26 March 2012

Dual reviews: Hop and The Muppets

We decided to hit the rental place this weekend to find some family movies so that we could spend a rainy Saturday inside. We have yet to watch the other movies (and I will likely spend a couple minutes to review them afterward), but we did manage to see both Hop as well as The Muppets.

It was rather telling when we offered the option of watching Hop or The Muppets to the children. All three would rather see Hop, so we bowed to their whims and showed that movie first.

For a quick summary of the movie, Hop is the story of a talking CGI bunny. The idea and visuals were revolutionary in 1989 (only twenty-three years ago!) when the movie was called Who Framed Roger Rabbit, though the graphics were far more interesting (in my imagination) when they were literal hand-drawn animated cartoons. On the other hand, while the story behind Who Framed Roger Rabbit was not particularly fresh – evil company wanting to landgrab, what was associated with good is not good anymore – the story didn’t exactly feel derivative of anything, they were at least attempting a fresh take on something old.

Hop is about as derivative as you can get. To its credit, it manages to crib from two movies rather than one. (I’m looking at YOU, Avatar, because Dances with Wolves had far more heart and far less contrivance.) Much like Alvin and the Chipmunks, the protagonist makes life hell for the poor unsuspecting main character, and it just so happens that “E.B.” the bunny rabbit LOOOOOVES to play the drums. And of course, it’s a holiday movie, so they lifted more than a few ideas from The Santa Clause, including the “succession crisis” story, the idea that being a holiday icon is somehow a day-to-day job, and more than a few of the ideas for the "Easter factory".

This is where I imagine more than a few people may shake their heads. See if you can wrap your mind around this one: there’s an Easter factory. Without any specific "North Pole" place that the scriptwriters could find, they decide to put it on that very traditional home of the Easter Bunny... Easter Island. (Better yet, the entrance to the Easter factory happens to be in one of the disguised mouths of the moai -- big head statues). The factory exists only to make Easter candy, nothing else… you can see it shaving chocolate into bunnies, or making marshmallow chicks (by mixing "marsh" and "mallow" together.) Workers include both prototypical baby chicks as well as bunnies, and they all talk to each other. As mentioned above, this setting is the Santa Clause portion of the movie.

Hugh Laurie, Dr. House, happens to be… err, voice the current Easter Bunny and very shortly into the movie is talking to the protagonist, E.B. (voiced by Russell Brand) about how he has to be the next Easter Bunny instead of following his dream to drum. E.B. hops into the nearest bunny hole, which happens to portal him directly to the Hollywood sign, and the next phase of the movie begins.

Here, James Marsden is the David Seville to only one Chipmunk. You almost feel sorry for Marsden due to the extremely weird browbeating that he gets in the beginning of the movie in one of the most clichéd "get out of the house you hipster slacker mid-20s too-old-to-live-at-home" speeches ever delivered. Next thing, E.B. happens into James Marsden’s life and shows even less sympathy for him than his movie-dad did two scenes ago. E.B. manages to hit the "trash the room in two seconds flat" cliché as well as the "make the tub (Jacuzzi) overflow with bubbles" cliché, not to mention the whole carrot thing. We’re up to two movies and countless clichés all within the first twenty minutes!

From there, the movie devolves into more Chipmunk-ness, employing a variable cringe humor based on embarrassment. Ordinarily, what happens to James Marsden would be what happens to Yosemite Sam or Elmer Fudd in one of the old Warner Bros. shorts. The biggest difference is a matter of tone. Bugs Bunny was many things, and I would like to think that he was a poke in the eye to meanness (or maybe perhaps even authority). There is no meanness in James Marsden’s character, though I suppose there is some sort of authority in that he doesn’t want the house he’s caretaking to be completely stinking ruined, or would like to get a job (albeit in a mailroom). The bunny gleefully trashes the majority of that though, and doesn’t really care.

See, I don’t mind embarrassment humor for the most part, though in the hands of some people it doesn’t work well. You need at least a bit of sympathy for the character dishing out the embarrassment, as well as at least a bit of animosity towards the target of the embarrassment. Watching someone get dressed down for being a slacker and then watching them fail to a CGI bunny? Unhelpful.

Ultimately, as this movie wound down towards the end, two things became exceedingly clear. Pretty much all of the actors, with the possible exception of James Marsden, mailed in their performances. More than a couple got lucky that they didn’t even have to move around, just speak their lines in a magic can in a soundproof building. Marsden kind of tried, but I think that he knew in the end that it was a lousy premise and ultimately couldn’t save the whole thing by his lonesome. Bonus points in this case go to Russell Brand, who managed to get a role that would have normally gone to Andy Dick. In this case, it’s good news and bad news… while it’s good that the role did NOT go to Andy Dick, it means that there are still roles that WOULD go to Andy Dick and that Hollywood still has a use for him (and others who want to be Andy Dick). I fear that poor Andy Dick was frozen out only because all Easter bunnies are from the U.K. and therefore need to have the appropriate accent. (?!)

Issue number two is that the movie really did a crummy job of tying up its loose ends or even sticking to its continuity. Marsden tried to lampshade the idiocy of a talking rabbit… in a public café, on some random Los Angeles street, and he literally warned E.B. to not talk or else he’d get dissected. Two seconds later, E.B. is talking to a nonplussed café waitress. No one cares. The subplot of the movie is that E.B. goes to an "America’s Got Talent" television show knockoff (there it is again!) called "Hoff Knows Talent", starring David Hasselhoff himself. The bunny talks, ostensibly only Hoff is in the room, but Hoff also tries to provide cover by saying something to the effect of “I’ve seen it all in show business”. But… well… the talking rabbit?! If everyone’s nonchalant about the talking rabbit, as if it’s not a big deal... why? Why even care to put a talking rabbit on television if it’s no big deal, even if it does
play the drums?

It’s not the only unicorn in the garden. In the denouement, James Marsden becomes the "co-Easter bunny" (?!) as if this is a full-time job, Dad is suitably impressed (?!?), his little sister whose only onscreen time consisted of eating food or getting upstaged in an elementary-school play by E.B.’s antics isn’t still pissed, nothing is said of what happens to old Easter bunnies (they must have to finish their seasons of House despite cashing out for roles like this), nobody cares that there’s a freaking Easter sleigh pulled by dozens of somehow-flying chicks and one huge chick that’s a half-rabbit mutant (?!?)… the end just becomes kind of a mess.

Much like Easter, I think. The first half-hour is the candy-fueled freak-out, the next half-hour is trying to figure out what to do with the little gifts that you may have received, and the rest of the day is... well, another Sunday with candy wrappers all over the place. Now what? I suppose that by being derivative of everything yet apropos of nothing, the movie in and of itself managed to capture the (non-religious) aspects of the holiday it was honoring.

In the "thank heaven for small favors" area, there was pretty much zero blue humor (no sexual innuendo), and while there were a couple moments of scatological humor, it was limited to the knowledge that Easter bunnies, unlike regular bunnies, excrete jellybeans as feces. (Yum.)

Overall rating for Hop: 0.7. I could sit through this movie again if requested to, though I would certainly not be the person who requested it.

That brings us to the figurative nightcap to our afternoon, The Muppets I think I know where the kids’ antipathy towards Muppets come from, after all my children pretty much rejected “Sesame Street” fairly early on, with the older kids making sure that the younger kids wouldn’t watch it because the older kids wanted no part of it. They had seen a few of the old "Muppet Show" episodes, including “Manamana” and a few others. Much to their credit, they all decided to watch the movie with us and they did seem to at least be interested in it (even if they did not completely enjoy it).

I have watched many previous Muppet Show-based movies and features. One of the main things that I dislike about previous Muppet Show productions is the introduction of new Muppets and the focus of the story being on the new Muppet alone. The problem seems to be that I can never get a handle on the new Muppet, nor can I figure out why the audience should care about the New Muppet. The New Muppet this time is named Walter, and thankfully he’s not a talking prawn or anything, just a Muppet designed to look human (much like Prairie Dawn from Sesame Street). While the focus was on Walter for quite a bit of the movie, thankfully they widened the focus to bring more of the Muppets in before it became too painful.

The movie operates in a very odd dichotomy that I’m not sure I’ve seen too many times before. The best way to express it was that the movie knew that there was a fourth wall and strived to break it down in such a way as to try to bring the audience closer into the movie. (Fourth wall, for those not in the know, is the wall between the movie and the viewer... if the movie tells you "I’m a movie!" and shows you a picture of one of the movie cameras, it’s breaking the fourth wall.) The odd dichotomy came about because the movie knew full well it was a movie, it started talking about how the Muppets weren’t popular anymore, which was pretty much the truth. Then it broke the fourth wall more, talking about traveling "by map" in order to drive from the U.S. to Paris, France, and describing how they managed to find all the rest of the Muppets "by montage", with Rowlf the Dog complaining that his story should have been interesting enough to at
least make the montage. Additionally, "The Muppet Show" exists in the movie, including all of the things that have happened previously... unlike the anonymity that all of the characters shared in The Muppet Movie among other examples.

Well, plotwise, the Muppets needed to raise $10M in order to pay off some oil tycoon in order to keep their theater and later their Muppet trademark (?!). They decide to "put on a show", and happen to be in the room talking to a network executive just as a two-hour timeslot happens to come available. Next, they run a telethon (interspersed with the other main plot, Gary and Walter’s internal monologues) and end up raising 9,999,999 as the power goes out on the last few seconds. Evil Badguy gets bonked on the head, relents, and the Muppets walk out of their studio to a Field of Dreams-esque lining up of fans along whichever LA street they were filming on.

See, I’m of mixed mind when it comes to the above plot taken in the context of breaking the fourth wall. There’s a lot of unbelievable up there, and the characters were already commenting on the movie as being a movie… yet no comments on some of the more unbelievable stuff. Ultimately, the fourth wall was broken successfully, as the movie really did take in quite a bit, the Muppets became popular again both in their movie universe as well as in the “real world”, so I suppose overall it worked out.

I bring up the fourth wall because that was where the vast majority of the humor was in the movie. If you’re a fan of meta-references, this is a good movie as long as you can put on your "suspension of disbelief" armor afterward. I really do wish though that there was a bit more funny in this... I loved the Muppet Show sequences, not so much with the Gary/Walter plot-that-thankfully-got-shelved-until-the-end, and I miss the old-old Muppet Show and kind of wish that the movie got back to what made the Muppets popular first (being a shoestring operation that had awesome writing and was funny for funny’s sake) instead of what it may do now (being a bankrolled operation that can be funny but may also go back to cashing in on the nostalgia and cachet more than the good writing.)

With that being said, this installment had decent music, was funny and self-referential, and I would watch it again given the opportunity. What makes me happy is that it seems that there are more Easter eggs hanging about and that I could find even more humor on a second or third viewing.

Overall rating for The Muppets: 3

12 March 2012

Movie Review : Roger & Me

Yeah, we’re getting even more ancient in the reviews, especially since there’s really no rhyme or reason as to which movies end up getting reviewed. On the other hand, if there’s ever a time to review a twenty-three-year-old movie, it’s now... right?

For those not in the know (by now, surprising,) Roger & Me was Michael Moore's first film, a story of what happened to Flint, Michigan after General Motors decided to move work from Flint to other locations, and what amounts to a visual diary of the people left behind and what the city tries to do to help its citizens.

The largest problem with providing a review of Roger & Me is that it’d be primarily wrapped up in the current worldview of its viewer. Michael Moore is very involved in the politics of the situation, and the movie presents scenes that one person would nod their head and say, “Right on”, while another would dismiss as cheap demagoguery. My goal is to present a neutral review on Michael Moore’s style, the pitfalls that he encountered, and overall the possible non-politically-charged reactions. For reference, last nights’ viewing was with Michael Moore’s commentary turned on, as I had seen parts of the movie previously and was interested in hearing what he had to say regarding specific scenes.

Throughout the commentary, as if seeing the film wasn’t proof enough, Moore makes the point that the movie was a (paraphrased) love letter to the city of Flint. You can see how much he loves the city, that while he shows the blasted buildings that he still tries to intercut footage of Flint around downtown, trying to get scenes of children playing and the parade scene where there are more than a few people lining the route.

I can see how people can be annoyed at his style of filmmaking by watching this first movie of his. From the start, Moore draws a very big, bright, painfully prominent line back to General Motors’ doorstep throughout the movie. His critics can rightfully point out that GM is not the only party that deserves blame in this situation, and I do agree with that. In the movie, it’s even acknowledged that Moore is chasing the white whale of bringing Roger Smith to Flint to show him the conditions of the city that GM was trying to move away from, and even then there’s really no doubt that it wouldn’t have affected Roger Smith even a bit.

Some people agree with Moore’s point of view regarding GM and others definitely disagree. It’s sad that it seems to have marginalized Moore in some ways... I remember being plugged into political discourse in the 90s and hearing about how Moore was a distorter of truths, and partly based on things that were seen in this movie. Of course, the tactic that Moore used and acknowledged in the commentary was to point the camera at the interviewee, ask a couple of leading questions, and let the person talk. As many of the people on camera were likely not expecting to see themselves in an honest-to-goodness movie, they became comfortable and effectively talked themselves into a corner at times. (Witness the GM lobbyist, who Moore praises as being the last honest PR guy). The bad news is that this does allow misinformation to come out, and Moore is not going to correct any of the misinformation… he’s just going to let the audience try to sift through it.

Well, whenever anyone’s trying to set up an argument, like Moore’s overarching movie statement regarding GM, any misinformation is going to feel like an attempt to manipulate. This is sadly the net effect of many of Moore’s movies on people who don’t agree with the central premise of the movie; viscerally, they probably feel that Moore is arguing using misinformation and perfectly fine with allowing it to go uncorrected, while others who hear the exact same statement understand where they believe possible fallacies in truth come from. In essence, people who agree with Michael Moore will laugh behind their hands at the stooges and other stupid people expressing their wrong viewpoints, while people who don’t agree with Moore’s points will get mad that their point of view is getting represented as a joke without any sort of ability to defend their point through counterargument. In later years, many reviewers have had issues with facts that Michael Moore has reported in movies, and Moore himself has issues with having his information taken seriously.

This speaks a lot to what has happened to news reporting versus the entertainment factor in this country. This is not to say that news and entertainment is mutually exclusive, but the main problem is to be able to appeal news of many types (world events, business news, sports, celebrity news) to all of the people all of the time, which is where the entertainment part comes in. Entertainment will get a person to sit down even if they’re not thrilled about the topic, and this causes less examination of issues and to some extent, of truth.

This movie also sets out to entertain as well as inform and faces the same challenge as above. The movie also cultivates a large amount of gallows humor... as Moore mentioned in the commentary, you want to laugh because it’s more comfortable than crying, but referencing the above due to your viewpoint you may not be the one laughing, just really angry. The side effect of the entertainment and laughing is wondering which information (if any) is serious and which is played for jokes, or for those who are horrified, to doubt whether or not he’s trying to exaggerate the situation.

I do think that the movie is effective, but only to someone willing to have an open mind and willing to do more research. This includes both liberals and conservatives, because I think that the message was skewed just a bit too far to the side to see clearly, which is a shame. I think that Michael Moore stumbled onto it a bit as he was describing the “pets or meat” lady as he was recounting her tale. To clarify, the “pets or meat” lady is a Flint woman who bred and raised rabbits, and was perfectly fine selling them as either pet rabbits or slaughtering the rabbits to sell them for their meat and fur. As long as I’m remembering the commentary correctly, it turned out that GM wasn’t really to blame for her current predicament. Moore noted in the commentary (not the main body of the movie) that her husband was a GM worker but that he had died accidentally prior to the events of the movie rather than being laid off by GM. Moore presented the movie as GM leaving town and showing the consequences... and then presented her as a character, without stating her mitigating circumstances, allowing the viewer to tie her and her circumstances together with GM’s leaving rather than her circumstances arising from an individual tragedy (and again leading to questions of authenticity in argument and/or manipulation of facts). Moore then went on to comment on the director’s audio track about how our society allows people to fall through the cracks, and made more remarks about how most other Western societies that don’t allow that sort of thing to happen.

The movie was made in 1989, and I have the ability to see twenty-three years into the future where Michael Moore did not at the time, but I feel that ultimately this movie was pulled off of the mark because of the central premise. It linked the death of a town inexorably to the loss of its sole employer, and it seems by implication the movie also argues the reverse… that employers have a duty to their workers rather than to their profits, which is arguing a point that many people do not believe in regarding free market capitalism. I would not presume to take upon that argument in this space. However, where the movie could have hit the mark, was to try to present the reasons to DISCUSS what duty the government, companies that operate within the country, and the workers themselves have to each other as an interconnected whole and to make sure that all of the actors, including government, are present and engaged. This was the line that Moore was trying to comment to within the director’s remarks listed above, and maybe by focusing a bit more on the thought process behind that the movie would have been a much more effective instrument.

I will admit that this movie definitely illustrates one of the reasons that I am interested in economics, because it raises a very salient issue regarding economics… that capital can be very mobile while labor cannot. In real terms, that means that the tools and inputs of a GM plant can be moved from Michigan to Mexico to anywhere else, but the labor that GM utilized for seventy years in Flint, Michigan cannot move as easily. Unfortunately, the movie didn’t inspire the discussion that it was desperately hoping it would stimulate.

The sad part is that the time for this conversation in the United States is likely past. In this day and age of polarization, a movie like this that would attempt to stimulate conversation would do no more than to divide people into camps all over again, and there’s more than a few stakeholders that can’t even figure out whether or not they have a stake in this discussion. There’s really no compromise throughout our discourse, and therefore these discussions and subsequent actions really cannot happen.

At the very least, this movie is an eye-opener. Once you get past the main message of the movie, you see the tragic and very visible decline of the city of Flint, Michigan, and the desperation of the people who live there. Moore was absolutely correct in turning the camera onto Flint to document the last vestiges of a vibrant city and to also hopefully serve as a cautionary tale. One of the more stirring images was when the camera panned over a dilapidated house to put the focus across the street... on one of the GM plants, already looking empty.

That said, though the message may have ended up a bit off, I did enjoy the passion and the love that went into making this movie. As above, you can see how much Moore loves his town, and this movie was in his wheelhouse as a muckraking journalist. I would suggest this movie to people as a conversation-starter, but again your mileage may vary due to Moore’s subsequent notoriety and the fact that some people are going to argue contra-Moore due to his own style.

Reminder of the rating scale:
1 -- never see again ever
2 watch if on TV or cued up by others
3 intentionally seek out occasionally
4 watch often

Final Rating: 3.3
Whether you’re happy or unhappy about the methods, I do feel that there is an important message in there to debate. Watching these people try to navigate their lives after this turn of events is tragic, but I think that it shows the strength of the human spirit that you see all of these people trying to pick up their lives and keep moving forward. I also like this movie for selfish reasons due to having lived in the area (Fenton, MI, Genesee County) for a time, and the Flint area still holds some affection from me.

As a last note, I was really unsure how I was going to attack this topic apolitically, especially since I have been on both sides of the political spectrum at different points in my life. I hope that you, the reader, can tell that I am not trying to allow my biases into the review above and please comment with any issues if they have cropped up.

For postscript, if there are any movies that you (our audience) want us to review, please feel free to drop a comment as well.

11 March 2012

Mass Effect 3. So close and yet so far...

Normally I would spend a lot of time thinking over what I wanted to say on this subject and fussing over the content, but I'm going to try to simply speak my mind now, warts and all...

Okay, I'll start by saying that I am a huge fan of the first two games in the series and I was looking forward to playing the third and final chapter in this trilogy for months. I had the good fortune of having not played the first two games until last year due to not having a computer powerful enough to run them. (No, I didn't want the console versions)

Thus I was able to experience and enjoy both games and their DLCs all at once. I even went as far as to buy the collector's edition of Mass Effect 3, which I almost NEVER do because I don't generally care about art books and extra crap like that unless I can get it for the same price as the original bare bones game. The Collector's Edition came with DLC and a bunch of other extras, some of which I haven't figured out how to unlock (Wasn't I supposed to get a robot dog or something? Oh well.)

I played Mass Effect 3 over the past week and for the most part, I was really enjoying it. The decisions I had made in previous games more often than not carried over into this one and helped with my war effort to defeat the reapers. There were so many cameos that made me giddy as I recalled them from previous games, which I also replayed recently. There were a few gripes I had with the game while playing, such as the treatment of Rebecca Chambers, the almost completely pointless character of Diane Allers, and a few others but certainly nothing bad enough to ruin the game for me.

Then we reached the ending. Dear god, the ending. Now in three different colors with the same bitter taste! I'm not going to go into specifics but they basically gave us a Gainax ending times three and basically being a Paragon/Renegade meant absolute JACK SHIT when it was all said and done. It made little sense, it was disappointing and just utterly crushed the joy I had experienced playing it until that moment because it just felt unfinished, unsatisfying and just... UGH.

And I'm not the only one who feels this way. This is not one person whining about not getting the endings he wanted. There is currently a series of petitions, polls and campaigns underway for BioWare to release a patch or DLC that fixes the ending of this game. There is a great deal of outrage and hurt from the gaming community that has devoted so much love and time to this series and rightly so.

We know that Bioware has plans to release more DLC for Mass Effect 3 in the future. But if that DLC does nothing to fix the ending, I won't be buying them. I don't care if they flesh out the universe a little more, let us take over Omega with Aria, etc. I won't buy it because ultimately, it won't mean anything if they keep that ending. If Bioware doesn't care anymore, why the hell should I?

Does this mean I will never play a Mass Effect game again? Probably not. If Mass Effect 3's ending isn't fixed, I sure as hell won't be playing THAT game again but I can still get some sense of closure and satisfaction by replaying Mass Effect 1 & 2 and if I have to settle for that, I will. Also, I may be interested in future stores taking place in the Mass Effect universe without Shepard, but I'm definitely going to be more likely to check for any 'Mass Effect 4 ending leaked: It sucks!' type posts before I waste another 60 bucks and 50 hours of my life.

I do have some hope that Mass Effect 3's ending can be fixed. Fallout 3 changed the nonsensical and all too brief ending of their game with DLC when fans complained and while it didn't solve the problem of the lack of epilogues, at least Bethesda made the effort to appease their fans and give the game a more satisfying conclusion. Please make the same effort, Bioware. Please don't let one of the greatest game trilogies I have ever had the pleasure of playing end on such a bitter and hollow note.