Drive, Baby, Drive
Baby Driver is directed by Edgar Wright and stars Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm.
Hold on to your butts; Baby Driver is a zipping zapper of an action thrill ride that just might be the most fun you'll have at any film this summer. There's plenty of car chases and shoot-outs, but the best part of it all is the wicked soundtrack. Baby Driver is all about the music, and the action is all the better because of it. If Edgar Wright is a truly audacious individual, I would think he would've wanted to have this film released the same weekend of Transformers: The Last Knight just to rub it into Michael Bay's face that you don't need to be cacophonous and explosion-heavy to be a top-notch action film. I would be confident that Baby Driver would turn out to be the box office victor against Bay's latest Transformers clunker, if the general American movie-going population isn't as gullible as I sometimes think it is.
Our plot centers on young man, Baby (Elgort). He lives with his deaf foster father, Joseph (CJ Jones), after his parents were killed in a car accident when he was a child. Baby was left with permanent tinnitus after the accident, which he blocks out by keeping in a pair of earbuds and listening to music almost non-stop. The music, turns out, makes Baby into a highly talented getaway driver who is super skilled at driving fast. As a result, Baby assists criminal mastermind, Doc (Spacey), by serving as the getaway driver for various bank robberies and other heists. Baby works for Doc to pay off a debt that Baby incurred after stealing a car from Doc. Baby is able to work enough jobs to get his debt paid off, but he begins to see more of the gruesome aspects of the criminal world such as seeing a couple of dead, bloodied bodies. Baby later meets Deborah, a girl working at a diner that he walks into, and the two develop a relationship. Just when it seems like Baby is able to start a normal life, Doc pulls him back in for another job, and, from there, things start to go awry.
I think of Baby Driver in the same vein as John Wick and Kingsman: The Secret Service; it knows how to be stylish, fun, and not overly ridiculous. And with John Wick: Chapter 2 coming out earlier this year and Kingsman getting its Golden Circle sequel later this year, I should bet money on a Baby Driver 2 sometime down the road. Compared to John Wick and Kingsman, Baby Driver more-so fits the Kingsman panache; it centers on a young adult male who is doing big boy things in a dangerous big boy world, and the film successfully blends action, comedy, and style together.
- Let's talk about that soundtrack by Steven Price (he won the Oscar for Best Original Score for Gravity), because it's what turns Baby Driver into the smash hit that it is. The soundtrack has a wide range of songs from artists like Queen, Simon & Garfunkel, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and The Beach Boys. Baby maneuvers throughout the film by keeping his body and driving in harmony with the songs that he is listening to. There's one moment where Baby is about to drive off after a robbery, but he has to restart a song because the timing is off. Bullets being fired during a massive shootout are in sync with the beat of the song that's playing. Nothing in this movie is complete without the soundtrack, and if you ever need a reminder of how important that music can be to a good film, well, here it is.
- There really aren't any major low points in Baby Driver, though the film can seem as if it's skidding a little bit when a robbery or car chase isn't going down. This down time is usually spent on Baby and Debora falling in love or watching Baby talk with his foster father through sign language. Baby likes to spend some of his time recording parts of conversations that he has with others and using these recordings to make his own beats. I especially love the mix of Kevin Spacey saying, "Was he slow?" with Jon Bernthal simply replying, "No." It's all about the music, baby.
In what has been a roller coaster summer so far in cinema, Baby Driver is right up there with Wonder Woman as one of the summer's best new releases. It's fun, kinetic mayhem that just might have the best soundtrack you'll hear from any film this year. Music and action go together like bread and butter, and let me not forget to mention that the film also has some quality humor on top of it all. Fasten your seat belts; Baby Driver is a wicked fun and memorable ride at the movies.
That's not how the Force works
Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is directed by George Lucas and stars Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, and Christopher Lee.
Ask yourself, "What is the worst Star Wars episode to be made so far?" If your answer isn't The Phantom Menace or Attack of the Clones, you want to go home and rethink your life. Okay, not really. The permanent scar on Star Wars that is the prequel trilogy hits its rock bottom in Attack of the Clones, which, if you can believe it, is actually worse than The Phantom Menace. It not only brings back many of the problems that marred The Phantom Menace, but it adds insult to injury by putting some extra scum on top of it all. Confusing politics, wooden acting, and annoying characters now come with cringe-worthy dialogue and a boring romance. But before I dive into all of that muck, the first thing to address is how the film can't even get its title correct. Attack of the Clones has little to nothing to do with what Episode II involves in the grand scheme of things, since the only time that the Clones "attack" something is during the big fight in the film's third act. It isn't even an attack; it's a rescue mission that just happens to turn into something resembling an attack. We don't even see the clones in action until the film nears its 2 hour mark, and, by that point, you might be beyond caring.
The plot: Ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace, Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi (reprised by McGregor) continues to mentor the now-grown Jedi Padawan Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen). The two are assigned to protect former Queen of Naboo, Padme Amidala (Portman) after a failed assassination attempt on her life. After a second assassination attempt fails, Anakin takes Padme to safety on her home planet of Naboo, while Obi-Wan investigates who is responsible for the attempts on Padme's life. Obi-Wan's investigation leads him to the rainy planet of Kamino, where he discovers that an army of clones is being created for the Republic. The clones are given their genetic make-up with the help of bounty hunter, Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison). Obi-Wan finds out that Jango is the bounty hunter responsible for the attempts on Padme's life, and finds that Jango is in allegiance with Sith lord Count Dooku (Lee). Dooku is attempting to rally thousands of planetary systems to secede from the Republic. While the galaxy appears to be on the brink of war, Anakin and Padme develop a romantic relationship on Naboo.
Episode II's plot has no idea what it wants to tell us and gives no clear understanding of which part of the story is the main part. The opening crawl informs us of how Count Dooku is out and about scouting various planetary systems, so, clearly, we are led to believe that Dooku is the main antagonist of the film. The movie then proceeds to make little mention of Dooku until we finally see him about an hour in. For that first hour, we must deal with teacher-student bickering between Obi-Wan and Anakin and a lot of Anakin and Padme trying to act like they love each other. There are a few action set pieces when appropriate, but the effects are the most cut-rate that you'll see in a Star Wars film such as a fairly noticeable green screen when Obi-Wan is hanging onto a flying ship while he and Anakin are chasing an assassin through Coruscant. If we had to pick a central plot-line, then the top candidate would have to be Obi-Wan's investigation in which he discovers the cloning facility. Obi-Wan is the only character who propels the plot forward, while Anakin and Padme bloat up the run-time with their fruitless romance and the other Jedi sit around continuing to not realize that an evil Sith plan is right under their noses.
- The third act culminates in a final showdown on the desert-terrain planet Geonosis, beginning in a Colosseum where the Jedi attempt to fight the Droid army. The Jedi are rescued by the Clone army, and the battle then translates into a wide-open landscape that resembles the only war-like action sequence during the entire film. Nearly every major character: Obi-Wan, Anakin, Mace Windu, Yoda, and so on all get something to do, and that's ironic for a movie that struggles for nearly two and a half hours to give its characters something meaningful to do. The battle doesn't last very long, though, and it ends with the most forgettable lightsaber fight in the entire Star Wars saga.
- Hollow characters and bad acting are low points, but it's the god-awful dialogue that is the real low at work when it comes to the characters and acting in Attack of the Clones. If we want to talk about bad acting in Attack of the Clones, there is no better place to start than with Hayden Christensen. You might not believe it, but Christensen actually got nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor for Life as a House a year before Attack of the Clones was released. Christensen struggles to be convincing here, but the half wood, half whiner that is Anakin Skywalker in this movie is not entirely to blame on Christensen. I doubt even Christensen could think up some of the too-easy-to-make-fun-of lines that George Lucas and screenwriter Jonathan Hales concocted. From Anakin telling Padme, "I don't like sand" to Obi-Wan saying, "I hate it when he does that" when Anakin jumps out of a speeder (apparently, the relationship between Obi-Wan and Anakin involves Obi-Wan continuously trying to stop Anakin from jumping out of flying cars), Lucas keeps making the characters spit out lines that are stupid, corny, and sometimes nonsensical. So you have Hayden Christensen who not only has bad lines, he can't even say most of them without sounding as if he has something better to do. Portman is not much better, as her acting more-so fits the "I'm just here to get my mortgage payment" approach. The awfulness is cranked up even harder when Anakin and Padme have their various "romantic" exchanges, in which Anakin spills out to Padme how frustrated he is about how Obi-Wan is keeping him from reaching his full potential ("It's all Obi-Wan's fault! He's jealous! He's holding me back!").
This same Anakin that is straight-up complaining about how Obi-Wan is holding him back is the same person who would go on to become one of cinema's most famous villains. If Phantom Menace was supposed to just introduce us to Anakin, then, surely, George Lucas would use Attack of the Clones as a means to explore the darker side of Anakin's character and put some cracks in his resistance to the Dark Side. But since we all know how the story goes in the end, Lucas was stripped of all subtlety with Anakin in the first place, and what we got left with was a bratty teenager who is somehow able to win the heart of a woman that would make any young, immature Star Wars fanboy get all happy in his pants. So anyway, the dialogue has no punch, and the characters are all worse for wear because so.
- If I didn't make it clear already just how reprehensible that the romance is between Anakin and Padme is, then let me make it clear now; the romance between the two is utterly atrocious. The age difference is never clearly defined. Anakin and Padme are definitely on the younger side in Phantom Menace, but it seems like Anakin used his Jedi powers to somehow age jump Padme. She only looks slightly older than she did in the first film, while Anakin hit and went through puberty faster than any one could ever hope to. Anakin tells Padme, "From the moment I met you, all those years ago, not a day has gone by when I haven't thought of you." I can't decide if this sounds romantic or just plain creepy, but given how Anakin gives Padme various creep faces throughout the film, I think I'm going to go with the latter. Yeah, so there are several times when Anakin tries to be romantic and utterly fails primarily because of the horrible string of words that George Lucas provides him with. Padme is usually trying to prevent Anakin from having a temper tantrum, and the extent of "happy" moments between the two involves rolling around in the Naboo grass and eating space fruit together. Other than that, it's uninteresting and facepalm inducing exchanges that make me almost miss Jar-Jar Binks.
I don't think there's any question that Anakin and Padme are the worst couple to be seen in the galaxy far far away. There is zero chemistry, but a lot of this dull romance has to do with the horrendous dialogue that George Lucas must have been too stubborn to take out from the script's first draft. Outside of Obi-Wan, characters are given little to nothing to do until the film's final act on Geonosis, the only part of the film that has at least the smallest chance to be complemented. So is Attack of the Clones one of the worst films that I've ever seen? No. Far from it. There's enough action and ridicule-worthy bad moments so as to be watchable, but unforgivable missteps with dialogue, characterization, and the romance between Anakin and Padme all shape up to make Attack of the Clones undoubtedly the worst of the Star Wars episodes. It's amazing how George Lucas had a film much worse than Phantom Menace in him.
Go West, young Best Picture Oscar
West Side Story is a 1961 musical romantic drama film directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins and stars Natalie Wood, Richard Beymer, Russ Tamblyn, Rita Moreno, and George Chakiris. The film was nomiated for 11 Academy Awards, and ended up winning 10, the most all time for a movie musical.
Adapted from the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, West Side Story presents a story drawing inspiration from William Shakespeare's tragedy, Romeo and Juliet. Musical and tragedy seems like an immiscible combination, since tragedies are usually depressing with nearly every main character dying in the end, and musicals normally rely on being typically jolly. Somehow, West Side Story makes the combo work. Taking place in 1957 in Lincoln Square in the West Side of Manhattan, tensions are hot between two street gangs: a White American gang, the Jets, and a Puerto Rican gang, the Sharks. The Jets are led by Riff (Russ Tamblyn), and the Sharks are led by Bernardo (George Chakiris). Riff decides one day that the Jets should challenge the Sharks to a rumble for control of the neighborhood at an upcoming school dance. Riff consults the help of Tony (Richard Beymer), a co-founder of the Jets who left the gang. Tony is reluctant to fight or go to the dance, but Riff is able to convince Tony to go to the dance when Tony mentions that he believes that something important will happen. At the dance, Tony meets Maria (Natalie Wood), Bernardo's younger sister, and the two instantly fall in love. Bernardo breaks up a kiss between the two, and demands that Tony stay away from Maria. Despite the ongoing feud between the gangs, Tony and Maria do whatever they can to be together.
Whatever your feelings are towards Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins's West Side Story, the best thing to do is to not compare it too much to Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet. Some striking similarities easily stick out, like the Jets and the Sharks representing the Montagues and Capulets, respectively. Tony is obviously Romeo, Maria is clearly Juliet. Riff is Mercutio, Bernardo is Tybalt, and so on and so on. One difference you'll easily notice, though, is the way in which it ends. If you're a passionate Shakespeare scholar, you might be tempted to believe that West Side Story fudges up the ending. Tony dies, but Maria lives. That's not the way it works in Shakespeare's tragedies. But West Side Story is not specifically Shakespeare; it's a modern inspiration of, arguably, the playwright's most famous work.
The interesting thing about West Side Story, even to this day, is the way in which it presents to us its telling of a tragic story. Instead of a grim tone, desaturated colors, and a Sarah Mclachan-inspired soundtrack, we have brightly colored cinematography, intensive dance choreography, and a memorable soundtrack by Leonard Bernstein. It's about as anti-tragedy of a way to tell a tragedy, and yet, it is highly effective.
- The singing, dancing, and music are all top notch. IMDB and other sources point to certain behind-the-scenes facts that give you a vivid idea of just how much work and exhaustion went into the production. The actors wore out over 200 pairs of shoes and split 27 different pairs of pants. Jerome Robbins had to rehearse with the dancers for three months before they could begin shooting. Most of the dancers claimed that they suffered injuries at some point during production. "Cool" was so demanding that the actors burned their knee-pads in a ritualistic manner upon wrapping the scene. It is also worth acknowledging that Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer had to have their singing voices dubbed. On the surface, everything flows like a river and has youthful energy abound, while the actors are going through hell when the camera's not rolling.
- West Side Story uses some neat cinematography from Daniel L. Fapp, particularly in its utilization of the color red. Red is a warm-blooded color taken to mean things like love, hate, anger, and violence. All of the possible emotions that can be felt by the color red are on full display here. There is a shot of a blood red sunset to indicate that a tragedy is about to unfold. Tony and Maria are bathed in a reddish light when they are singing about a hopeful future together. Maria wears a red dress during the film's tragic ending, indicating that she has been splotched by the red hatred of the Jets and the Sharks, because it was their anger and hate that spilled Tony's blood and stripped Maria of her one true love. When Tony and Maria first meet at the dance, the two are put into focus with soft lighting while everything else around them is blurred. This happens several times later on, as Tony and Maria are put into focus while everyone and everything else is rubbed out.
- I can't say for sure how all of the musical components of West Side Story were interpreted back in 1961, but, many many years later in 2017, I am inclined to mention that the dancing and theatrics by the actors do look a little absurd at times. This is most evident in the Prologue, where members of the Jets and Sharks chase after one another until a brawl ensues. The way that the Jets and Sharks chase after each other and "fight" is a head-scratcher, because they proceed to twirl and dance as if each gang member is secretly trying to show off which one has the most musical talent. When it comes to two sides having to physically fight, this is where the dividing line is clear between musical and tragedy. To its credit, the movie does avoid making the same mistake again when Mercutio and Tybalt....I mean when Riff and Bernardo have their rumble.
Does West Side Story still hold up? Yes, which is something that I can't say about every Best Picture winner. It is a well acted, well sung, passionately danced, and energetically choreographed movie musical, even if some of it does come off as silly and slightly over-the-top. I've seen it twice now, and I only thought more highly of it the second time around. That 152 minute running time won't be as long as you may fear it will be, I promise.
Broken down cars
Cars 2 is the 2011 sequel to Cars, with John Lasseter returning as director, and Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, and Bonnie Hunt reprising their respective voice roles. Michael Caine, John Turturro, and Emily Mortimer also star as new voice roles.
Here is something that you never hear: Pixar delivered a disappointing and unsatisfying film. I suppose it was only a matter of time because Pixar is run by human beings after all, and even the most talented human beings in the world aren't immune to failure. Sequels are a tricky thing, because they must not only follow in the footsteps of a previous work, but they also run the responsibility of expanding upon the previous work and not forget to be a good movie on its own. The first Cars was pretty polarizing and was definitely not on Toy Story's level, so it wasn't like the expectations were super high. The right question to ask, though, is out of all of the other non-Toy Story Pixar films before 2006, why was Cars the one to get a sequel? The film with the least interesting premise out of all of Pixar's pre-2006 installments was the one that got the green light for a sequel. The first problem is that you have a sequel that is attempting to follow up on a film that isn't overtly interesting in the first place. The second, and more egregious, problem is that the sequel that is Cars 2 is presented in such an incoherent and vapid fashion that it further diminishes whatever credibility that the Cars franchise had.
We have a plot that is a mixture of racing, action, and, um, espionage. Wait, what? Cars 2 is a spy movie? You'd better believe it, and if that wasn't enough, Lightning McQueen has now been reduced to supporting character. The story begins some time after the end of the first Cars movie. The Hudson Hornet has passed on, and Lightning McQueen is now out making a name for himself in the racing world winning several Hudson (formerly Piston) Cups. McQueen now lives in Radiator Springs alongside his car girlfriend, Sally (Bonnie Hunt), and his tow-truck best friend, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). McQueen tries to enjoy some quiet time, but he is challenged by the hotshot Italian formula racing car, Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), in the brand new World Grand Prix. The race was created by a car named Sir Miles Axelrod, the CEO and creator of Allinol, a corporation that sells specialized fuel to racers. McQueen decides to bring Mater along to the Grand Prix, but Mater's dimwitted antics at the race drives a wedge between him and McQueen. While McQueen deals with racing against Bernoulli, Mater accidentally gets himself involved in a sinister plot involving lemon cars and industrial espionage.
I am utterly confused. What in the world enticed John Lasseter and screenwriter Ben Queen to turn this Cars sequel into a spy story that doesn't even center on the main character from the first movie? The racing component is still there (albeit to a lesser extent) because racing is the upper limit of what you can do story-wise in a world where every living thing is a car. So for the sake of not being a rehash of the first film, they had to do something a little different than racing. I've seen enough animated sequels to get the sense that a sequel from Pixar or Disney or whoever else normally goes for simply expanding upon the world that was introduced to us in the first film. We learn about Shrek and watch him fall in love with Fiona in the first film, and in Shrek 2, we learn more about Fiona's family and where she came from. Toy Story 2 goes on an adventure much larger than Andy's neighborhood, and we meet new toys who become friends with Woody and Buzz. Cars 2, well, we do get to see our protagonists from the first film drive and race around the world, but, if you don't count any of the spy stuff, that's about it.
- There are a host of problems with Cars 2, but, thankfully, the film does not have a problem of being boring. It moves along at a steady pace and has enough action scenes to be, at least, mildly entertaining. The animation is as dazzling as ever, which is about the only thing in the film that mostly everyone agrees is good.
- Questionable spy stuff aside, the main low point of Cars 2 is the film's inexplicable decision to have Mater at the center helm. I have no quarrels with Mater over anything that he did in the first movie, but, man, I am all Mater'd out after watching this film. Much of the storytelling relies on Mater being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it all starts when Mater takes a trip to the bathroom while visiting Tokyo with McQueen. Mater gets a device that the bad cars want planted on him, and, from there, he has to be protected from the bad cars by British spy cars Finn McMissile (charmingly voiced by Michael Caine) and Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer). Finn and Holley eventually realize that Mater isn't exactly the sharpest tool in the shed, but Finn passes off Mater's buffoonery as secret genius. This then leads down a path in which Mater basically wants to prove that he's not a total dunderhead. It's Mater here, Mater there, freaking Mater everywhere! It's all about Mater and watching how good he is as an unintentional spy, because Mater's adventure in industrial espionage was DEFINITELY what we were expecting to see in a movie that initially builds itself up as a global race competition with Lightning McQueen. If it wasn't for the opening scene in which Finn inspects an oil rig, then there would have been absolutely nothing to give us a hint that this movie has a spy component to it.
Another question is this: Why Mater? Did Larry the Cable Guy threaten to give up being the voice role of Mater if John Lasseter and Pixar didn't give him a big pay raise and also not make him the essential star of at least one Cars movies? Was some head honcho at Pixar blackmailed by Larry the Cable Guy? I can't imagine how Owen Wilson was feeling about being shoved to the sideline even though he got top billing again. Actually, I'll bet it was Wilson that was getting blackmailed. Anyway, if John Lasseter and screenwriter Ben Queen were heavily insistent on giving Mater his own adventure, then Cars 2 would've been much better off as a spin-off of the Cars world like Planes is. You could probably call it, Later, Mater (I know, that sounds stupid) or something else similar.
The other bizarre thing about Cars 2 is its G-rating. This is a film with espionage, guns, and explosions. I would think that all of that violent and mature stuff warrants at least a PG rating. I have also read that some people, including Larry the Cable Guy himself, are insisting that Cars 2 didn't actually happen; it was all some weird dream by Mater. I certainly wish that Cars 2 was a weird dream. Then I could wake up and tell myself that the clunky rust bucket that I dreamt about wasn't real, and that Pixar had not actually delivered a lackluster film.
Pixar on wheels
Cars is a 2006 computer-animated adventure comedy film directed by John Lasseter and features voice work from Owen Wilson, Larry the Cable Guy, Paul Newman, and Bonnie Hunt.The film is dedicated to Joe Ranft, who worked for Pixar Animation Studios and was killed in a car accident during production.
The general consensus seems to be that if one were to rank from best to worst all of Pixar's feature films leading up to the first Cars, then Cars would most likely be on the lower end of the totem pole. But in and of itself, Cars is not a bad movie. It's just that the six Pixar films preceding its initial release were just of such high quality that, of course, Cars looks kind of bad by comparison. One similarity between the first seven Pixar films is that they all experiment with objects/things and/or living creatures that are ubiquitous and have a special appeal to children. The first two Toy Story films center on the adventures of a select group of children's toys, while A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles focus on goofy bugs, goofy monsters, goofy fish, and goofy superheroes, respectively. Kids love to chase little bugs, and kids also love to play with little fish in a fish bowl. They also love to dress up and pretend to be their favorite superhero, and some kids fear that scary monsters are hiding under their bed. So we can cross off toys, bugs, fish, monsters, and superheroes, so cars would seem like the next natural selection, because what kid doesn't love to drive around in a toy car?
The animation of the cars is pretty much how you would imagine it would be if cars could actually talk. Their eyes are located where their windshield wipers would be, and they have mouths located on their front bumper. Everything else such as getting gas and tires is pretty much the same as it is in real life. But what's strange is that the film takes place in a world that is entirely populated by cars. Even flies look like tiny cars with wings. Okay, to be fair, there are also planes and helicopters, but my point is, there is only so much creative potential to be had when we aren't given the unique perspective of certain surroundings that Pixar has delivered several times before. In Toy Story, you can see the human world through the eyes of a toy. In A Bug's Life, tiny objects like leaves look massive because we see things from the bugs' perspective. In Cars, well, we see everything from a car's perspective, which isn't really any different from a normal human perspective. At least we get some cool establishing shots of the American Southwest.
The plot centers on the headstrong rookie racing car Lightning McQueen (no reference to Steve McQueen), who is racing for the coveted Piston Cup championship. The race ends in a three-way tie between McQueen, retiring veteran Strip "The King" Weathers (Richard Petty), and the brash Chick Hicks (Michael Keaton). A tiebreaker race between the three is scheduled for one week later in California. McQueen is desperate to get to California early and forces his big rig carrier, Mack (John Ratzenberger), to drive all night. Mack grows exhausted and later gets startled by a group of street racers who cause McQueen to fall out of the back of Mack's trailer and onto the road. McQueen tries to find Mack, but he eventually ends up in the run-down Radiator Springs. He inadvertently damages the main road of the town in the process. The towns-cars prevent McQueen from leaving until he fixes the road.
The story of Cars is not completely original with its central goal of, "self-centered person learns to realize that there's more to life than just themselves." Even so, it does follow this story-line quite well. McQueen is about as annoyingly pompous as can be in the first 45 minutes of the film, but his transformation is reasonably paced and he grows more likable as the film progresses.
- The most interesting character in the film, to me, is not Lightning McQueen, but the Hudson Hornet, Doc Hudson, being voiced by veteran Paul Newman. The character arc that he is given I found to be one that could have been a movie on its own. Watching McQueen's characterization is enough for a pleasant viewing every now and then, but Doc Hudson turned out to be a much more layered and memorable character, and I honestly wished that the movie spent more time on him than it actually did. Any and all emotional appeal in the film comes from Doc Hudson and his backstory.
- Normally, Pixar is very good with its family-friendly humor. Cars, however, is only scattershot funny with only some of its jokes landing. There are the usual subtle adult references, although some jokes don't require a whole lot of brain power to figure out. McQueen mentions the Piston Cup in one scene, to which Mater responds, "He did what in his cup?" (Get it? Because "Piston" sounds like "Pissed in"?) I always go into a Pixar film expecting to have a belly-laugh or two, because the humor in Pixar productions is always top-notch. Hey, I'll take corny puns over spineless fart jokes any day.
It might always remain one of the inferior Pixar films, but Cars is still an enjoyable and colorful animated flick that is bound to be a joy for the younglings, as well as a pleasing viewing for adults. It has a fond appreciation for older-style cars, and the setting gives you an imaginative appreciation for the countryside and the vast horizons of the American Southwest. One thing you can't deny; Pixar really knows how to make landscapes and giant cities look nice.
Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie is directed by David Soren and features voice work from Kevin Hart, Ed Helms, Thomas Middleditch, Nick Kroll, and Jordan Peele. The film is based on the Captain Underpants series of children novels by author Dav Pilkey.
If you were curious, yes, I did grow up reading several of the Captain Underpants novels, so I had childhood nostalgia to boost me through the film and not let me be totally bothered by the fact that I was sitting in a theater filled with kids that, I would guess, were mostly between the ages of seven and twelve. A book series like Captain Underpants is one that brazenly embraces toilet/potty humor which naive young children will soak up and giggle over. Let me clear about one thing; I have seen enough bad comedy in my lifetime already to understand that fart jokes, poop jokes, and anything else similar in nature are usually regarded (mostly by adults) as some of the lowest forms of humor out there. These jokes grow old super fast, since there is only so many times that you can hear a wet fart or see someone face-plant into a mound of feces before you say, "That's not funny anymore." You'd normally see these kind of jokes in movies featuring the likes of Adam Sandler, Rob Schneider, and all of their comedy friends (Kevin James, David Spade, etc.), and, needless to say, the likes of Grown Ups, Jack & Jill, and Norm of the North have all received acidic reviews because of how oh-so terrible and lazy that the humor is in those said films I just mentioned, relying on strict farting, pooping, and pissing in some shape or form. So while the likes of Adam Sandler foolishly believe that they can make you laugh with something like lame fart sounds, Captain Underpants does something rather unique with toilet humor. It doesn't just embrace the possibilities of gross-out potty jokes; it acknowledges and takes advantage of how much children love hearing words like "fart" and "poop" and their accompanying sounds. The parents/adults will find it funny because the kids are howling with laughter. This is what makes Captain Underpants work.
The plot is more-so a mash-up of various characters from the first few novels. Fourth-graders George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch) are trouble-making best friends who love to spend time in their treehouse writing and drawing comic books. They sell their comics on the playground at school and bring lots of needed joy to their fellow classmates. George and Harold's most notable comic is of the superhero Captain Underpants. George and Harold also pull off various pranks at school, which draws them the ire of their cranky, no-fun school principal, Mr. Krupp (Ed Helms). The two decide to pull a prank at the school's annual Invention Convention, but Mr. Krupp is able to gather evidence of the prank, and proceeds to put the boys into separate classes, threatening to destroy their friendship. George and Harold are able to prevent their separation when George uses a 3D Hypno Ring to hypnotize Mr. Krupp and command him to be Captain Underpants. It's all fun and games until Captain Underpants begins to cause havoc around George and Harold's hometown. George and Harold's awkward predicament only gets worse when their school hires a new science teacher named Professor Poopypants (Nick Kroll), who has a secret evil agenda under his belt to get revenge for the ridicule that he has suffered throughout his life due to his name.
The funny thing is that this is the second-such DreamWorks Animations release this year in which its humor is centered on a titular character whose name and appearance will most likely send your mind into the toilet bowl. The Boss Baby (which I still have yet to see) suggests any sort of smelly undoings that come with taking care of babies, and a superhero that runs around wearing nothing but a cape and his underwear is just begging to make you think of whatever dirty (but still kid-friendly) things that go along with underwear. Now since I have not seen The Boss Baby yet, I cannot accurately describe it as a movie that is targeted towards kids or if it is more family-oriented. Captain Underpants, without question, is a kids movie. It does have its adult references slipped in here and there (there always has to be SOMETHING that only the parents can understand), but given its setting and basic story, there is no denying that it's the kiddies that the film is hoping to appeal the most to. The film, made on a relatively cheap $38 million budget, has the cutesy animation style seen in the likes of Mr. Peabody & Sherman and The Peanuts Movie, and it is the first time that I have ever seen Kevin Hart play a role in which he is not allowed to do any of his typical Kevin Hart outbursts. The film also surprisingly shares some similarities to the adult-minded Sausage Party. Nick Kroll voices another hilariously-named villain; first a literal Douche bag in Sausage Party, and now Professor Pee-Pee Diarrheastein Poopypants in this movie. Both Sausage Party and Captain Underpants also enjoy the wonders of dirty humor. However, I would say that Captain Underpants is just a little bit better in that regard, since the focus is more on the possibilities of a dirty joke to be funny, while Sausage Party can get carried away at times, mostly in how characters are dropping empty F-bombs to excess.
- The cheeky sense of fun. A lot of Captain Underpants's essential plot points are based on the impudence of its characters towards each other. George & Harold seek to make their principal's life a living hell, so much so that we see that George and Harold have their own reserved seats outside of Mr. Krupp's office. Professor Poopypants is driven to do evil by the ridicule that he has faced his entire life, and he reaches his boiling point when the children of Jerome Horwitz Elementary School discover his full name. The rather irreverent nature of the film's humor really comes down to one of the most essential components of comedy; someone must be in some form of misery. Someone is almost always getting irritated or made a fool of at the hands of George and Harold (and sometimes Captain Underpants himself), and it's funny because of how the beneficiary is children who are in a stage of their lives where we can expect them to laugh at words like "fart" and "poop" and cause trouble. None of it feels mean-spirited because no adult character is completely innocent.
- The film utilizes various animation styles outside of the CG animation which are quite fitting. There is a sequence in which we see George & Harold as sock puppets, and we see a couple of times in which George & Harold show off the flip-o-rama, one of the fundamental parts of Dav Pilkey's novels. Two pages are flipped back and forth to display some sort of action/fight move, and they normally happen right in the midst of a big fight involving Captain Underpants. There are also several animated hand-drawn sketches, which give the film a comic book feel.
- There really wasn't anything in Captain Underpants that I found to be a specific low point, but I was slightly disappointed that the film didn't have a laugh-out-loud hilarious moment that I would remember and tell to my friends and family later on. The film does a fine job of getting some mild laughs and constant giggles out of you, but it never risks any sort of dark humor and it never slips in a super naughty adult joke that the kids should not understand until they grow up. But, hey, when a comedy film makes you laugh enough throughout, it's done its job right.
I now feel inclined to go back and reread the Captain Underpants books that I read as a child, and I am quite sure that I was not the only grown adult male in the world to go and see this film in a theater filled with young kids. The Captain Underpants novels were a memorable part of my childhood, and I'm happy to give the first epic movie a thumbs up. The word "first" in the title implies that there will be sequels, and if the sequels are able to maintain the series' goofy fun and actually-funny potty humor, then, to hell with having to sit in a theater filled with young kids. I will be there sitting right next to them; no shame and no questions asked.
Recommend? Yes, even if you didn't read Dav Pilkey's novels
Better off dead and buried
The Mummy is a reboot of the long-running Mummy franchise and is the first installment in Universal's Dark Universe. The film stars Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, and Russell Crowe, and is directed by Alex Kurtzman.
I must apologize about something before I get to the review part of the review. When I made my most anticipated films of 2017 list, I, for God knows what reason, decided to include The Mummy as one such film that I was supposedly anticipating during the year. I completely neglected to include Dunkirk, a film that I actually am highly anticipating, and one that I should have included in place of The Mummy. My expectations for this film were not overtly high, mainly because the trailers don't suggest anything fresh. It hasn't even been twenty years since the last time we got a film entitled The Mummy. Hell, it hasn't even been ten years since the latest installment in this so-called Mummy franchise. Now this Mummy character gets its ugly head turned to now serve as one of several horror-based supernatural monsters like Frankenstein and Dracula in what Universal is calling its Dark Universe.
Say what one will about how the DCEU stumbled out of the gate, but whatever host of problems that DC has had with starting their own universe as well as competing with the likes of Marvel, they all look like easy fixes compared to the daunting tasks that the Dark Universe already has in front of itself. It's attempting to be relevant in a crowded world of cinematic universes/franchises, and it's trying to convince millions of people to give a damn about its legion of monsters that simply don't have the massive entertainment appeal that the likes of superheroes and Godzilla do. The Mummy is just one film, but it's a disappointing film that is too insipid to inspire confidence about the Dark Universe becoming a legitimate thing. It lacks the ebullient fun of the Brendan Fraser Mummy installments, and it might be an indication that the Dark Universe is decaying before it even gets started. It also goes for the Batman v Superman approach in which it attempts to be such a world-building movie that it forgets to center the focus on its titular character(s) and be a good movie on its own (just to clarify, I did find Batman v Superman to be a good film despite some obvious flaws).
The plot concerns soldier-treasure hunter Nick Morton (Tom Cruise), who accidentally stumbles upon the buried tomb of ancient Egyptian princess, Ahmanet (Sofia Bertoulli). Ahmanet had been denied access to the throne many thousands of years ago when her father bore a son. She makes a deal with the devil by selling her soul to the god Set, proceeding to kill her family and attempt to sacrifice her lover. Why? Because ancient Egyptian ritual stuff. Anyway, Ahmanet is caught and mummified, and is buried alive somewhere far away. Morton, his partner, Chris Vail (Jake Johnson), and archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), attempt to take Ahmanet's discovered sarcophagus on a plane back to England. Vail becomes possessed by Ahmanet after he is bitten by a camel spider, and he attempts to open the sarcophagus. The plane is attacked by a murder of crows, causing it to crash land. Morton and Jenny survive the crash, but Ahmanet awakens from the sarcophagus. She hopes to find Nick (she calls him "My Chosen") and use him as a vessel for Set.
I could harp on all day about the bland and uninspired screenplay of The Mummy which is where a lot of the problems stem, but I am also astonished to say that I actually find The Mummy to be boring. The film leans heavily towards being a pure action-adventure, and the only things that would qualify as "horror" are the few discount jump scares here and there. There are plenty of action-filled scenes, and yet none of them evoke serious excitement or a sense of campy fun that Stephen Sommers' could magically do so easily back in 1999. Where is the fun? Why is a movie that has guns, fist fights, and killer mummy zombies boring? Where is the sense of adventure, as Nick Morton implies early on in the film to Vail? Actually, the correct question to ask is why reboot a franchise and use it as the springboard to a larger universe that seems to be getting rushed into the cinematic universe-building game? You don't need to lay the groundwork for your whole world in just one measly film. You also don't need to hide the glaring advertising for future installments within sand hills of lethargic action and non-passionate writing.
- It pains me when I fail to find anything within a film to consider as a high point. There aren't even any candidates for possible high points in The Mummy. Nothing from the acting, writing, nor action stand out in any way for me to compliment and give praise to, and that's why a small part of me wishes that at least some of it all was hilariously bad. At least then I could derive some sadistic satisfaction out of mocking the film for its laugh-inducing shortcomings, but, no, it's all bad in a way that leaves you feeling unsatisfied and even a little depressed inside. It isn't epic, disaster-level bad, thankfully.
- The Mummy follows a weary bi-pattern of exposition, then action, then exposition, and then action again. There is not a single moment to describe as clear-cut character development or emotional stimulation because the film keeps coming at you with endless waves of blah action and info dumping. The action cannot get going until we have the exposition necessary for the action to make at least a small fraction of sense. Alex Kurtzman seems to neglect the fact that hollow characters do nothing to make the action worthwhile, which then leads to putting blame on the bad writing. It's all a connected network that doesn't work.
You can go for the more cynical approach and ask, "Why did The Mummy get made and why did the filmmakers think it was a good idea?" The best way to answer such a question is The Mummy was made as a way for another studio to develop their own version of cinema's most popular business model: create a world that features similar beings/monsters that will begin with individual character films, and then have it followed up by various big-budget sequels that involve cross-overs between the star characters. Continue building until you can build no more. The trouble is that movies themselves are being reduced to mere advertisements, and this prevents the film from being a pleasant viewing. The Mummy isn't focused on making a good film around its Mummy villainous; it's focused on setting the table for what is yet to come, while the poor Mummy is reduced to being the courteous front door greeter. It is quite unfortunate to have a disappointing summer tentpole like The Mummy inspire dark and depressing thoughts about the future of the Dark Universe.
Home is where the heart is
The Apartment is a 1960 rom-com starring Jack Lemmon. Shirley MacLaine, and Fred MacMurray, and is directed by Billy Wilder (Some Like it Hot). The film won five Academy Awards.
C.C. "Bud" Baxter (Jack Lemmon) is a kind, but rather lonely bachelor who works a tedious desk job at a national insurance corporation in a New York high-rise building. Bud gets along well with his co-workers, and he hopes to climb up the corporate ladder and land a better position. He earns the approval of four different company managers because Bud allows these managers to borrow his Upper West Side apartment on various nights for their own extramarital needs (a.k.a pleasures). Bud's neighbors are upset over how noisy that his apartment is every night, and they all assume that Bud is bringing various women home each night. Bud has his eye on elevator operator, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), but it turns out that Fran is together with the company's personnel director, Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray). As Bud moves up the corporate ladder, he becomes more acquainted with Sheldrake, until he must run the risk of losing his job or the girl of his dreams.
Admittedly, I am rather flustered in how to describe my exact feelings for The Apartment. It might be because the context in which I watched the film was not the most desirable; it was a lazy Wednesday afternoon in which my energy level was not in peak form, yet I refused to let myself doze off. That being said, I never found The Apartment to be straight-up boring, though I know I did not feel wholly satisfied when it was over. Thinking it over for a little while, I think I have put together a cohesive string of thoughts to summarize my overall perception of The Apartment and if I liked it or not. Here's how I would put it: it's a film that can be appreciated for its individual moments.
There are a lot of noteworthy individual moments throughout the film. One of my favorites is how the film makes reference to two previous Best Picture winners: Grand Hotel and The Lost Weekend (the latter also being directed by Wilder). Jack Lemmon is sitting on his apartment couch eating dinner and is about to start watching Grand Hotel. However, the channel keeps cutting away to messages from TV sponsors. One of Baxter's co-workers assumes that Baxter and Fran had a "lost weekend" together. There is another moment in which director Billy Wilder seemingly takes a shot at Marilyn Monroe, who he considered to be a major headache on the set of Some Like it Hot. One character meets a blonde woman and says that she looks like Monroe, and she comes off as a "dumb-blonde".
Why then, do I not give the film two thumbs up when looking at as a whole? It's because not all of its characters won me over, and its blending of satire and romance is slightly off-kilter. The film's opening narration is Baxter telling us a little bit about himself, and that he likes to stay overtime just to "kill time", especially if the weather is bad. His desk is only one among a sea of desks that are aligned in such massive rows that they seem to disappear off the frame. Baxter goes for an unconventional approach in attempting to rise up through the company ranks. He promises his apartment to the company's big honcho managers in exchange for raving reviews. It's about as satirical as the film gets by making fun of typical business practices and the widespread belief that hard work and dedication are how you get ahead in business. The satire is highlighted by a scene of Baxter making back and forth phone calls with the managers, attempting to resolve a scheduling conflict. Once Fran Kubelik enters the picture, the satire is dropped in exchange for romance. This is not a Disney-style romance, though, where everything ends with a happy ever after. Baxter and Fran don't get married or share a passionate kiss by the end of the film. Baxter tells Fran that he loves her, to which Fran looks at Baxter and, with a smile, says, "Shut up and deal" as the two are about to begin a game of gin rummy. We can fill in the blanks from this point.
- Jack Lemmon. He delivers a strong performance that earned him his second Best Actor nomination (the other being for Some Like it Hot). Lemmon wasn't the biggest name in Hollywood in 1960, but he would eventually move his way up to an A-list star. Kevin Spacey acknowledged Lemmon's performance in this movie many years later during his Best Actor award speech for American Beauty. The straightforward and humble man that was C.C. Baxter was a type of role that Lemmon would always be remembered for.
- Wilder's direction. It is top-notch and well-deserving of the Best Director Oscar. Wilder had always been an advocate for sharp writing and memorable dialogue, and he made sure to bend the film in just the right way so as to bring the best out of the talent that the likes of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine had to offer. Some might be turned away by Wilder's supposed cynicism, but I cannot say I saw any of that in this film.
- Fred MacMurray. He received a lot of heat for portraying a villainous role because he had been known for being a friendly and compassionate actor beforehand. My problem is that MacMurray plays the character of Sheldrake like a hardened, emotionless boss who is selfish enough to not have any emotional inflections or sense of sympathy for other characters, particularly Kubelik. Now, it's standard for villains to be selfish, greedy jerks, but MacMurray sounds heavily monotone throughout the film, and I just could not buy into his performance for the life of me. That might be an underlying reason as to why I wasn't head over heels about The Apartment; a movie is only as good as its villain, and the "villain" in The Apartment is so-so at best.
This movie has the feel of one of those romance-centered Best Picture winners from the late 1930s and early 1940s like Casablanca or You Can't Take It With You, mainly because of how it utilizes the black-and-white style that many earlier Best Picture winners took on. It's worth mentioning that this would be the last Best Picture winner to be in black and white until Schindler's List over thirty years later. The film is not bad. Not at all. It's that I had a rather hard time feeling fully engaged with it, largely because the film confusingly wants to be satirical during some parts and then pure romance during other parts. Jack Lemmon delivers a strong performance, as does Shirley MacLaine. Fred MacMurray, not so much. There are plenty of little moments to remember, and that's the best way for me to recommend The Apartment.
Recommend? It's worth watching for some memorable moments. I wouldn't call it a must-see, though.
Wonder Woman is directed by Patty Jenkins and is the fourth installment in the DC Extended Universe. Gal Gadot stars as the titular superhero, and Chris Pine, Robin Wright, Danny Huston, and David Thewlis also star.
If you've been to the movies at least, I'd say, at least three times within the past decade, then I am positive you would spot some clue about the in thing within Hollywood and the world of cinema today: creating a cinematic universe that features various cross-overs between different, somewhat related characters in hopes of drawing massive box office returns. Marvel got it started, and the MCU is still the top dog of the cinema-verse today. DC's extended superhero universe has been falling behind after the lukewarm-at-best reception(s) of their first three installments in Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad. It's a good thing that those films made healthy enough box office draws, or else the ship would have sunk before it got out of port. DC put themselves into quite the quagmire coming one additional slip-up away from having the DC Extended Universe plummet into a complete mockery. I'm not even sure if the Justice League could have pulled the DCEU out of the unforgiving cinematic cesspool that the likes of Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich have been swimming in their entire careers. This is where I can finally start discussing Wonder Woman, whose critical and commercial outcomes would certainly either make or break the future of the DCEU. Breathe easy, DC fans; Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkins have come to the rescue.
This is the first ever live-action film to center on Wonder Woman, who has only known a made-for-TV 1974 film and a direct-to-DVD 2009 animated feature. We now finally have a Wonder Woman that people now and in several years can point to and say, "That's the Wonder Woman film to see." I am not sure how to feel about the fact that it has taken until the year 2017 for someone to finally gift Wonder Woman with the cinematic glory that the likes of Batman and Superman have been blessed with for however many decades now. It is very much possible that no one wanted to try and run the risk of turning Wonder Woman into a failed superhero movie experiment at the cost of getting slammed by hardcore feminists or getting mocked by misogynistic haters who might say something like, "girls can't be superheroes." In this cinematic day and age where superheroes are the dominant force of each year's highest grossing releases, a Wonder Woman movie just had to happen. And so far, Wonder Woman may very much be the top pick for best superhero film of 2017.
The plot follows Diana Prince, born on the island of Themyscira and home to the race of warrior women known as the Amazons. Diana's mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), tells Diana the story of how the Amazons were created to protect mankind from the evil-doings of the god Ares. Ares had slain all of the other gods, until he was defeated by Zeus. Zeus had left behind a weapon known as the "Godkiller" that is capable of killing Ares, should he ever return. Diana believes the "Godkiller" to be a ceremonial sword that is located on the island. Diana grows up to become a fierce Amazon warrior, despite objections from her mother to never be trained. One day, a plane crash lands off the coast of the island, and Diana swims out to rescue the pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). The island is then attacked by German soldiers who were following Steve. The Amazons are able to defeat the soldiers, and learn that Steve is a spy for the British government. Steve informs the Amazons that World War I is currently being fought, and that many innocent lives will continue to be lost. Diana believes that Ares is responsible for the war, so she takes the ceremonial sword and travels with Steve back into the "man's world" to fight.
Wonder Woman excels in areas such as story and characterization that have been shortcomings for the DCEU so far. For one, Wonder Woman is fresh; there's nothing to point fingers at and accuse of being cliched or repetitive. There are only so many times that one can watch Bruce Wayne's parents get killed or watch Krypton get blown to bits before rolling their eyes and muttering, "been there done that." Now let me ask, who has ever said, "I'm tired of watching Diana Prince grow up and become an Amazon warrior?" This is the first time that the cinematic masses can get a clear and straightforward depiction of Wonder Woman's backstory and fighting style. Her story is one that has been written down in the comics for decades, and yet feels surprisingly raw. It's a matter of no one taking the time and effort until now to turn Wonder Woman into an engaging and memorable superhero experience that appeals to audiences far and wide.
Anyway, there's not only a reasonably thick plot and multi-dimensional characters; the movie also stays away from that early 2000s superhero movie thing in which everything must be as dark and brooding as possible. This has been a minor fault of each of the previous DCEU installments, but it's not like Man of Steel, Batman v Superman, and Suicide Squad didn't attempt to have humorous moments. Wonder Woman does bring a humorous edge, and enough of one so as to keep itself from being overly serious. The humor also knows how and when to effectively land without being completely irreverent.
- Gal Gadot. I am not kidding when I say that there may not have been a better casting choice for Wonder Woman than Gadot. She has the physical build and has enough of an action reputation behind her as Gisele Yashar in Fast & Furious so as to make her into a convincing action star. There's really not much to say. You just watch Gadot on screen and can easily tell yourself how good of a fit that she is for Wonder Woman.
- The movie gets a lot out of how naive and curious that Wonder Woman is in the "man's world." She has no idea of the "man's world" customs and sense of fashion, and Steve has to make up awkward stories of where Diana comes from and how he met her. Diana tries on over 200 outfits while in London, asking, "How in the world can you fight in this outfit?" She also asks Steve some strange questions about marriage and other things. There is a lot of humor evoked from Diana's naivety, and it all makes sense because Diana grew up in a world without things like guns and hats.
- The final fight scene is inconsistent with how the movie handles all of its prior action scenes. All of the action beforehand involves Diana combating German soldiers using her sword, shield, lasso, and superhuman jumps. The final fight brings in heavy duty CGI with lots of flying debris and Michael Bay-esque explosions. It's all overblown and looks too much like Superman's destructive fight scenes from Man of Steel. I hoped that I would see Wonder Woman in a well-coordinated sword fight or in a hard-hitting fist fight. A combination of both would've worked well too.
It does my heart good to know that Wonder Woman turned out to be the big success that I hoped it would be, as well as revitalizing the DCEU. It's a superhero movie with ideas of female empowerment, buoyed by Gal Gadot's fierce and compelling performance. The story, humor, and action are all well-rounded and deliver in wonderful fashion (with the exception of the end fight). One of 2017's biggest smash hits, and a superhero film to remember for years to come.
An epic tale of the Christ
Ben-Hur is a 1959 adaptation of Lew Wallace's 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ as well as a remake of the 1925 silent film of the same name. Charlton Heston stars as the titular Ben-Hur, with Jack Hawkins, Haya Harareet, and Stephen Boyd also starring.
The film centers on a Jewish prince named Judah Ben-Hur, who lives with his mother (Martha Scott), his sister (Cathy O'Donnell), their loyal slave, Simonides (Sam Jaffe), and Simonides' daughter, Esther (Harareet). Judah has been lifelong friends with Roman tribune Messala (Boyd). Messala had left Jerusalem for many years, but returns as a new Roman commander. Judah and Messala grow divided when it is clear that Messala supports the glory of Rome, while Judah is devoted to his faith and the freedom of the Jewish people. One day, the new governor of Judea is holding a parade through Jerusalem, when a loose tile falls from the roof of Judah's house, throwing the governor off his horse, resulting in him being nearly killed. Messala is aware that the incident was an accident, but he condemns Judah to be a galley slave, while Judah's mother and sister are taken away and imprisoned. Judah swears to take revenge on Messala for his betrayal.
If you picked any kind of old-timey Biblical epic movie, I would bet at least $100 that the run time is absurdly long. If you also picked a relatively older Best Picture winner, I would bet at least $101 that the run-time would be very long. For whatever reason, Bible epics and Best Picture winners both suffer from overly lengthy run times. So what happens when you take a film that is a Biblical epic AND a Best Picture winner? You've got yourself the epic-scale and self-proclaimed entertainment experience of a lifetime that is William Wyler's Ben-Hur, and it clocks in at a whopping 222 minutes. This was back when movies actually felt like all-day events and not casual time-spending activities (unless your a professional critic or cinephile, in which your life does not feel complete without movies). I'll bet going to see Ben-Hur back in 1959 was like gearing up to watch the Super Bowl, with the overture being the pre-game routine and the intermission serving as halftime (which doesn't make sense for Ben-Hur because it's intermission takes place nearly 145 minutes in, well more than halfway). To keep the tagline in perspective, Ben-Hur was meant to be the experience of a lifetime, but that statement is sort of bereft of purpose nowadays because you could easily look up select scenes like the chariot race or sea battle, not having to sit through the whole film to feel the entertainment rush that was probably the ultimate high in the late 1950s. How someone might define entertainment now is bound to be vastly different from how someone in the 50s would define entertainment.
Say whatever one wishes about Ben-Hur, good or bad, but the type of epic-scope film-making that was involved in its production is, unfortunately, lost in today's films. Shooting for the film took between 12 and 14 hours a day, almost 7 days a week. The 300-some sets built for the film took five years to research and over a full calendar year to actually build. I could go on and on about all of the production happenings (there are a LOT of them). The point being is that this process of having so many people working for so many hours should tell you how many people were dedicated to making Ben-Hur happen, and what a grandiose deal that the whole thing was. I suppose that I should feel bad for griping about the run-time given how much work went into making the film, but, on second thought, I don't. Any of my complaints about the run time aside (I will save that for the low points), I don't want to sound as if I think that nothing is good about the film. There is a lot of good in Ben-Hur. Charlton Heston is a perfect fit for the role of Judah, and there is enough action spectacles and dramatic heft to prevent the film from ever being boring. It's especially appealing to Christian audiences, but really anyone, regardless of faith background, can watch the film and consider it a pleasant viewing experience.
What's rather interesting about Ben-Hur is that it handles its Christian themes and plot details in a way that never seems preachy. Judah encounters Jesus several times throughout the film, yet we are never shown Jesus' full face. There is also not a single line of dialogue spoken by Jesus during the film. What matters is Judah's interpretation of events involving Jesus such as his trial before Pontius Pilate and his crucifixion. The last line of the film is Judah saying, "And I felt His voice take the sword out of my hand." Judah has been wielding a sword the entire film, a sword of vengeance and hatred that he wishes to swing in the direction of Messala and the Romans. Through Jesus' death and example, Judah can finally return to peace. There is no quoting Bible verses or trying to hammer you over the head with something along the lines of, "God is good! You must follow him or burn in hell!"
- The chariot race, no question. If there was ever a choice for best 50s action set-piece, the chariot race might take the cake. There was nearly a year of preparation, and the entire sequence took nearly 3 months to film. The race lasts around only 9 minutes, but it's 9 minutes of flawless editing and steady camera-work that uses well-balanced medium and close-up shots. No music plays during the race. It's all so absorbing, and the race from the 2016 remake can't hold a candle to it.
- The word epic gets thrown around a lot, and my sense is that people use the word epic nowadays when they are describing something as awesome or spectacular. When we're talking about the word epic in its appropriate connotation in cinema, we are referring to grand-scale and sweeping spectacle that attracts crowds from near and far to deliver an experience like no other. Ben-Hur is a perfect example of what is meant by the word epic in cinema. There are large, cheering crowds seen throughout various scenes such as the chariot race (duh) and the trial of Jesus. Extreme long-shots are used to convey just how massive that everything is, and we get a terrific viewing of the film's elaborate sets that are still quite a marvel to behold. It's hard to accurately describe how Ben-Hur successfully displays to us the elements of the epic genre. You have to see it to truly believe it.
- And now comes the time for me to let out all of my frustrations about the film's run time, which is, honestly, the only significant low point. The story of Ben-Hur is jam-packed with action and drama, and it has a speckle of romance to go with it too. I want to believe that the film goes by at a sluggish pace, which is usually the default reason for a movie to have an unreasonably long run time. The weird thing, though, is that the movie does not go by at a sluggish pace at all. So how in the world could it be too long? For starters, there are select scenes that are not necessary, such as the nativity scene right before we see the opening credits, as well as the chariot race participants circling the track several times before the actual race begins. But after thinking about it long enough, and after having seen the film in its entirety twice now, I think the main reason for the film being too long is in how it wants to flesh out as many details as possible from Lew Wallace's novel. I have not read the novel, but after reading a synopsis of the each of the book's eight parts, I was surprised to see that there were still a lot of details that were not present within the film. The film aims for a balance between examining Ben-Hur's relationships with the loved ones in his life (particularly his friendship with Messala), his quest for revenge, and, finally, his encounters with Jesus. There is only so much that we can endure of each of these three parts before our attention spans begin to really get tested. Ben-Hur is definitely a long story, but there is only so much that one person like myself can take in one sitting. This 1959 version is too long at 222 minutes, and the 2016 remake is too rushed at a shorter 125 minutes. I would bet that the main story of Ben-Hur could be effectively presented somewhere between 150 and 165 minutes.
My take on this movie was slightly altered after watching the 2016 Ben-Hur, which was a remake that nobody really wanted or asked for. It is clear to me, now, after watching the 2016 remake, that the story of Ben-Hur is a long and detailed one, but one that can be effectively portrayed in about two and a half hours. Still, we have a chariot race that is among the most famous action scenes in all of cinema and a sense of epic-scope that makes Ben-Hur a frequently astounding sight to behold. The whole thing remains an entertaining experience, with moving drama and spiritual enlightenment to boot. It is certainly deserving of all 11 of those Academy Awards it won.
Recommend? Yes, but if you hate sitting through 3+ hour movies, don't bother
Here you'll find my reviews on just about any film you may have seen. I try to avoid major spoilers as much as possible. I structure my reviews in the following way: