the series by the first film alone, give Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets the shot it deserves.

I give it 4 Dobby the house elf out of 5.

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Creature From the Black Lagoon (11/21/12)

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While investigating a remote area of the Amazon, a team of geologists stumble upon the Creature From the Black Lagoon.

While looking at fossils around the Amazon, the fossilized hand of a missing link between land and sea creatures is found. Doctors Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) and David Reed (Richard Carlson), and Mark Williams (Richard Denning) decide to travel back to the area to search for more fossilized skeletal remains along with Reed’s girlfiend, Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) and another scientist named Edwin Thompson (Whit Bissell). After returning to the site and finding the research team has been killed, the group comes upon the eponymous Creature AKA the Gill Man.

Universal horror films are the watermark (pun intended) for the genre and by 1954, Creature From the Black Lagoon was not only horror but branching into the increasingly popular science fiction genre. The result could easily have been sloppy or silly but it’s actually quite intense. Out of the entire Universal stable, I’ve always had a strong fondness for the Gill Man. The effects used in the costume are still pretty damn good and he is still a unique monster today.

What makes Creature From the Black Lagoon perhaps most impressive to me is that it was originally released in 3D using polarized lenses (essentially the same technology used now) but also largely shot underwater. The Gill Man is obviously a man in a suit but he is supposed to be the missing link, he is humanoid but still totally unearthly and menacing. Actually, there were two Gill Man suits, one for underwater and one for land, each with a different actor inside. It’s not something easily spotted in the movie but there are some slight differences between the costumes and the two actors were very different heights.

I watched Creature From the Black Lagoon as part of the Universal Classic Monsters blu-ray set and it does not disappoint. Not only is it presented in 3D (and also 2D) but the special features are incredibly interesting. The soundtrack is lossless and helps create a huge amount of tension and the picture is, of course, amazing. Even if you’ve seen Creature From the Black Lagoon a dozen times before, I would definitely recommend the blu-ray as the way to watch it.

While Creature From the Black Lagoon obviously takes a backseat to Dracula and Frankenstein, I would argue that the film should be held with the same esteem as those that came before it. The story is simple almost to a fault and there are certainly parts that could be laughed at now, but Gill Man poses a threat that Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster simply don’t, at least for me. Creature From the Black Lagoon may not be technically one of the best movies ever made but it’s still one of my favorite monster movies.

I give it 4 stop-motion fan clips out of 5.

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