Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Lass is More Knows "The Man who Knew Infinity"

The time has come, as so many saddened children will tell you, to head back-to-school.

Why, exactly, are those children sad?  Clearly because they haven't had a teacher like the legendary Jaime Escalante.

This week, the Lass is More podcast asks the all important question of how Edward James Olmos' depiction of Escalante stacks up to Jeremy Irons' portrayal of G.H. Hardy.  Or, really, vice versa.  "Stand and Deliver" is the gold standard for math student-teacher movies and "The Man who Knew Infinity" is looking to dethrone it.

Does this very British story stack up to the very American one?

photo credit: Paramount Home Entertainment

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Movie Review: "Kubo and the Two Strings"

Every time the lights dim in a movie theater, I hope to have a great experience. I hope that whatever it is I'm about to see somehow, in some way, raises the bar of what a film can be. Of course, movies that do that are too few and too far between. They are not the norm.  But, every once in a while it happens; every once in a while something is amazing and wonderful.

"Kubo and the Two Strings" is just such a movie. It is a marvel and an utter must see film.  First time director Travis Knight helms this LAIKA film and imbues the magical tale of a boy on a quest to avenge his father's death with more heart and wonder than most films can ever dream to contain.

 At the center of it all is Kubo. Kubo (Art Parkinson) lives with his mother in a cave outside a village in Japan. He regularly ventures down to the village tell stories to the locals, earning money in the process.  The villagers don't just like Kubo's stories of the great samurai Hanzo because they are well told (even if they don't feature endings), it's that they are literally magical as well. As Kubo tells the villagers his tale and strums his guitar, pieces of origami he carries around with him come to life, forming themselves into the characters in Kubo's story, or the objects that they are out to find. And, more than that, these pieces of origami do battle with one another before the villagers.

These stories, or pieces of them, all originate with the ones Kubo's mother tells him. She tells Kubo tales of his father and maternal grandfather, and how Kubo's father died protecting the Kubo from Kubo's grandfather, an evil man who stole one of Kubo's eyes. She also warns Kubo that his grandfather is still out there and still wants Kubo's other eye. Being a kid, Kubo doesn't head some of his mother's warnings, causes more than a little trouble in the village, and is sent off on a quest of his own to make things right.

A magical tale, "Kubo and the Two Strings" is well served by equally magical visuals. LAIKA, who has produced some impressive work before has truly outdone itself this time. The characters may not look lifelike (that certainly isn't the intent), but they convey clear emotions, pulling the viewer in. The settings are gorgeous, varied, and vibrant.

To put it as simply as possible, the entire movie sings. The story that it tells is nothing short of outstanding. It is gorgeous to look at. It is melodic to listen to. It is brilliantly realized with bits of humor, great vocal performances (Matthew McConaughey's Beetle and Charlize Theron's Monkey are particularly excellent), and more than a little razzle-dazzle. In some of its best moments, the visuals echo Kubo's origami, bringing to life for Kubo that which Kubo once brought to life for the villagers.

As I was watching it, I kept waiting for "Kubo and the Two Strings" to falter. I kept waiting for it to make a mistake. It starts out so well, that I was utterly sure that it couldn't possibly keep it going, that the opening was simply a way to get the audience into the story, and after that it would settle down to something vaguely more mundane and less wondrous.

I was wrong. That never occurs. The movie just keeps pressing forward, finding new ways to keep the magic going. It might momentarily scare younger members of the audience, some of the battles it depicts are nothing to laugh at, but for anyone old enough, it should not be missed.

Unlike the boy at its center, I lack enough words in my arsenal to appropriately express my fondness for the film.

 photo credit: Focus Features

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

"Lass is More" Delves Deeply with "The Dwarvenaut"

On today's podcast we have not one, but two interviewees.  Sitting down together to talk to us are Josh Bishop and Stefan Pokorny of the new documentary, "The Dwarvenaut."  Bishop is the film's director while Pokorny is the main subject.

In fact, "The Dwarvenaut" revolves not just around Pokorny, but his life and work.  An artist, Pokorny is the owner of a company called Dwarven Forge which makes gaming terrain for "Dungeons & Dragons."  That is, essentially, he creates mini visible worlds through which players can travel on their quests.

If you've read my IGN review of "The Dwarvenaut," you'll know that I liked it immensely.  I am happy to say that Pokorny and Bishop were just as interesting in conversation as the film that they have put together.

So, take a listen, and definitely search out the documentary, it really is fascinating.

photo credit:  FilmBuff

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Movie Review: "Sausage Party"

The fear I have when I go into an R-rated comedy is that the R-rating won't be used to do more than drop in extra curses (see: Zac Efron and Robert De Niro in "Dirty Grandpa). Although that is an acceptable component of what can be done with such a rating, it ought not be the entirety of the difference. It is far superior if the humor itself requires that rating.

Sony's CG animated "Sausage Party" does indeed require that rating. While not being a comedy for everyone—even some who can attend R movies without supervision won't enjoy it—it is a comedy that uses its rating with gusto. It offers up not just raunchy language, but quite clearly redefines "food porn."

Gorgeously animated, "Sausage Party" tells the story of the items available for purchase in a supermarket and the belief system of those items that has evolved within the market over time. Everything within the market believes that humans are gods, and that when they are plucked from the shelves, they go to "the great beyond." When one item is returned and reveals the terrible truth about what happens to food when it leaves the supermarket, things fall apart.

It would be easy to say—and one can certainly imagine the minds behind the film making the argument—that the entirety of "Sausage Party" is just an excuse to make an incredible number of truly filthy jokes. The jokes come in all varieties and are levied against all people, no matter their race, religion, or nationality. Mostly though, they're about sex.

Before we get to more of the plot, I think it's worth pointing out that I don't think that it's all just an excuse for dirty jokes. One of the reasons the movie works as well as it does is because it brilliantly creates a (skewed) microcosm of our world. It takes the big disagreements we see in the world and places them onto foodstuffs where we can all see just how silly these disagreements are.

As for that plot? The main character, Frank (Seth Rogen), and his girlfriend, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), find themselves in trouble initially, she believes, because they violated the rules of the gods and left their packaging in the store so they could touch. Of course, they're not meant to do this until they're in the great beyond.

She's a hot dog bun, and he's a hot dog. The jokes practically write themselves.

Or, the ones like that appear to write themselves. "Sausage Party" works so well, in part, because it makes these sorts of jokes look easy. The supermarket in the film—and even the bits we see of the world outside it—are fully realized creations, and it is because they are fully realized that the jokes become a natural part of the flow.

Now, of course, I have to take a step back because there are moments in the film where it goes exceptionally over-the-top in its crudeness, and there is nothing at all natural about it. That being said, the amping up of the humor as a part of the climax of the film easily leads to some of the most horrifyingly funny moments.

Yes, "horrifyingly funny." "Sausage Party" excels at cringe-worthy humor. The screenplay, written by Rogen & Evan Goldberg & Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir, puts forth a plethora of moments that will cause members of the audience to stop and wonder if they really heard what they think they heard (hint: they did). It does not know when to stop and, perhaps, would do better without the hint of what "Sausage Party 2" might be about that is offered just before the credits roll. Would I like to see the hinted at sequel? Absolutely, it's just a distressingly open-ended conclusion to this movie.

Minor missteps aside, the talented (and large) voicecast as well directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon have put together in incredibly clever, incredibly intelligent, incredibly funny movie. It is R-rated humor done right.

Photo credit: Sony Pictures

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

"Lass is More" on "Mother's Day" and Milquetoast

When Garry Marshall's "Mother's Day" hit theaters this year, it was met with a deafening chorus of boos; that is, the critical reception was largely negative. Did the movie deserve such a thrashing? Is there something redeemable within it?

That is a tough call, beauty being in the eye of the beholder and all that. However, now that Josh is beholding the movie, he looks to see if he can find any beauty within.

The results of his long, hard, examination of the film? It has some redeeming qualities. No, he wouldn't call it great and he's thrilled that he didn't spend a small fortune to go out to the theater to see it, but it definitely has some redeeming qualities. The "Humpty Dance," however, is not amongst them.

photo credit: Universal Pictures Home Entertainment

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

Movie Review: "Suicide Squad" (2016)

David Ayer's "Suicide Squad" (2016) begins by introducing the audience to Deadshot (Will Smith) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie). Then, before long, we are introduced to them again. It is an awkward double-opening, giving the movie a very unfinished feel, one that persists over the course of the film's entire run.

Without ruining the story—and to give virtually any of the specifics would be to ruin it—"Suicide Squad" is about the government, in the form of Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), putting together a team of bad guys who can save the world while Superman and Batman and Wonder Woman and the Flash are away doing other things. These bad guys are forcibly compelled to go on the missions under the threat of death.

If that all sounds a little dark, it is, but then again, this is the filmic universe that DC is creating – dark is par for the course. The other important thing to note is that despite being dark, "Suicide Squad" and its characters are still a whole lot more fun than anyone (or everyone) in "Batman v Superman."

 Smith, Robbie, Jay Hernandez (who plays El Diablo), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Killer Croc), and Jai Courtney (Captain Boomerang) are all really enjoyable in their roles and people that I would love to see on the big screen as these characters again. Cara Delevingne doesn't acquit herself quite as well as June Moone/Enchantress, but she isn't given terribly much with which to work either.

These bad guys are at their best when they're just allowed to talk to one another, to discuss how they see the world. In these moments, the movie offers not just a level of levity that has been missing from the DCEU, but manages insight into the characters as well.

The downfall of the film is that they aren't just allowed to hang around in jail for two hours and have a gabfest. They are instead forced off on a terrible mission to face a silly enemy in a battle that could entirely be avoided if Waller or her right-hand man, Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), exhibited any sort of sense. There might be less spectacle if this happened, but the movie would be better off for it.

So, sent out to beat the baddie, the squad travels through a city turned into warzone—after "Batman v Superman" went so far out of its way to not kill innocent civilians, "Suicide Squad" implies the death of thousand or hundreds of thousands or maybe more—fight a climactic battle and go home. But the battle itself isn't very climactic, and the way that they win is silly, and if the baddie didn't pull punches the squad would all be dead. Plus, there's always the question of exactly why Batman or some other hero isn't around to save the day.

This fight and the city's destruction, just as with the dual introductions, offer the sense that the whole affair was rushed to the screen; that it needed more time to be appropriately plotted, appropriately developed. It is a feeling completely at odds with the wondrousness of the characters and their portrayals.

One of the portrayals at the heart of the film is Jared Leto's Joker. More gangster thug than kingpin, Leto's Joker is a terrifying creation. Like Smith's Deadshot, Robbie's Quinn, and Hernandez's Diablo, I definitely want to see more of this Joker. His inclusion in the film is mostly a way for us to understand Quinn and where she's coming from, but he makes at tremendous impact. Seeing him square off against Affleck's Batman down the line could prove truly great.

In the end, "Suicide Squad" is head-and-shoulders better than "Batman v Superman," but one still gets the sense that it's another opportunity squandered. These are supervillains who are super funny, played by super charismatic people, who are sent off to do something poorly established in the most mundane of fashions. There are these great flashes of style, particularly early on, but these great flashes are of a movie that could have been and it all peters out long before the credits roll.

I still want the see the team again, I just want them to be in a better movie.

photo credit: Warner Bros

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Movie Review: "Jason Bourne"

Imagine, if you will, our hero, a superspy who just wants to learn the truth. He doesn't know all of his own history and every time he learns something new, the world around him crumbles just a little bit more. But now, now is his chance to finally get the answers he deserves. All he has to do his meet his contact in the city square. We watch as he approaches. We see the official government forces circling. We see the non-official government forces closing in as well. This time they're going to get him. There's simply no way out.

Wait, no, he escaped. Again.

It is actually, potentially, a pretty thrilling scenario and that's probably why the Jason Bourne movies have used it over and over and over again. Here's the thing though – they've used it over and over and over again. At this point it is moderately less thrilling to see Matt Damon's Bourne escape yet again, to bring the fight to the nefarious government forces yet again, to uncover buried secrets from his past yet again.

Damon has reteamed with Paul Greengrass for this fourth entry in the Jason Bourne portion of the Bourne franchise (not to be confused with the non-Jason Bourne "Bourne Legacy" portion), and the only reason it works as well as it does is that it's been the better part of a decade since the last time Damon and Greengrass collaborated on a "Bourne" film. Yes, nearly a decade. It may be hard to believe, but "The Bourne Ultimatum" was released in 2007.

When things start up this time, Bourne has been hiding, keeping out of sight and out of trouble, but it doesn't take long for Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles, reprising her role) to find Bourne and get him in a whole lot of trouble. See, Parsons is now working for non-governmental secret stealers when she finds out some stuff she thinks Bourne might want to know. This puts Bourne in the line of fire of CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), and his protégé, Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander).
So, the cat and mouse game begins again, with the CIA trying to kill or capture Bourne and him trying to get to them and learn the secrets of his past and finding out that everything he ever (or perhaps at this point never) believed has been a lie. There are intra-government squabbles, non-government squabbles, and a tech company that does something really and truly ill-defined but on which the CIA wants in and that a lot of the story revolves around.

Are Greengrass and company able to add a new bit to Bourne's backstory? Sure, but they don't delve into it in anything resembling compelling fashion. It is only a poor excuse the film requires to get Bourne out of hiding and it doesn't go beyond that.

"Jason Bourne" is a film that uses the name Snowden on more than one occasion as an attempt to relate its version of cyber-security to our world. It comes off as something of a crutch – the movie doesn't have to explain what's happening or why, but instead promises that the results will be worse than Snowden and then moves on.

On the plus side, there's a great car chase in the movie, and you can see most of it despite the jerky handheld camera and quick cuts. The Bourne franchise helped to launch the current style of choppy, close-up, handheld, action we see on screen, but there are moments here when the moving camera almost feels a parody of itself, particularly during the film's denouement when it has to pan over in order to situate us at a hospital where the next scene takes place.

Damon is again solid in his role, but he isn't given a lot to do, and certainly nothing that we haven't seen him do before. All these years later, Bourne is still a blank slate. Tommy Lee Jones offers up a serviceable generic bad guy corporate spy boss as does Vikander as a green mid-level agency careerist. Truly perplexing is Vincent Cassel's hitman, known only as the Asset, who has a convoluted backstory that may be worse than Bourne's. Nobody else, include Stiles and Riz Ahmed (who plays the owner of the tech company the CIA is working with), has much in the way of development. Once Bourne is brought out of hiding things just progress from one ill-conceived, ill-executed plan to capture him to the next.

Sadly, after such a long time gone, Damon and Greengrass make the worst mistake they can with the franchise – they deliver exactly what everyone expects from the moment the film opens to the moment it closes. The only people surprised by any of the twists and turns are the characters and that just isn't enough.

photo credit: Universal Studios

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

"Lass is More" Makes a Meal of "The Lobster" with "Friends"

Long have I argued that every bit of media, no matter the form, that we consume affects our reception of anything else.  Coming to DVD and Blu-ray next week is a movie which perfectly exhibits this reality -- "The Lobster."

The film is all about this guy who wants to find the right companion with whom to spend the rest of his days and, if he can't, he's going to be turned into a a lobster.  If that doesn't instantly bring to mind Phoebe Buffay and her description of Ross and Rachel, I'm willing to bet that you haven't watched "Friends."  

It isn't that the filmmakers necessarily wanted to make the reference either, it's just that anyone familiar with the NBC sitcom is going to look at "The Lobster" differently than those who aren't and that is fascinating.

photo credit: Lionsgate Home Entertainment

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Movie Review: "Star Trek Beyond"

Many would argue that "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" is the high point of the "Star Trek" film franchise and certainly there is a case to be made for it. It is in fact the lofty heights reached by "Wrath of Khan" that caused the second film in the reinvigorated franchise, "Star Trek Into Darkness" to be less successful than its immediate predecessor, the 2009 reboot. J.J. Abrams' second "Trek" film was never able to escape the long shadow of "Khan" and matters weren't helped by choosing to steer into the skid.

Justin Lin's first effort in the franchise, the third in the new iteration, "Star Trek Beyond," definitely has some homages to the third in the original franchise, "The Search for Spock," but the less iconic nature of that film, as well as Lin offering little more than nods to it, helps the "Fast & Furious" director here. With a script written by Simon Pegg & Doug Jung, "Beyond" silences the naysayers, sets the franchise right, and gets the audience stoked to head to the final frontier over and over and over again (which is great because another film has already been announced). It isn't perfect, but "Star Trek Beyond" is funny, action-packed, and should please many filmgoers, be they franchise fans or not.

This time out, the story finds the crew of the starship Enterprise on a mission into a nebula to help rescue the members of another ship that has been lost there. Unsurprisingly, it's a trap, and Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto), McCoy (Karl Urban), and the rest of the crew find themselves jailed on a planet by the evil Krall (Idris Elba). Fortunately, Scotty (Pegg) makes friends with a former captive of Krall's, Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), and they start working to save the day.

One of the best things "Beyond" does is to separate the crew from one another. Kirk ends up with Chekov (Anton Yelchin); Bones and Spock are together; while Sulu (John Cho) and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are with many of the captured crew. Bones and Spock are a classic pairing, that combined with Urban and Quinto being stupendous in the parts offers more than just fan service to those in attendance – it leads to some great, heartfelt moments. The two actors manage just the right pitch and will have the audience laughing one minute and stoic the next. Scotty and Jaylah are an intriguing pairing as they both are mechanically inclined. Together, they make something of a dynamic duo; one imagines that they could get a toaster to fly at warp speed given enough time and the right sort of enticement. Kirk and Chekov are enjoyable as well, but it is impossible to watch their scenes so close to the loss of Yelchin without inserting real world events into them.

The biggest disappointment with "Beyond" is Krall. For too long the film offers little of his background. He may be the big bad, but his motivations are hidden and the character is given little depth. When Krall is explored, it's not until quite late in the film and while it becomes clear exactly why Lin and company hide their cards as long as they do, the result is not a surprise nor a shock as much as it's just another in a long list of weak villains for the franchise.

Additionally, the climactic fight sequence, as with "Into Darkness," is somewhat drawn out, with a "more is more" approach. What makes it more upsetting is that while a lot of lip service is given to how members of Starfleet are not soldiers, Kirk and company spend a lot of their fighting, particularly at the film's close. The earlier sequence with (SPOILER IF YOU HAVEN'T WATCHED THE TRAILERS) destruction of the Enterprise is far better than the climactic battle, as is another fight in the middle of the film.

In fact though, the bit that works least well is Kirk still brooding over his father and how he never new the man. Whether that portion is here because when it was written the franchise was well aware that they would be bringing back Chris Hemsworth as George Kirk for the next film isn't something on which I can speculate, but hopefully that film will close the book on James T. Kirk's brooding over the loss once and for all.

For all its faults, "Star Trek Beyond" is more than good enough to silence the naysayers, be it the group who was disappointed by "Into Darkness," those who think Pegg shouldn't have written the film, or those who think that Lin ought not have directed it. When we are further removed from its release and the dust has settled, "Beyond" is almost certain to find itself listed among the better of the films in the "Star Trek" franchise.

photo credit: Paramount Pictures

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"Lass is More" Reminisces About "Return of the Living Dead" and USA's "Up All Night"

It is in our very nature for us to want things from bygone days. It would take a wiser mind than mine to know precisely where that sort of desire comes from, but I am smart enough to recognize it.

Today's example is my wishing for the return of USA's "Up All Night," which were a bunch of interstitial bits that they tossed between three movies the network would show on Friday and Saturday nights. Were it back on the air, I undoubtedly wouldn't watch "Up All Night" on anything resembling a regular basis. But, I miss it nonetheless. "Up All Night" introduced me to great (and terrible) B-movies, movies that I would have never otherwise seen, movies which spurred me on to watch still more things.

I don't know that we live in an era when that sort of interstitial is possible anymore, but I do think it would be great to have someone, somewhere show moves uncut and interrupted only for ludicrous jokes or other weird things. Wouldn't it?

photo credit: Scream Factory