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Friday
May242013

Epic

It’s really hard to hate animated movies, even bad ones. If nothing else, animated movies are typically filled with lush visuals and virtuous messages that children need to hear, even if they are a little too simple for adults. Such is the case with the inappropriately titled “Epic.” It’s certainly not an example of a good animated film, and considering that it’s coming from Blue Sky Studios whose best film is the mostly bland “Ice Age,” that’s no surprise, but it’s hardly a disaster and it sports some imaginative visuals, despite a story you can’t say the same for.

The film starts with Mary Katherine, who prefers to go by M.K. (Amanda Seyfried), a teenage girl whose father (Jason Sudeikis) hasn’t always been around for her. Despite this, she is making an attempt to connect with him and goes to visit him in his cabin in the woods. For years, he has been obsessed with a population of tiny creatures he believes to be living in the forest. Most people, including M.K., think he’s crazy, but little do they know he’s actually right. He just hasn’t found the proof yet. M.K. is about to realize this firsthand when she finds herself shrunk down to their size right after the queen of the forest, Queen Tara (Beyonce Knowles), gives her the chosen forest pod, which will save the forest from Mandrake (Christoph Waltz) and the Boggans, the evil little creatures who want the forest to decay. That little pod is going to sprout that night and along with the Leafmen, the guardians of the forest led by rookie Nod (Josh Hutcherson) and Ronin (Colin Farrell), it’s up to her to ensure it sprouts in light and keeps the life of the forest intact.

As one might expect, the story is inconsequential and filled with messages about saving our forests and preserving the delicate ecosystem of life on our planet. It’s certainly a good message and it doesn’t beat you over the head with it like last year’s “Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax,” but the problem comes when the question is inevitably asked: why save the forest? The answer boils down to an unconvincing “because it’s pretty.” The Boggans, as far as the movie explains, don’t want to destroy the forest because they hate the forest’s inhabitants, but rather because they enjoy living in rot. To them, it’s simply a matter of beauty vs. decay and they prefer decay. The battle to save the forest becomes one of aesthetic purposes rather than one of nobility. Although the decay of the forest would obviously lead to the destruction of its ecosystem, such a point is never made. There are plenty of reasons to save our forests and respect the life in it, but kids watching won’t walk away with that understanding due to a narrow thematic focus.

One must admit, however, that the visuals do indeed paint a forest that looks exquisite and feels alive, so perhaps the narrow focus will benefit those watching. Due to our advanced technology, it’s difficult to make a movie with a presumably large budget like this look bad, but that no less diminishes its beauty. The characters are also animated well and move gracefully through the forest, even during the surprisingly taut action scenes. Watching the film move is a real joy, even if where it’s moving to isn’t particularly interesting.

The story itself is emotionally distant and the characters are flatly written, usually succumbing to the archetypes modern moviegoers expect. Nod is the reckless free spirit with untapped potential while Ronin is the hardened general whose duties to the Queen and the forest are his only priorities. Naturally, Ronin cares for Nod and believes in him, despite his recklessness, and it’s a safe bet to assume that Nod will make him proud by the end of the movie. And you can’t have a movie with characters of the opposite sex without sparking a romance, this time between Nod and M.K., a romance that is never truly built or felt and is largely forgotten by the end, given that M.K. has to return to normal size while Nod must remain in his diminutive state.

“Epic” is nothing but underdeveloped stories that are masked by high flying action and solid voice performances from a talented cast (aside from Aziz Ansari as Mub the slug, who proves he can be just as annoying without having to look at him). It’s sure to delight children, though it won’t leave a lasting impression and the chance to provide them with some meaning is unfortunately passed by for simplicity’s sake. For similar concepts told in vastly different ways, you’re better off checking out Studio Ghibli’s wonderful “The Secret World of Arrietty,” which is far more interesting, beautiful and profound than anything shown here. “Epic” is anything but.

Epic receives 1.5/5

Thursday
May092013

The Great Gatsby

Like all movies, there are a number of ways to analyze, interpret and criticize director Baz Luhrmann’s new take on the 1925 novel, “The Great Gatsby.” More than any other movie in recent memory, it makes a number of unusual decisions with its soundtrack and visual style that seemingly contradict with its time and place. If my screening is any indication, it will be common for the viewing audience to start giggling when a Jay-Z track pops up, given that the film is set in the 1920s, far before his style of music ever emerged onto the public scene. Some will find this decision clumsy and distracting in an otherwise straight forward drama, but others will find the soundtrack appropriate in a movie about the dichotomy between surface-deep lavish lifestyles and the true quest for happiness. I’m in the former category, unfortunately. This baffling decision, along with a number of others, takes a movie that is generally well made and interesting and turns it into something that comes off more like a self-parody.

The movie begins with Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) discussing the experiences he had with his millionaire neighbor, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), a mysterious man living in New York that has rarely been seen, to the point where some claim him to not even exist. Nick quickly finds out he does, however, when one of his famous parties is thrown and he introduces himself. They quickly become friends and though Nick questions the stories that Mr. Gatsby tells him, he finds something oddly appealing about him. He soon realizes that Gatsby knew his cousin, Daisy (Carey Mulligan), from many years ago and had fallen in love with her. Although she’s now married to another wealthy man named Tom (Joel Edgerton), Nick agrees to set them up. Things aren’t as they seem with Mr. Gatsby, however, and it’s all about to surface.

One thing you can say about director Baz Luhrmann is that he knows what he wants. With each movie he directs, he has a clear vision of how it should be and sets out to make it, with mixed results. In “The Great Gatsby,” he attempts to do what he did with Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and modernize it for a new audience. Yet those attempts to make something old new again come with their drawbacks, not the least of which is the setting of the source material. As mentioned before, “The Great Gatsby” relies heavily on modern day music, including Jay-Z, Beyonce, Andre 3000, Fergie and more. Although one’s affinity for this conflict between modern music and classic time period boils down to little more than personal preference and is not necessarily a bad idea given the tone the film is trying to convey, it’s in its usage that the film becomes seriously wounded.

Much of the early footage in “The Great Gatsby” takes place at one of Mr. Gatsby’s extravagant parties, where nearly everyone from all walks of life drop by to have a good time and, expectedly, this is where the soundtrack is most prominent. However, using it like this—as the source music for the party itself—makes the music diegetic, meaning it exists within the world of the film and not as an outside source most scores and soundtracks exist as. One can’t help but wonder how this could possibly happen in a movie with its time period planted firmly in the past. When you begin catching extras or minor characters in the background singing the words, it really becomes tough to swallow.

This isn’t an isolated example, however. This problem of conflicting styles and settings is indicative of the entire film. The bright, exaggerated colors and excessive use of obviously superficial CGI backgrounds sometimes make this thing feel more like an adaptation of a graphic novel than a classic novel. The vertigo shots, slow motion and onscreen text similarly add flair to a story that doesn’t particularly need it. Frankly, the story is interesting enough without these supposed upgrades. Mr. Gatsby, as portrayed by DiCaprio in yet another knockout performance, is a wonderful character, one with a rich past and a terrific personality, yet he has skeletons in his closet. He has secrets that nobody else knows about. If you aren’t familiar with the source material, you may even question whether this man is good or bad due to a terrific balancing act and great display of skilled storytelling. Likewise, its themes, regardless of how closely one might argue it does or does not stick to the novel, are interesting, showing the power to love as a man’s greatest strength and, depending on how one approaches it, his greatest weakness.

This is a good story with good ideas and great performances that is told well. Furthermore, the tone and style of the film do indeed form a cohesive whole, but it left me cold. Its style, despite its cohesion, is misplaced. Sitting through “The Great Gatsby” is a frustrating endeavor because one can’t help but recognize that the final product almost certainly matches the director’s intentions, yet one must remember that the director’s intentions aren’t always of sound reasoning. This is a film that is surely going to be divisive due to this, but given its title, I personally expected something a little better.

The Great Gatsby receives 2/5