Turbo (2013) Dir. David Soren

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As I said with my Croods review, I’ve been more and more impressed with the quality of films coming out of Dreamworks for the last few years.  They’re not all hits, but few of them have been downright terrible.  In my mind, they have been doing far superior work than Pixar, which has been a continuous decline in terms of creating engaging characters and storytelling.  Turbo is a cute, charming story, with some great visuals, and an exciting third act race.  It’s not always as hilarious as it could be, but the characters are enjoyable to watch and overall it’s just a really fun time.

Turbo, from Dreamworks Animation

One of the major aspects of the movie that works is the relationship between the pair of brothers in the film, the snails Theo (Turbo) and Chet, and Hispanic human brothers Tito and Angelo.  One of course is a dreamer while the other is a realist, trying to keep the other grounded in the reality of their situation.  One needs to get over their a snail, not a race car, and the other needs to live with the fact that they sell tacos, not enrolling snails in the Indy 500.  Which dreamer has the craziest dream?  Who knows, but it’s clear that Turbo and Tito are made for each other the moment they meet.  Turbo wants to be fast, despite his snail life, and dreams of racing all the time.  He especially admires his racing idol Guy Gang’e, the world champion racer at the Indy 500.  Turbo winds up getting his wish, when stuck on a car in a street race, he gets sucked into the engine, gets nitroed up in a special fluid, and gains the power of super speed.  In some aspects he gets literally turned into a racing car, with headlights (his eyes), backing lights, a car alarm, and blasting radio.  Gotta love it when someone’s not afraid to take some cartoon license.  Tito’s dream is to enter his new snail pal Turbo into the Indy 500, with the help of raising cash from other businesses in their outdoor mall plaza.

If I had any gripes with the film, it’s just one I have about animated films in general, in that  I sometimes wish these movies could be a lot funnier.  Not in a way that abandons kids with the humor, but I sometimes get the feeling that there could be so much more potential from the comedy, as opposed to characters just verbally cracking jokes.  It’s animation after all, and there should be the potential for far more physical comedy, especially for a movie about a speedy snail.  It’s the things we come to expect from animated films today…more talking and less action, and it’s something I hope to one day see change.

I suppose my only other complaint about the film was the need to make Guy Gang’e into a villain.  I’m not surprised they did this because there really isn’t anyone else playing as a main antagonist, but I think it’s worth pointing out that not all animated films need a villain.  In the race in the third act, Gang’e doesn’t really do anything “bad” to get in Turbo’s way…well, with the exception of trying to stomp on him to keep him from winning at the last minute.  But that’s also out of desperation.  The majority of the obstacles come from the race itself as Turbo has to keep from getting run over among other things.  Even though Gang’e is an antagonist because he’s racing against Turbo, it doesn’t mean he has to be a bad guy.  This is similar to the problem I had with “Rise of the Guardians” where the Boogyman was made evil and shown a lack of compassion for his situation by the heroes at the end of the movie.  I sometimes think it would be better and more constructive to show kids that antagonist characters aren’t inherently evil, but that they are people who are hurt or have problems like anyone else.  Making them one sided villains doesn’t give you anything to identify with, and it’s something most American animated films should change, giving us villains that have other sides to them and may not necessarily be bad.

Turbo is an entertaining ride, with some great enjoyable characters.  The visuals and racing sequences are fantastic and entertaining.  It’s not the greatest movie ever, but it’s a fun enjoyable ride that can be enjoyed by adults and kids of all ages.

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The Great Escape (1963) Dir. John Sturges

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Well, now I can check off another great classic on my list of must see films.  The Great Escape is a pretty tremendous film, with three great stars in the lead roles: Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough.  I liked the epic feel of this story.  It’s a true story by the way, where supposedly every detail of the Escape is exactly as it happened.  I have to admit, when watching the film, the escape itself is an incredible undertaking as these POW men band together to dig an escape tunnel under the fence and out of the compound.

In a funny way, I saw the whole thing play out as sort of a game.  It’s the escape game if you will, and sometimes it’s funny to watch as the men have to come up with ways to make noise and distract the Nazi’s from the real noise their making in trying to dig through the tunnels.  There are secret codes and messages, giving the men enough warning when Nazi’s are coming while they’re in the middle of planning and executing their escape.  Then of course there’s Steve McQueen whose character becomes almost a running gag for all the time he has to spend in “The Cooler”, a solitary confinement room where he has nothing to do but chuck a baseball against the wall.

I also really enjoyed watching Richard Attenborough in this film.  Like most people of my generation, I know him best as Hammond from Jurassic Park, but it was great to finally see his earlier work and see what an incredible actor he was.  Already his clock is ticking and this major escape attempt is a risk to his life as the Nazi Commandant tells him if he tries to escape one more time he’ll be executed.  Of course, if he’s going to go out escaping, he’s going out with a bang, as it becomes his mission to get all 204 men out of the prison at the same time.    Attenborough gives a kind of understated performance, and a seriousness that seems to keep him driven to make sure everything goes to plan as leader of the escape.

The film plays out in three acts, each lasting almost an hour, with the first act introducing and setting up the plan for the escape.  The second act focuses on the execution and work the men put through to keep the Nazi’s unaware of their plans, leading up to the actual escape.  The third act focus on the 74 men that do get out as they attempt to flee Germany for Switzerland.  The final hour of the film is certainly engaging, although so many men end up getting caught, I was starting to wonder if anyone was going to actually get away at the end.

The part that confused me the most was the reasoning behind why Steve McQueen’s motorcycle hopping the fence was supposed to be such a famous scene.  When the scene was coming, I expected something far more dramatic and epic than what we got.  It turns out the motorcycle hop is filmed at a long shot, with McQueen hopping a four foot fence.  It’s an impressive trick, I guess, considering that McQueen did the stunt on his own.  But there’s no drama to it, no swelling music…it’s just…a motorcycle hop.  So why are people so blown away as to make this a famous scene in the film?  I’m not sure.  Maybe it’s just that it was more impressive for its time than the kind of stunt work I’m accustomed to seeing in movies today. But this just felt like a letdown because the stunt was fairly understated and didn’t seem like that big a deal.

Some of the other things I liked about the film was that it kept a fairly light sense of humor, although I am not sure how different the POW camps were from the concentration camps, and why the Nazi’s seemed to think the POW’s deserved better treatment (apart from religious persecution/ discrimination).  The prisoners are free to walk around the camp, garden, play sports, and surprisingly McQueen is allowed his baseball and mitt in the Cooler when I think that would defeat the purpose of solitary confinement for the Nazis.   Who knows.  I think some of the freedoms the prisoners had might have been played to give the film a lighter, not too serious tone.  After all, the movie plays itself with a sense of fun, and the excitement of the audience being in on the major escape.  Although, I think the darker third act makes up for the lighter beginning as we see some of the prisoners who aren’t so lucky.

Overall, I really liked The Great Escape.  I don’t think it’s a truly great movie, mainly because it plays up some romanticism/ “escapism” of the audience wanting to be part of the adventure in this prison escape movie.  The lightness the film portrays is obviously opposed to the much more serious things that were happening in Germany at the time.  But hey, it’s a movie.  I can enjoy the film for what it is, and if anything it’s enjoyable, well-acted, and a good time for all.

Westworld (1973) Dir. Michael Crichton

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Before Michael Crichton gave us Jurassic Park, his penultimate theme park terror, there was Westworld. Westworld is a science fiction adventure story set in the future where a resort theme park is created for people to live out their fantasies. They can be cowboys in a western town. They can be a knight in a Medieval fantasy. Or they can live the life of the Romans. For only $1000 a day, with the roles of the towns characters played by cybernetic robots. What could go wrong? Well if you remember what Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, this is what happens when The Pirates of the Caribbean breaks down and the pirates start killing the tourists!

What’s funny is that when I first entered this film, I expected something far hokier and cheesy than it turned out to be. On occasion there are a few things I was trying to wrap my head around, such as in a staged bar fight, how do the guests tell their hitting a robot and not another tourist? But it’s a minor thing. What plays out in a sense is a take-off of Disneyland and its use of audio animatronics in theme parks to create life like human characters, and what if there was a resort where humans interacted with robots to live out their fantasies. What’s great about the movie is that the movie plays as satire, with its own sense of humor. There are even funny moments where the characters actually act out their sexual fantasies with the robots. It’s strange and silly with the lack of moral implications throughout, as the guests are allowed to not only have sex with robots, but break tables, smash windows and blow up parts of the town, while a crew comes in every night while the guests sleep to repair things and fix the robots.

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But the one major shining aspect of this film is the great Yul Brynner who plays the Man in Black robot. He gives the guests a playful amount of trouble until things turn serious and the robots start acting against their programming, killing off humans for real. What unfolds is a precursor to Terminator, as the Man in Black hunts down our main protagonist human in a thrilling chase through the different resort areas. Breyner being such a major actor playing a robot, he really brings something to the character. We don’t know how much sentience he’s achieved because of his malfunctioning program. Like James Cameron’s Terminator, I found myself invested in the character where sometimes you would get these little intricate moments of humanity, and you wonder despite their programming if the robot is actually enjoying what its doing! Whatever the reason, Yul Brener is one of those great inspired actors and it was a brilliant choice to cast him for all the believability he could bring to the role.

The rest of the cast playing the guests of the theme park are phenomenal as well, playing up much of the humor about how a real guest would interact in such a world. There’s a side story as well about a middle age husband and wife couple, where the husband wants to do the middle ages resort and fall in love with a princess, while the wife wants to live in Roman times. It may not be a realistic depiction of how such a theme park would exist, but it’s made believable because you’re so invested in the characters entering this world. Before the main characters even reached Westworld, I found myself hooked right away in the story just because I liked the characters so much. With the satirical news reporter in the beginning advertising the park and interviewing the guests, I knew afterward that this movie was going to be a good time, and it was fun all the way to the very end.

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Westworld is just a really fun ride, and for all its silliness and satire, it enables you to take the story seriously enough to go with it even if it always doesn’t make sense. It’s a great film, highly enjoyable especially from a master story teller like Michael Crichton. If you’re a fan of Jurassic Park, I highly recommend you check out this earlier work from Crichton. It’s a really well told story, and gives you a good idea why he’s embraced the idea of the theme park gone wrong.

Batman: The Movie (1966) Dir. Leslie H. Martinson

Batman1 There’s nothing like having a joyous revisit to the comic, tounge in cheek world of the 1960’s Batman.  I’ve always loved the original TV show, and the stellar cast of famous movie stars playing the caped crusaders most notorious villains.  The hokiness and cheeseball aspects add to the fun, and now here we have one of the great joys of silly cinema, Batman: The Movie!

It’s funny looking at this movie today because compared to TV shows that are blown up in budget for major theatrical releases, Batman: The Movie doesn’t feel nearly as big, but more like a more expensive episode of the TV series.  But I think that works in the movies favor, in a time when there was no concern to make a Batman movie epic, even for the cheesy 60’s TV series, but the amount of fun the show brings is the same as what’s brought to the big screen.  The big aspects of the film are the fact that Batman’s 4 major villains, The Joker, Catwoman, The Penguin, and The Riddler have joined forces to use a dehydrating machine to reduce U.N. officials to dust and take over the world!  Mwahahahaha.  Along with them are their henchmen, who shout “Yo-ho” after every command, while traveling in the Penguins supersized Penguin shaped submarine.  As silly as the film is, I actually found some of the model and effects work to be impressive, even though they were cartoonified to the max.  The villains, particularly the Penguin, steal the show, but what’s great about the old Batman series is that everyone is brimming to life with personality and character.  Even smaller supporting roles such as Commissioner Gordon and Alfred have their moment in the spotlight.  Batman is given some great comic material, downplaying everything with a “goofy seriousness”.  My favorite scene in the film is when Batman is trying to get rid of a lit bomb, and he runs through the public streets trying to get rid of it.  Everywhere he turns there’s nuns, school children playing, he tries to throw it in the pier and there’s a group of ducklings, until finally he turns to the camera and says “Some days you just can’t get rid of a bomb!”  Oh so true.

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One of my other favorite bits in the film were the times when the heroes were deducing the villains next move:  “But wait! It happened at sea. See? C for Catwoman.” “An exploding shark … was pulling my leg.” “The Joker! It all led to a sinister riddle. Riddle -er. Riddler?”  And you gotta hand it to Robin for his instantanious deductive reasoning and solving riddles.  There’s also a great gag where Batman is in the elevator and reads 7 different languages for the UP button.  Then of course the talked about gag with the porpoise that dives in front of an exploding missile saving their lives.  It’s all great stuff.

It’s funny to see how Batman plays on two different levels, one where kids can take it absolutely seriously, and adults who can enjoy it for the comedy.  Because part of the magic with Batman is how it takes itself completely seriously in the midst of it’s absolute silliness.  There may never be a show or a movie like it ever again, but Batman: The Movie is one of a kind, and it’s great fun for everybody.