Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011)



Too Tired right now for the full post. I will get to it tomorrow. Preview though "Very Good".

OK, I'm still tired but I need to get this done. I did not read any of the original books that this movie is based on but I have watched all three of the Swedish language films made from the series. The story was excellent and it is quite intricate. I found that I was able to follow the Swedish language version more clearly than this English language remake. It may have been that the sub-titles force you to pay more attention to details than a passive listener is likely to do. There are elements to this story that require the setting in Sweden, so the new version basically is the same movie done with international stars,but shot pretty much in the same locations as the Swedish language version. Production values are also a bit higher.

This is a dark and disturbing story. There are ideas and sequences in the film that are likely to haunt me the rest of my life. There is a brutal rape scene that was horrifying in both versions of the movie. This current version struck me as less explicit in the visual aspect of the sequence but stronger in the sound design and the acting. The retribution segment that is a follow up may seem less terrible simply because I knew what was coming. It is a comeuppance that is earned but is nearly as brutal as the act that inspired it. This post seems to be focusing on comparisons between the two movies, I suppose that is inevitable, but I don't want to ignore those things that are unique to this particular movie.

Since I have been a James Bond fan all my life, title sequences are like manna to me. The Maurice Binder work on the Bond films was my introduction to titles. Earlier this week I saw a great opening title sequence in "The Adventures of Tin Tin", this is the second title sequence this week that is noteworthy. The music you hear in the teaser trailer is used in the titles. The Led Zeppelin "Immigrant Song" actually build some tension and lets the audience know that this will be an unusual story we are about to see. The images are artistic visuals using black oil covered props, faces and human forms. We get a good idea from this that there are dark things coming in the next couple of hours.

I don't know the actor from the Swedish version of the film but he was perfectly fine, I thought however that Daniel Craig was much more effective at playing a conflicted investigator. I was impressed by him in a sequence in the movie where he is in substantial danger. In the Bond character he plays, even when at the mercy of the bad guy, he comes across as tough. In this story he is not tough, he is defeated and you can see the expression on his face that another character is referring to at the time. It was a solid piece of acting. The actress from the Swedish version was solid, but I thought her performance weakened over the course of the other films. I don't know how Mara Rooney will do in the subsequent versions should they choose to make them, but I think she is going to be pretty huge after this. She nails the character and makes us understand that there is anger in her but also a good deal of insanity. The end of the story as it is shown here, steals her potential breakthrough, although in the long run it is necessary for the other movies to work

The director David Fincher has done a couple of movies that I like really well and a couple of films that I can't stand(Alien 3 and Fight Club could disappear and I would not shed a tear). "Zodiac" was the best film of it's year but was largely ignored. He gets the creep factor up in two or three places and sustains it. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, needs that sort of suspense and creepiness, and it shows up in a couple of places, including the climatic revelation of the murder mystery. My memory was that there was a very limited sexual relationship in the Swedish film and it is more extended in the new version. I think that works at deepening the relationship between the two main characters but also showing the seeds of resentment that are going to be a part of the next couple of features, so for me this is a plus for this version. They made a commitment to extending the movie past the place that the mystery of the story is resolved. It is all set up for what comes next, the last twenty minutes of this movie were the first twenty minutes of the second of the Swedish films. This section was not as clear as in needed to be and it makes the film sag at the climax instead of sing.

It is hard to say that the movie is entertaining since it goes so many dark places. It was exciting and suspenseful and well crafted. I think the story telling in the original Swedish film was stronger but the acting and production here is better. I do think that there was a lot of honesty in the promo used in the teaser, "The Feel Bad Movie of Christmas". The images and ideas are hanging around my head, and I don't know that I like it, but I do know that the film worked because it left me with those feelings.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Adventures of Tintin



Film making is a complicated and time consuming process. I am amazed at the number of professionals it takes to put together a single movie. When it comes to the logistics of creating a film, the director more than anyone else is responsible. I'm not talking about writing, or art work, or acting, or photography, or any of a dozen other specialties. I mean the work of putting those all into motion, shepherding them through the process, and making sure that all the I's are dotted and the T's are crossed. There are a hundred decisions a day and a movie means thousands of decisions. That is one of the reasons that directors since the 1960's, are not likely to have a lot of movies out in a single year. When putting together a film in the Golden Age, the studios were factories that used assembly line type processes so a director could go from movie to movie as a hired hand. Since the end of the studio era, directors and producers have to be more than just technicians, they need to be entrepreneurs, and showmen, and hard nosed financial negotiators. Steven Spielberg, has had five years in his career in which he has put out two movies in a single calendar year. These week we get two Spielberg films within three days of each other. The last time I remember a film maker having two movie out that close to each other was in 1983 when John Badham had "War Games" and "Blue Thunder" in theaters at the same time. It happens a lot with actors, but it is rare for producers and directors.

Yesterday on Christmas we saw "War Horse". Less than sixteen hours later we were sitting down to enjoy "The Adventures of Tintin". These two films have very little in common when it comes to story, theme or style, yet they are both very much Spielberg films. "Tintin" is an action based adventure story along the lines of Indiana Jones. This is the Saturday serial form that Spielberg grew up loving and that he brought to life with the Indy series. This new film however is based on preexisting material and I think that puts a little bit of a straightjacket on Spielberg's usual story telling skills. It is a great Adventure story, but it lacks some of the touches that we are used to from Mr. Spielberg. Those weaknesses are a result of the source. Tintin is a comic book serial. I first encountered the character in Boy's Life magazine back in the sixties and seventies. We would get a story serialized over a few pages and then have to wait for the next month's issue. Dramatic development is skimpy as a consequence and the focus has to be on action.

This movie is a motion capture animation movie. This allows incredibly complex action pieces to be visualized that could never really exist in the real world. It looks great but often lacks the tension that comes from identifying with a character at risk. This is a little strange because there are a lot of animated movies that achieve this objective. This story may lack some of these qualities because it is treated as a continuing series, we are not given anything about the lead character to care about or feel a connection to. Harrison Ford could make Indiana Jones come alive just by turning and facing the audience in his first revel. Tintin is introduced through a character drawing of an animated face, and it is a scene that has no tension to it. After that, he is simply a character we follow, without ever becoming the hero we invest in. On the other hand, his dog "Snowy" does achieve some degree of emotional life that will later make what happens work better.

There is quite a bit of humor in the film, most of it in the form of slap stick visual gags. these usually involve the other main character in the story, Captain Haddock. He is the comic side-kick but also the protagonist in much of the story. These seem like complicated roles to be playing simultaneously. I liked several of his lines of humorous dialogue and some of the visual tricks, but I don't think he can carry the story on his back and that shows where the weakness of Tintin comes in. He has no distinct characteristics except his hair. That is not enough to build a two hour movie around. Because this is the first of a proposed movie Trilogy, we may get more in the later stories, but for the moment, the archetype of the intrepid young reporter simply feels empty.


The look of the movie is one of it's strong points. The images match the look of the comic as I vaguely remember it and it has a very early twentieth century movie vibe. I especially liked the title sequence which was very reminiscent of Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can" opening titles. The John Williams score is also very effective and it feels more jazzy than orchestral in nature which does work for the movie. It's not that I'm disappointed in the movie, it is simply that I wanted it to be more emotionally involving. It stimulates and entertains but I never felt connected to it the way I have with most Spielberg pictures.

War Horse



A bit over a year ago, we heard Jason Alexander from Seinfeld, on the Mark and Brian Radio show. He had just come back to L.A. from a visit to New York. He could not stop talking about a play he had seen there which was done with puppets. He did not reveal any plot line or discuss the actors performances, he was simply entranced by the story and the stage craft.I happened to mention it to my daughter Amanda and I was surprised to find that she had heard about it. The play is called, "War Horse". The reason she knew about it was the previous year in her cinema class on the movies of Steven Spielberg, the day they had Spielberg himself in, her professor was promoting this play to Spielberg as the next movie he ought to make. Now having seen the film, I can understand the enthusiasm he had for Spielberg to work with this material. It's the story of a boy and his horse, set against the background of World War One. There are quaint vistas of early twentieth century England, the countryside of France, and horrific battle scenes that punctuate the story. This is Spielberg territory.

This movie is simply beautiful to look at. I am sure that the cinematography will be long remembered for displaying the rich countrysides in a variety of European locations. There are some dramatically lit night time battle scenes set in the trenches of both sides in the war, and a disturbingly dark and visually discrete sequence set in the barbed wire of no man's land between the trenches. As the action shifts from a farm to a battlefield on another farm and then plunges us into the woods, the lighting is used to show location and mood very effectively. There are also some tense and dramatic scenes set in a windmill that also show the cinematography here is not just noticeable because the locations are incredibly beautiful. Of course what will be easily scoffed at by detractors of the film will be the golden tinted skies over Devon England, and the rich colors of the land that the tenant farmers are trying to plow to eek out a living. The poster shows you some of the beauty that Spielberg will inevitably be criticized for lingering over in a harsh dramatic story. It's as if some people want to sweep aside the craft that made movies from the forties and fifties so vibrantly colorful. I remember people bitching about how gorgeous "The Color Purple" was while all the rape and wife beating was going on. I really think mood can be enhanced not only by highlighting the dark areas of life but also by contrasting those bright spots with the dark events going on in that world.

So, it is a horse story but it is not "National Velvet" or "The Black Stallion". The title tells you right away that this is a violent story of war that this horse is going to be a part of. There are heroes and villains on both sides of this war. None of the villains are deliberately cruel, rather they are brutally cynical and rationalist about the events that go on in the story. The only character that I thought was clearly evil, was the landlord introduced in the first part of the movie while events are still set in England. After the war story begins, the cruelty is not of the malicious kind from a "Snidely Whiplash" type character. The terrible things that we see are part of the nature of war, and so the experience feels more universal to us. It often comes down to how people relate to animals. If you can't imagine a bond between a person and an animal that is emotionally deep, then you are not going to be as strongly effected by the fate that befalls many of the animals serving in this war. Of course you are also not going to be able to relate to this movie either.

I found the relationship between the humans and the horses in the story to be very real. The farmers connect to the horses in a different way than the soldiers do, but regardless of side, soldiers still find something to connect with about the horse. There is also a very big sub plot concerning the relationship of two horses to one another. I imagine this was the hook that made the puppetry on stage work so well. Here it felt slightly underdeveloped, probably in part because of how expansive the story turns out to be. The two most emotional scenes in the movie from my point of view, concern the emotional sacrifice that one horse wants to make for another, and the suspension of hostility between soldiers that see the horse as a truly wondrous animal. The second scene was the one that everyone in our group was talking about after the movie. This film is rated PG-13, but it is a tough PG-13 rating. There are some deeply disturbing moments that do not show blood and guts but do tune us into the costs of war in emotionally scarring ways. so be warned.


We are all probably a little jaded sometimes by animal stories. The sentimentality seems like a cheap way to tap into our emotions and give us a feeling that has not been earned. To be honest, that works for me most of the time, but I felt like Spielberg was holding back on making use of the natural inclination of many to attache to an animal. I thought the final emotions were earned by the story telling and not just by the setting and characters. I would love to see how this story plays out on stage with puppets standing in for the horses. Until the play makes its way out west her, I guess I can live with the fine film that Steven Spielberg has made out of the play. Some of the images will live in my head a long time, they were not always pretty, but they sure looked amazing as I was watching.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Muppet Christmas Carol



Amanda has us on our Christmas Movie Advent Calendar countdown. Last night was Scrooged, and tonight we had The Muppet Christmas Carol. There are so many variations on this Charles Dicken's story, it would be hard to count them all. When Andy Williams sings "The Most Wonderful Time of the Year", there is a lyric that says, "they'll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago". Dolores asked me, what scary stories are there about Christmas? I had to point out that A Christmas Carol is in fact a ghost story. I remember watching the Alister Sim version in 1993, at 1:00 in the morning as I was wrapping gifts, the day of Christmas. It always puts me closer to the spirit of Christmas than any other element of the holiday.

The Muppet Christmas Carol has become my favorite variation of the Christmas Carol Story. It features the magnificent Michael Caine, who I first noticed in the movie Zulu, back in the 1960s, and who is still working and impressing today. Caine does a couple of things with this movie that are essential to make it work and keep the essence of the story in tact, despite the fact that it is being told by puppets. First of all, he plays it very straight. There is no winking at the camera, he is not the comic lead, he is the dramatic center that all the other Muppet characters react to. He on the other hand takes no notice that he is having conversations with rats, frogs, pigs etc. All the Muppets are simply other actors in the story and he treats the story seriously. Second, this is a musical, and therefore Michael Caine will be called on to sing. He does not have a singer's voice. He does however achieve the same kind of effective "talk singing" style that Rex Harrison achieved in "My Fair Lady". He can sell the songs that he needs to get through but the main work is carried by others.



The songs in this movie may not be perennial Christmas tunes, but they are all quite tuneful. The opening number which introduces Scrooge is particularly amusing and has a nice hook to it. There are clever bits of humor in other songs as well and they carry the story with a lot of perky bravado. The slower ballad lament song is sentimental and easy to listen to but it would not be easy to sing along with. The songs were written by Paul Williams, who does not work enough these days in the film business. He probably doesn't need to because he may have been one of the most successful songwriters of the 1970's and can get by on licensing his music everywhere. His Hollywood career may have been cut short by his participation in the movie "Ishtar", but I'm still waiting for the song score from that movie to show up somewhere. It was promised, but when the film tanked, those plans went out the window. The bad songs in that film were deliberately stupid but in a brilliant comedic way. His cleverness with a melody and a lyric are on full display with the Muppets singing his funny lyrics with just the right amount of silliness.

We originally saw the movie in Hollywood at the El Capitan Theater. The El Capitan is the Disney Operated upscale theater on Hollywood Blvd, directly across the street from the Chinese Theater and the Kodak Theater. We went two years in a row at Christmas time to see first runs of films there. In 1991 we saw "Beauty and the Beast" and in 1992 we saw "The Muppet Christmas Carol". The films were preceded by a holiday themed live action show featuring Disney characters and Christmas Carolers. Also, there is live organ music played on a huge Wurlitzer organ. Both years the weekends we went were chilly, the movies were exclusive to that theater for the week, and it felt like we were in an old movie set in New York at Christmas time. I may be clouding my impression of the movie with my nostalgia for that experience, but I still think anyone would like this film.

Not everyone appreciates the Muppets. I can't understand that very well since I love them. I was not a Sesame Street kid, but I did get into the Muppets when they were on TV and I was in college. All of the Muppet films have been a part of my life, this was the first one that I got to share with my kids and pass on the love of these characters. They stick very closely to the story here and the occasional slapstick humor does not detract from the true meaning of the themes. I get warm and Fozzy, just thinking about how much I love this movie. I hope all of you reading will seek it out and enjoy it again if you haven't seen it in a while, or discover real Christmas joy if you are new to it. Merry Christmas, and God Bless us every one.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol



This movie opened on IMAX Theaters this weekend, almost a week before it's regular engagements. There is every reason in the world for this. First it has some amazing scenes that in IMAX take your breath away. The building climbing sequence set in Dubai, is likely to cause your head to spin and your stomach to churn if you are subject to height based vertigo at all. We went to a Real IMAX theater, not one of these pseudo-IMAX imposters that have popped up in the last four or five years. When the screen is seven stories tall and you are looking at a scene set 130 stories above the ground, believe me, it is impressive. There are more sections where the big screen images enhance the film as well, but the other big reason to go and see it in IMAX is that the trailer playing with the movie, is the first six minutes of next summers "The Dark Knight Rises". This movie promises to be as involving and special as the other Chris Nolan Batman films have been. So there is a little bonus to go with your Tom Cruise fix, not that it is required, The fourth Mission Impossible movie gives you double your investment in pleasure, it is action suspense at it's finest.

Brad Bird, the director of this movie, made "The Incredibles", which is my favorite Pixar film. It was also the best spy, super hero movie of the last decade, Now he has taken his gifts for James Bond style espionage tone, and put it into a live action spy movie. The opening sequence and subsequent Title section, live up to that whole Incredibles vibe. There is a long set up, punctuated by perfectly timed pauses in action, and highlighted by shots that linger ever so slightly on an important image. All of this is backed by the iconic Lalo Schiffrin theme from the original TV series. In previous installments of the franchise, we had to wait for the theme to kick in at the right moment. I remember when "Goldeneye" relaunched the James Bond series with Pierce Brosnan as 007, we did not get the Bond theme until two thirds of the way through the film. The same happened on the first Mission Impossible, and in both cases, the timing was exquisite. Instead of playing on the same delayed gratification note here, Bird commits to the music cue early on and then uses it freely during the rest of the film.

There are several ingenious set pieces in the movie. The aforementioned skyscraper climbing scene is the most visually spectacular. It sets up quickly, plays out dramatically and take advantage of the splendor of the desert visual from atop the world's tallest building. It is filled with suspense but also a little bit of humor to make us continue to relate to Ethan Hunt and his IMF team. The most inventive sequence takes place in a multi-storied Mumbai parking garage. With a series of hydraulic lifts and rotating platforms, a spectacular fight sequence takes place with the prize suitcase dangling off of edges and tantalizingly close but often just out of reach. There is one piece of show off storytelling that was a little too much for my taste. Jeremy Renner, is excellent as an analyst thrust into Hunt's team. He is clearly more capable than he should be, but he does get used for comic relief in one stunt that did not look very convincing and made little sense. Other than this bit of anti-gravity CGI trickery, the movie sustains it's reality very well.

Tom Cruise has been an action star since 1986. He often looked like a kid playing a grown up in Top Gun, here he is a mature looking adult, but has the stamina and good looks of a man twenty years his junior. Many people are unable to get past the over the top personal behavior that was shown on Oprah a few years ago, but to me, that has nothing to do with my enjoyment of an actors performance. If I had to carry the baggage of everything an actor said or did off screen with me into a theater, I would be hard pressed to enjoy most films. The decision of Paramount Chief Summer Redstone to severe the studio's long term agreement with Cruise after the last Mission Impossible film, now looks to be petulant as opposed to forward thinking. Cruise still delivers here and Paramount is lucky that he wanted to keep this franchise going.

There are some flaws in the storytelling in the movie. I thought there were several cheats that allowed movement from one part of the story to the next. There is a complexity to some of the background plotting which makes things more complicated to follow than necessary. I know that it is a spy film, but we should be able to know why something is important, especially five minutes after it has been revealed. There are still things I'm not clear on why they were included. I will say we got a couple of nice payoffs in the coda to the story, and it looks like this series could continue for a while, which would be perfectly fine by me. Let's blow some more stuff up and chase around in fast cars with hot women and gadgets. The original TV series was inspired by the original Bond movies, and now the Movie franchise is raising the stakes for the next Bond movie. Until "Skyfall" net November, we have Ethan Hunt and the IMF team to keep us happy for the interim.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Descendants



George Clooney is a movie star, despite the fact that his name above the title does not guarantee box office returns. He has this elevated status because the work that he does has a high degree of quality and the style he radiates is similar to that of old school Hollywood. I think he has been terrific in a number of films, my favorite of which is "Oh Brother where art thou?" In that film, he plays a character that is so unrealistic, that the humor grows from the way he tries to make us believe such a person could actually walk the planet. In this current movie, he is so completely the opposite of that, it is obvious how big a reach he has as a performer. His character, Matt King, is caught up in the kind of everyday shit storm that most of us have to deal with, although his is on a more epic scale.

The purpose of setting this story in Hawaii, is to show us that even in paradise, life is messy. They tell you this in the opening voice-over in the film, and then proceed to show us how uncomfortably entangled our problems can be. This family has a lot going for it, but wealth and status, and all that goes with it cannot stop us from having to sometimes deal with the plumbing of human relationships. Much of the story is driven by bitterness and anger. There are also moments of tenderness and forgiveness that will make you catch you breath. I still can't tell how much I liked this movie and how much I was irritated by it. The events that the characters deal with are intriguing enough, but most of the characters themselves remain cyphers. I don't really understand the issues that drive Matt King in his professional life and personal failures. I enjoyed some of the attempts he made to cope with all of them, but I never connected with the big business issue that hangs over the main family story. I don't know anything about the life he lead prior to the opening of the film, which would help me relate to the confusion and hurt he feels at different times in the story. Clooney is the star of this movie, but his character feels so underwritten to me, that it is a testament to his talent that I feel anything towards the character. The goal I suppose is to show us that people have feelings and problems regardless of how we feel about them. I just did not have enough connection to King, to commit fully to his issues.



The events in the story are original for the most part. I think there is some clever set up of the two daughters in the story for payoffs that never arrive. I guess the problem is I feel like we are getting a real look into a family in crisis, but we are not getting a story with much of an arc. It never feels like the plot is headed anywhere. Even the crisis issues come about as a result of the characters simply being in the story. Maybe it is a different way of relating to the characters, maybe the writers of the movie want to break out of traditional narrative, but the film felt like it meandered for the first hour or so, and then simply slid into it's inevitable resolutions while we watched. Sometimes I wanted Matt King to react and he mostly just contains his reactions. The character is trying to do the right things but mostly he doesn't do anything. He is not the protagonist in the story, I don't think there is one.

Everyone who performs in the film does a fine job. The two girls that play Clooney's daughters are very good. The ten year old, Scotty, is an odd ball with a forceful personality. She is closer to being the driving force of the movie than anyone else. The older daughter reminded me of Natalie Portman, but with a few more expressions in her bag of acting tricks. Robert Forrester is in two scenes and he basically steals all the thunder available. His character is blinded by love, so much so that he expresses himself in some really negative ways. I wanted to applaud him for one act. Later on, we see that his act was probably misguided, because the person he so clearly puts in his place turns out to be a character with a lot more depth. Like I said earlier, these relationships are complicated. At one moment we might be moved by someones actions or comments, the very next moment we could be frustrated and embarrassed for the same person. Of two of Alexander Payne's previous films, this feels much more like "About Schmidt" than it did "Sideways". I admired both of those movies but I have seen "About Schmidt" once and "Sideways" a half dozen times or so.

This is clearly a fine film from creative people, but it is also not always for me. Several times I started to feel myself being sucked in and beginning to care about the outcome, but most of the time the result left me unimpressed and uncertain of where my loyalties toward character should lie. That could be a deliberate choice for the movie, but it was a choice that left me cold too much of the time. I laughed a couple of times, I teared up a couple of times, but I never felt committed to the story. I know I will see it again because this movie will be up for all kinds of awards and when I go to the AMC Best Picture Showcase, it will certainly be there. Maybe at that time I can say more definitively how I feel. Until then, I will continue to stew on it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Lemon Drop Kid-1951



The Lemon Drop kid is one of those Christmas gems that people overlook at the holiday because it does not feature Santa Claus, An Angel, or little kids. When most folks look for a Christmas movie they probably want something that tugs at the heart and reinforces the season. I don't think The Lemon Drop Kid manages to do the first and only barely connects with the second. That may seem strange since this is the movie that introduced "Silver Bells" as a holiday classic. The main reason it gets overlooked probably is it's greatest strength, it is a classic slapstick comedy with wisecracks by a seedy character played by Bob Hope. It's not "Bad Santa", but it does get us more in the funny bone than the heart.

Based on a Damon Runyon story, The Lemon Drop Kids follows the exploits of a race track tout, who crosses paths with a gangster and ends up owing a huge debt. What follows is a crazy plot to raise the money, in a way that seems particularly cruel to a group of older women at Christmas time. Inevitably, there is a change of heart and the plan does not go the way it was originally laid out. The story is set in the seedy streets of New York, a Florida Racetrack, and a casino that is turned into a retirement community. It is populated with grifters, thieves, gangsters and assorted other riff raff, all of whom have colorful names. Most of the characters have a heavy Brooklyn accent and some sound like they could be Bugs Bunny in a live action feature.

Those of you who only know Bob Hope from his USO shows and Christmas specials, or even worse, only know him from clips you have seen of old Hollywood, are in for a nice surprise. Hope is a very effective comic actor,with an expressive face and quick wit to back him up in tight situations. He reminded me a lot of Jim Carrey in several well planned visual gags. He was never over the top, but he could see the ledge from where he was performing. There are two great sequences when he arrives back in New York at the beginning of winter, in his white linen suit, completely out of place in the freezing conditions. A short thirty second sequence with him being blown back around a corner by the cold New York wind is really well staged and it has a funny verbal payoff. Later, as he gets ready to meet his on again off again girlfriend, he does the Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch scene, five years before she made hot hair blowing up your clothes famous and a lot more sexy. Hope then vamps for nearly two minutes in front of a mirror, drawing laughs from some silly visual cues but even more laughs from his smart guy commentary.



I'll mention one other scene that shows how carefully planned the comedy in the film was. Late in the film he will impersonate an old lady to gain access to the retirement home, but first he needs a disguise. He manages to remove the clothes from a mannequin in a store window, while hiding behind an animated Santa display. It builds really well and is actually a little risque. It was also hysterical, and the payoff on this joke is another classic comedy bit, executed well by the film makers. Some of these gags may play a bit creaky for modern audiences, but if you have a little bit of patience, they manage to bring the smiles that you would come to a movie like this for.

The most successful part of the comedy however is not the slap stick staging or convoluted plotting. Although there are a dozen good visual gags in the movie, the real star is the power of Bob Hopes' delivery. He spouts one liners and asides and excuses like they are going out of style. Most of them hit, and he sells them with his wide eyed expression and manufactured smile. If you listen, you will get all the jokes because they are simple, it is the delivery and timing that makes them work, and this is Bob Hope before he was slowed down by the need for cue cards. This is a movie that makes me want to go back and look at all the Road pictures he did with Bing Crosby, again. There was a reason that this guy was a star for over sixty years. I mentioned that I thought of him recently when I saw the new Muppet film. The humor is clever without being snide, there was cynicism but with a gentile touch and in the end you know that you are in the presence of someone who understands what is funny.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

ARTHUR CHRISTMAS




Every year, films line up for the holidays to draw us in and become perennials for Christmasaholics. Some of them fail miserably. I can't imagine that anyone wants to snuggle up on an evening a few days before the holiday and share;"Fred Claus", "Jingle All the Way" or, "Deck the Halls". On the other hand, in the last decade or so we have added some real gems to our Christmas wish list. "Love Actually" may be our favorite recent Christmas film,but it sits on a shelf with the Jim Carrey motion capture "Christmas Carol" and "About a Boy". We apparently have a weakness for Hugh Grant. So many movies are aimed at the family audience and just get it wrong. "The Polar Express" is a wonderful book but as a movie it is a bit of a nightmare. So the question going into this holiday season is whether this animated 3D Christmas kids story, would be added to the naughty or the nice pile.

I am happy to report that "Arthur Christmas" is a worthy addition to the Santa Claus mythology. It is everyone's hope in doing a movie at the North Pole, that the workshops seem authentic and the mood is appropriately jolly. In "The Polar Express", thousands of elves suggested mass labor enslavement and an almost totalitarian way of life. This movie also features mass numbers of elves, some of whom are members of the crack Christmas Gift delivery team, but instead of taking itself seriously, it is the background for satire and mayhem. This is a high tech version of Christmas, with i-phones and tablets used to communicate and massive computers to keep track of all the inventory and deliveries. If you squint your eyes a little and think about it for a minute, you may get the impression that the movie is about the incompetence of Amazon.com as a tool for Christmas shopping. The newest technology might allow someone to rationalize a microscopic glitch in the system. It is that glitch that sets our hero, Arthur, off on his journey of self discovery.



Nothing that happens will surprise you in terms of story elements. The path of this story arc is recognizable from the first minute. What will surprise you is the creative humor and wild characters that come with you on the trip. This is a story about a dysfunctional family that happens to be the Clauses. I skipped the Vince Vaughn version of this a few years ago, because with real humans, the energy required to sell the story would come off as maniacal. That is why animation is a perfect medium for telling this story. Silly ideas that might seem stupid with photo real characters and props, here seem like they are part of the natural environment. We did not see this in 3D, but I imagine that there would be some value in doing so, but the cartoon nature of the movie makes it easy to enjoy without the extra technology.

The characters interact in a way that makes sense for the story. There is no villain per se, just competing interests that sometimes cause friction for the characters. It is a multi-generational look at the process that goes into deciding how Santa should be for each new group of children. All the technology may make Christmas easier, (and it certainly makes it fun to watch), but it cannot replace what the heart of the Santa Claus myth is supposed to be about. It is fun to compare sleighs and old school reindeer with jet fueled power. We get to see how technology tracks the dreams of a child, but we know immediately that the human heart is the real file system for those Christmas wishes. All of the characters were voiced well, and I appreciated the fact that the actors are not mentioned by name in the opening credits. They may be listed on the poster, but they are not above the title and they are not instantly recognizable. The voices are primarily English, and for we Americans that usually carries a charm that seems inherent in British manners of speech.

There are so many visual gags in the movie that it is hard to pick out a favorite. None of them is dependent on a contemporary character or cultural reference like the Shrek movies are. We saw several trailers for upcoming animated children's movies, and if there is an Anti-Christ, he is the producer of the Alvin and the Chipmunks movies. We got a Lady GaGa reference in the trailer, and you know that is just the tip of the iceberg. Arthur Christmas is smarter than that. It's humor is based on character and visual gags, not on pop culture shorthand that will be disposed of in a few years. Some of the technology jokes might date, but the whimsy and heart in this movie should last for many holiday seasons to come. I hope I can share this movie with grandchildren someday, but until I have those grankids, I will be happy to share it with any of you reading this.

Hugo




Everyone looks forward to a Martin Scorsese film, even if you don't particularly care for Scorsese as a director. His work promises much and every so often he delivers. He may be the most revered director working today, but I have not always been impressed with the product. "Gang of New York" was interesting but I have never felt the need to revisit it. "The Aviator " is a well made film, but left me cold about an historical person that should be a lot more interesting. "Raging Bull" is a movie that feels like medicine to me, it is good for you but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. I love musicals but hated "New York, New York". On the other hand, every one of the gangster films I have seen multiple times and I admire the panache of storytelling he brings to these movies. Others have complained but I think "The Departed" is a worthy film to have on the shelf with "Casino" and "Goodfellas". This newest film, is nothing like any of the movies I just mentioned. It is closest in look to "The Age of Innocence", but it is not a twisty drama. "Hugo" is a tribute to movie history and the imagination, and it works like a dream, a dream of what we want movies to be about.

The subjects of the movie are cinema history, magic, and the importance of relationships to our dreams. Anyone who has read my previous posts, know that I am a sentimentalist, and movies that stir my emotions are my favorite type of film. Being the son of a professional magician, and a movie nut, you would think Scorsese would have me before I even walk into the theater, but remember "New York, New York", he is perfectly capable of ticking me off. This time however, not only is the movie a marvel to watch, and a lesson in film at the same time, it plays on our hearts in a number of ways and makes us stare in wonder at the things we as humans are capable of dreaming. I am not a fan of 3D as it is often used. Most movies are fine without it. Exploitation fare is where I think most 3D works effectively. Scorsese has managed to make a 3D movie that tantalizes with some gimmicks, but mostly helps us see the depth of the sets and scenery. We can feel the intricacy of the world that our young hero Hugo lives in. There is some wonderful footage from the original films of Georges Méliès, but there is an imagined background to those films that is visually brought to life using modern film techniques combined with the crude but genius trickery used in those early movies.

Characters in this story all have a dream that they hope or fear. Most of the focus is on Hugo, a boy orphaned, but far from being overwhelmed. He is clever, skilled and also quite sad as he lives his daily existence in the train station in Paris between the wars. His lonely life is sustained by his desire to unlock the secrets left behind by his deceased father. The Automaton he is trying to repair holds secrets that will effect many of the characters in the story. At times, as he spies on the world of the train station, it felt like this was going to be an antique version of Ameile'. We see bits of other peoples lives, some of them seem hopeful some hateful. Hugo is not interested in all of that, he is focused on the mechanical puzzle that he thinks holds the hope that his loneliness will come to an end. The isolation that he feels must be overcome before, not after he solves the puzzle. This is where the performances of the young leads, and the old-timers come together to give this story life. It looks like it is a kids movie, but it is only a kids movie in so far as all of us are children when faced with the wonder of magic. The characters are not warm from the outset, they are often bitter and suspicious. The one exception being Isabelle, played my my favorite Hit Girl, Chloë Grace Moretz. It is only after Hugo begins to trust and care about Isabelle, that any of the rest of his hopes can come true.



So much goes on in the movie that is hard to describe without giving away plot details, but I can say it is all visually realized in a wonderful way. The mechanical gadgets, and moving parts of projectors and clocks are ubiquitous, they are in the foreground, background and center of the story. Rather than being distracting, they make the world of Hugo more realistic. I marvel at technology of any type, not just the digital world we live in but simple concepts like mirrors and watches, which have been around for hundreds of years but required someone to come up with a way to make them work. Georges Méliès was one of those people that figured out how to make something work. This story tells us in retrospect how movies came to be a place for storytelling and how special effects were achieved, without giving us a lecture on the subject. All of this material is told in a compelling story concerning odd characters that populate a world filled with wonders most people never think about. I like the fact that many of the background characters are intimidating in one way or another. Their true natures are revealed in a more natural way as a result. We don't feel as manipulated as we might have been if Spielberg had been the director.

This is a warm movie from a director that can be cold in regard to our emotions, even when his characters are hot. He does not go overboard in trying to make us love everyone in the story,our affections are earned and they are reasonable within the parameters of the story. The 3D is not obnoxious, in fact it adds to the character of the movie in much the same lush way as the effects in "Avatar" did for that movie. I could feel a couple of story cheats on occasions, there was some pretty obvious foreshadowing of the train climax, but it was not supposed to be a surprise, it is designed to satisfy an appetite that the film makers created in us. This is well worth your time and money, I can't guarantee you will like it, but if the subject and film makers intrigue you, then it will be very satisfying.

Friday, November 25, 2011

THE MUPPETS



There may be greater joys than seeing a new Muppet movie on Thanksgiving Day, but I would be hard pressed to enumerate them at this time. I was not a little kid when the Muppets were on television weekly, I was a college student, and yet I felt like a kid each time the Muppet Show came on and I got to watch a classic variety show being hosted by the most insane group of characters imaginable. When they made the transition to movies, I was in heaven http://kirkhamclass.blogspot.com/2010/07/muppet-movie-1979-movie-day-day-38.html . The last Muppet Movie was back in 1999, Muppet in Space, it was a weak entry and the characters have been dormant for a dozen years since. This movie represents an attempt to relaunch them into the contemporary entertainment world and keep them the Muppets still. I saw a little bit of grumbling from Frank Oz on the script, and most of the old crew is not connected to this production. We had nothing to fear, I don't know what Mr. Oz was worried about, this is classic Muppet silliness with a heart as big as all outdoors.

The tone of the movie is much gentler than current audiences are likely to be used to. There is a slow build up to the main plot, and there are a lot of background spots that have to be filled in. They are covered by some very effective jokes and gags that remind us who the characters really are and why it is that we have missed them all this time. With stars like Amy Adams and Jason Segal, you might think that the focus is going to be on the humans rather than the Muppet characters, but that is not the case. There is a slight secondary story that connects the characters and it has to be resolved, but it is not the main focus and there is clearly a love of the felt characters by the human leads. Many of the jokes that fill the movie are of the bad pun, silly sight gag, vaudeville style throw away variety that made the Muppets stars more than thirty years ago.

Introducing a new character, that belongs in the Muppet world more than the human one, is the way the story pulls us through the contemporary ignorance of the world to Muppet perfection. "Walter", is not an unusual character like Gonzo, an animal like most of the other performers, or a giant misfit. He is most closely comparable to Scooter, a kid that exists in the human world but clearly is different. You know how much like previous Muppet films this will be when you discover that Walter is the brother of Jason Segel's character. There are no tasteless jokes about Grover being the family's milkman, it is just taken for granted that this is how the world is. The movie plays it straight according to the rules established by all the past Muppet history. It is what it is and we just go from there. It is clear however, that although both Walter and his brother loved to original Muppet Show, it is Walter that relates to them, and he has always been different as a result. The introduction of his character, the drive that his story arc puts on the plot, and the resolution that comes at the end, largely succeeds in giving the audience someone to root for in addition to our old friends. I guess younger kids may need a bridge to the original characters since many of them have not had Kermit and company in their lives on a daily basis.

I know so many people that just can't stand musicals or do not understand them at all. Some of these same people would have no trouble enjoying Neo dodging bullets, or super heroes flying, but the idea that some one might sing and dance as a way to tell a story befuddles them. I have loved musicals all my life. Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, The Sharks and the Jets are perfectly logical in the cinematic world I live in. I was giddy when the first song in this movie broke out. I was pleased that there were new songs mixed with old ones, and I was frustrated when the ten year old behind me said, "Oh no, he's not going to sing again is he?" when Segal's character has to decide which world he needs to live in. "Of course", I wanted to scream, "what movie did you think you were coming to see?" That is not how to win over friends for my beloved franchise. Ultimately, everyone in the theater seemed happy, and while some may not care for the sweet nature of a Muppet film, with it's singing and dancing, it was catnip to me.

There were some very nice cameo appearances by a variety of stars, just like we got in the old days. There were some references to the old show to, and I miss Bob Hope and Dom Deluise, and a host of others. The new crop of Muppet costars are fine, but there were only a couple that brought a smile to my face just by seeing them. Most don't have much to do, but that is not their function. They are there to remind us that this is a show business story. That big stars and new stars come and go but that the Muppets should always be the same. I can safely say that they are, still crazy after all these years.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1



It has been nearly two weeks since I went to a movie and my addiction is craving something strong. Unfortunately, this weekend will be dominated by the Twilight Movie and unless there is time tomorrow, I will have to make due with that until the Thanksgiving weekend, when I will be stuffing myself. Stuffing myself with three family movies that I can hardly wait for and "The Descendants" if I can find it in the neighborhood. I will admit that I have seen all the Twilight Movies multiple times. Not because my daughters wanted to see them, both of my girls, now in their early twenties, despise "Twilight". Their mother on the other hand is an addict and since I love her, I willingly go to see things she wants since she has done the same for me for years. This series of books and movies is extraordinarily divisive. People who love them are passionate and can't get enough, and those other side is hateful in their disdain for the writer and characters she has created. Although it is rare, I fall somewhere in the middle. I don't think the movies mean the end of Western Civilization as we know it, and I am certainly not the demographic for these stories.

The first three movies were so focused on high school angst and emotion that it was sometimes laughable. On the other hand, I am a big sentimentalist and I understand the need for people to be passionate about the things they love. "Breaking Dawn" however, is another kettle of fish. Most of the big love triangle issues are gone, and the action of our vampires and werewolves is substantially muted. The movie breaks the story of the book into two parts, the first one is the soap opera, wedding and birth story that should be the hardest part to tell. For three films there has been delayed gratification for Bella and Edwards sex life to begin. The critics of these stories frequently claim that this is a Mormon fantasy of sexuality that puts off the dangers of sex until after marriage. It mostly seems to me about making the story a romance rather than a bodice ripper. The dreamy guys that want you, also want you in the best possible way. That should be everyone's wish fulfillment dream. Sex for the purpose of love and not just orgasm is romantic, rather than gross. "Breaking Dawn" has the most beautiful wedding, the most incredible honeymoon spot and the most tasteful wedding night sex that a super strong vampire and a regular mortal could enjoy. The director Bill Condon, who is highly accomplished and respected, has done what the story demands, translated this fantasy into an opening segment that will meet the needs of teen and pre-teen girls, and the mothers that brought them to this movie. Look, it's not my cup of tea but I understand that it will work for all kinds of people.

Having read the books, I also know that this story has two of the strangest twists, ideas, concepts, or what ever you would call them, in the series. It was odd to begin with vampires that are essentially vegetarians, a horror story with nearly no horror in it. Then we pile on a love triangle with a werewolf and it gets stickier. Throw in suicidal vampires and a vendetta driven vampire army and you push the boundaries. This story does not settle for pushing boundaries, it breaks through them in what could easily be the most ridiculous thing ever seen on a movie screen. Vampire birth and dog imprinting are the climax of the story and it is odd stuff. I thought that they managed to make it all much less laughable than it could have been. There were always going to be these two moments that determined if this movie works or fails. The birth scene is actually done in a very effective and traumatic manner. While there was almost no suspense and excitement in the movie up until this point, the way the birth story is shot and scripted, gives us some real investment in the movie finally.

The story of a wolf's imprinting needs a little bit more background. There are hints of it in a couple of scenes and there is a beach shot which suggests what the true nature of imprinting is, but it still sounds like a romantic type of relationship. However, the camera set up, and the flashbacks and flash forwards used in showing what happens to Jacob, make it a lot more tolerable and interesting than it would otherwise be. If this comes off OK, then the movie and Part 2 next year are home free. What remains is much more conventional, supernatural, plotting. The last shots of Bella and the stinger during the credits, make what will be coming, something to enjoy rather than dread. I doubt that this movie will convert anyone who feels hatred toward these characters and the actors who portray them, but it will not disappoint the fans and it will fulfill the wishes of the young viewers quite well.

My daughter went with us and she is a hater, but she said this was the best Twilight movie, that's mostly because there is a shot of the USC football team on a TV at one point and the Trojans make everything better. I did not care for the way the wolves communicate with each other in a point of the story near the center of the film, but I must admit, I don't know for sure how else they could get that exposition in. There are also some funny bits with the family of Bella's character during the story. Charlie, Bella's Dad, remains my favorite character. He has the best, most realistic lines in the movie. I did want to chuckle at a couple of things that were not supposed to be funny, but there were also some humorous parts that worked as they were intended.


I'm not a fan of the series, but I am also not ashamed of having seen all of the movies quite often. Their appeal is easy to make out and they work for the most part. I was less annoyed by the three main leads in this movie less than I had been in the others, so that seems to be an accomplishment. There are other more offensive movies out there that I am happy to take on, but complaining about Twilight feels a little bit like calling some kids favorite doll ugly. Even if it is true it is unwarranted, and there is something nice about a kid liking something that is less than perfect.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Harry Potter 2011-11-05 11.56.43



One last chance taken to see the best big movie of the year.

Tower Heist



For the first time since I have started blogging, I have lost a post in cyber space. I posted on this movie yesterday and I am sure I saved it. However when I went back to edit it there was nothing there. So I'm starting over , my comments are not going to be any different but the tone will probably change as a consequence. When I saw the trailer back in the summer, I was really hoping we were getting a new Eddie Murphy movie, in which he would be funny again. Brett Ratner is one of those directors I mentioned before that fanboys love to hate. He put this together and subsequently he was chosen to direct the next Academy Awards. He chose Eddie to be the host next time out so there is a lot of speculation that everyone is happy that the movie turned out well. This has increased my expectations and the movie now has more pressure on it to deliver.

In many ways the film succeeds. I loved the music choice. The score sounds like a brutal action picture and not some lame family based comedy. The notes reminded me of the heavy diesel sounds of the movie "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3 (the 1974 version). So from the first notes of the movie, they seem to be taking the story seriously. Murphy is in the first hour of the film in a very limited way. His character does not really become a part of the plot for the first half. This is a movie based around the theft of money which effects a group of decent hardworking people. I'll let others debate the Berine Madoff and Occupy Wall Street aspects of the story. I found the characters that had been taken advantage of to be likable, well meaning and conscientious employees. If this was a building that I lived in, I would feel well taken care of. It may be a fantasy of a wealthy apartment complex, but it was actually an appealing one for the most part. One reason that it is so appealing is because the head of operations played by Ben Stiller seems to be a genuinely nice guy, who is bright enough to know that hard work will help overcome other limitations in life. He makes the extra effort to be sure that the residents and the employees have a good life. When he discovers the betrayal of trust from one of his clients and that he has contributed to everyone getting ripped off, even though he was trying to take care of them, then he takes a personal interest in justice.

There is a scene where he is confronted by the FBI agent in charge of the financial swindle case, after he has continued to be solicitous to his resident, that we start to learn where this might go. Stiller's character appears to be taking crap from the swindler, simply because it is his job to do so. We see that he is doing it all in hopes that he will be able to salvage the fortunes of his employees. Later, when it is clear how indifferent the bigshot is to all the people that have helped make his life comfortable in the apartment building, Stiller goes off in one of the more satisfying bits during the film and the whole plot is set in motion. This movie is a slow build to the heist caper. The second act mostly involves getting the others to participate in a robbery to restore all of the employees financial losses. This is where Eddie appears and starts doing his schtick. He is an childhood acquaintance of Stiller's and has a long criminal past. He turns out to be nearly as coniving as the Wall Street bigwig they are going after. Most of the best gags are in the trailer, which is usually a disappointment, but they all work a little bit better in context and they were pretty good gags.

Stiller has been on the brink of becoming as irrelevant as Murphy, with sequels to Meet the Fockers and Night at the Museum. The originals had their merits but the sequels just scream "Product". Murphy has skipped the part where the original movie had some worth and has gone straight to the "Product" line to cash in. I know that not all movies are worth seeing again or were even worth seeing once, but at least you can tell when people are trying, even if they fail. Most of Murphy's films of late, don't even look like they try. Here they appear to at least be trying and that they succeed much of the time gives us hope that there is more to come. Hollywood is a better place when Eddie Murphy in in danger of actually being dangerously funny.

Everyone else in the movie is solid. I have had a thing for Tia Leoni since the first time I saw her in Bad Boys. There is something about her smile and weary sounding voice that hits the right chord for me, so I thought she worked as the conflicted FBI/romantic interest in the movie. Alan Alda plays the opening section so avuncular and supportive that when he turns out to be the real scum that screws everyone over, I was surprised that the two characters could exist in the same person, very obviously they can and he nailed this guy. One of the first things I ever saw Alda in was a TV movie about a guy involved in a car accident that ends up going to prison. He is an average guy in a place that scares the hell out of most of us average guys. That image helps make the possibility that this character will get his comeuppance even more appealing. There were some nice foreshadowing pieces involving chess strategy that make the heist elements and the legal element at the end more satisfying.


The heist element of the movie was a little less successful. We started with a serious story about average Joes getting screwed over and seeking justice, and finish it off with a little too much slapstick and pratfall. It is a comedy action piece, but the comedy parts take it a bit more over the top than necessary. The turnaround in the movie Trading Places was a lot more believable, on the other hand, if you are willing to go along with it, the antics here are certainly funny. The question is whether you can go along with it. I could for the most part, because the character that Stiller plays made me sympathetic, and Eddie Murphy had a lot of his swagger back. Maybe I would prefer something a little more real, but the movie does end with a touch of honesty as there do have to be sacrifices in order to win.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

'Puss In Boots'



If after watching the above trailer, you did not smile and laugh at the same time, you had better skip this movie. "Puss in Boots" is all about attitude and self assurance being played for big time laughs and it takes advantage of the character voice of Antonio Banderas like you would not believe. This character is all swagger and outsized ego being put into it's proper place, but not before we get to see some great moves and smooth lines from our hero.

You may notice that I am not shy about seeing a kids movie. I am a big kid at heart as it is, so anything that is aimed at the young yearning heart of a schoolboy wanting to be a superhero has a great chance with me. I saw the first three Shrek movies, I have no memory of what the third one was about. I skipped the last one because the premise seemed tired to me so maybe I have missed something, because this stand alone story of the swashbuckling cat was really quite charming. It owes almost nothing to the story of Puss in Boots that I learned when I was a kid, and instead reinvents the fairy tail as a story that mixes in Humpty Dumpty as the antagonist. There are no further references to the fairy tale universe except for Jack and Jill and the beanstalk and golden goose (OK, so maybe there are, but they are not tossed in randomly as they were in Shrek) and the world depicted here has no visual connection to the forests of Shrek.

I have always thought that Antonio Banderas was best as a comic actor, because his voice and accent are the epitome or the Latin lover stereotype. He was perfect in Zorro a dozen years ago. The first of the two Zorro movies he made was my favorite film of that year. He is a the embodiment of the character as it should be, but also had a big comic edge to it. In Puss in Boots, he takes that comic edge to the brink and jumps over to the other side. He is mocking himself in the style that is endearing rather than maudlin. You can tell that he was told to live it up to make the movie work. I know it is an animated movie, but he is the character, so much more than any other animated celebrity voice I can think of right now.


The story telling works well, despite the abandonment of the original premise of the character. There is a long set up of the character, after we have already been in the movie for a substantial amount of time. There is even a joke about how dull it is to go back and relive that past, even though everyone in the audience wants to see it. There are some terrific comic sequences based on the behavior of cats; purring, chasing lights, and generally being cats. There was a dance fight that made me laugh at the silliness of it and still feel like it mattered how it turned out and admire the choreography of a cartoon. I also thought that there were some real emotional moments, maybe a little contrived but they worked in the context of the story.

We skipped the 3 D on this movie. I suppose there might be some things in the movie that would look good with that extra dimension but I did not miss it. The background vistas reminded more of Rango, than they did the other Shrek movies. The tale is set in what appears to be Mexico, or maybe old Spain. It is more of a western than it is a fairy tale and I probably liked it more as a result. There is nothing ground breaking here, just a good solid entertainment that makes the best use of a character voice and actor. It gets by on a lot of the charm that the cat has, if you are not charmed by it in the ads, skip the movie. If,like me, a swashbuckler is catnip to you, than this is a purrfect animated adventure which you will enjoy all your nine lives. (Yeah, I know this last part is a little precious, but I feel a little perky right now so I'm keeping it.)

Friday, October 21, 2011

The Three Musketeers 3D (2011)



I said immediately after the film was over, "that was ridiculous, and perfectly entertaining." Amanda agreed instantly saying that the description is very accurate. I noted in the credits at the end of the film, that there was a historical consultant and etiquette expert. A guy with a PhD. should not be taking credit for being the history expert on a film with scuba diving musketeers and flying pirate ship battles that end on the spires of Notre Dame cathedral. This is an over the top 3-D extravaganza, that should not be taken seriously for a moment. That does not mean that it was not great to look at or without any redeeming features. There are many things to recommend herein but if it is a true to life "Three Musketeers" you are looking for, look elsewhere.

Paul W.S. Anderson may be one of the most despised directors working on a regular basis. Fanboys love to find directors to hate and then they pile up on them whenever they can. Anderson sits alongside Brett Ratner and Uwe Boll as film makers that geeks love to hate. I can say that Boll deserves such disdain, but the other two, including the director of this film are victims of taste rather than ability. Anderson is a competent film maker with a flair for the obvious. He makes movies that should be ignored, watchable. He appears to know that he is not an artist but rather a craftsman telling a story. We all love a person that can tell a good joke, and pity the guy that can't make a joke work at all. Anderson can make a joke work, although others can probably tell it better. The tough part is that the jokes are actually his sometimes, and he want to be the one to share them with us. I have no objection and I admit that there are many of his films I liked in spite of the fact that they are obvious (Death Race). So I can give him credit for putting this together and making it work. Of course it could be better, but you would have to re-write the script and cut out all the foolishness.

Many of the traditional Three Musketeers tropes are here. Milady's betrayal, Richelieu's evil and D'artangan's boyishness. The screen writers steal from other movies constantly. We get a Divinci Code reference, swordfighting tips from Errol Flynn and Bruce Lee, and even a nod to spaghetti westerns and Mr. Clint Eastwood. Once you get used to the brazen way that dialogue mimics other movies and plot devices are going to turn in on themselves repeatedly, you can give in to the fun this movie offers. It looks really spectacular, even if it is so widely based against CGI backdrops that George Lucas should get a piece of the take. I noticed how the costumes seemed so much more elegant and accurate than the stripped down vests and tunics from the Disney Three Musketeers from 1993. The choreography of the fight scenes is exceptionally elaborate and would require Basil Rathbone to go back to fencing school for twenty years. Again, we just need to go with it, this is one of those films that is self conscious of the fact that it is a movie and is therefore willing to go for the visual over the realistic.

The young leads, Logan Lerman and Gabrielle Wilde as DArtagnan and Constance are the two actors out of their depths in the movie. He looks about 12 and she resembles a beautiful staute of a California beach girl, not a sevententh century lady in waiting. On the other hand, Milla Jovovich has played these sort of over the top women before. She has starred in the Resident Evil films as a bad ass for ten years now, she can play seventeenth century slut/spy/swordswoman without breaking a sweat. (She is also married to the director who made those films and this one.) The three guy that play the Musketeers are really very good. In particular, Matthew McFadden who plays Athos, is sullen, urban and clever all at once. We have seen him in "Pride and Prejudice" where he was unaccountably sexy, "Death At a Funeral" where he was hysterical, and "Robin Hood" where he was wasted. He is the actor with the star presence in this movie and he sells in in every scene he is in . Porthos is played by Ray Stevenson, he was in one of the Punisher movies as the lead a few years ago. In this movie he was very well cast and carried off the arrogant charm of the character really well. He also strongly reminded me of my son in-law Drew (which is a good thing). I spent the whole movie wondering why Orando Bloom was playing two parts, Aramis and Buckingham. I also thought that time had not been kind to him in his facial features, at least as Aramis. It was not until the credits that I was sure he only played Buckingham (and he was fine) and not also the other part.

I am always a sucker for a swashbuckler and this is exactly what they are shooting for here. The DiVinci designed war weapons, or those inspired by his work, are fun although they make no sense. Daring rescues, last minute escapes, and palace intrigue made this movie fill my bucket of swash just fine. The great actor Christoph Waltz is scheming and treacherous in his role. Mads Mikkelson is in another movie where he has an eye problem I last saw him crying blood in Casino Royale, and here he wears an eyepatch as the one eyed Captain of the Cardinal's guard. Many actors have their crutch's maybe his involve eye fetishes. Anyway, all for one and one for all, it was very entertaining. Your brain cells may die off a little bit but I am sure not any more than would happen from a long night of drinking, enjoy.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Thing (2011)



This is easy to take care of right off the bat. This film is in no way equal to the fantastic John Carpenter Film that it claims to be a prequel to. The Carpenter version was a classic of macho paranoia, biological creepiness and shock value all tied up in a self contained world without any outside intrusions. This movie starts someplace not anywhere near Antarctica, and continuously suggests that the occupants of the science station can leave at any point and can expect help at any point. The suspense ends up coming from whether or not they figure out they should isolate themselves rather than the isolation being imposed on them. This changes the tone for a lot of the movie and sucks out the elements that made the 82' film so much better.

I have read some nasty reviews of this movie. One of them referred to it as a steaming pile, so you know going in that there are geeks out there who hated it. That may have lowered my expectations enough for me to get some enjoyment out of the movie. There were actually a couple of things here that were pretty clever, but there is also a whole lot that is missing. Let me start with the one thing I thought worked really well at using a different twist on discovering who is real and who is "The Thing". A basic biological tell is provided that never was used in the earlier movie. It is simple and very logical. It is also only partially accurate which means we will get a chance for more doubt to build in and for our suspicions to run wild. Unfortunately, as soon as we get to a point where people are being separated out, an attack takes place that renders the need to do that divion much less meaningful.

This is the main problem with this "remake/prequel", it goes for action more than suspense and for horror more than fright. CGI technology allows the film makers to envision horrorific images of the monster in tranforming into human shape or something else. What they then do is repeatedly use that ability to show us something new and awful. Most of the time the new horror image simply jumps and attacks, and there is not much chance for us to resond to what has happened to one of our protaganists. There is one character that provides a little humor and we can have some sympathy for him, but the changes are so quick and there are so many of them that our emotions do not get a chance to settle in and appreciate the ick factor that the visuals are supposeed to be making us have.

All of the attack stuff in the Carpenter version comes late in the film, after we have developed an understanding of the characters and the situation. Here all of the attacks start early, they happen without much reason and the characters that are victimized are barely distinct from one another, much less fully formed people that would matter to us. This is not the fault of the actors, it is the script. The one character that we see as being a pig headed idiot, turns into a pig headed monster and we barely care. The herione fights back but is using tools that don't make much sense for the set up. There is an involved climax in the alien ship that feels completely unnecssary and turns the film into a peek a boo chase sequence. The storytelling problem I see is that most of the time our heros are running away. They are reactive to the Thing, they do not seem like they are anything more than the screaming girl in the woods trying to escape in any number of traditional slasher films.

The lead actor is the guy from Warrior that I liked so much last month. Here he has very little presence, and he is much more interesting than anyone else on screen. The one character that crries over into the other film is set up pretty well bu disappears for the last half of this. There is a n ok transition to the opening of the earlier movie, but it does not sell what happens during this film any more. This movie is destined to live in the shadow of the Carpenter film. I know how much better the 82' film was, because the only two chills I got in this movie were musical cues from Morricone's score from thirty years ago.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Real Steel



There is a reason that boxing movies have worked from the beginning of film history. The drama in the ring is heightened by events that occur outside of the ring, and a well planned climax can touch the emotions of even the most cynical of viewers. I saw the teaser trailer for this a year ago and I thought it looked like fun, even though it also looks a bit iffy due to the reliance on CGI robots. There were a lot of people who shook their heads and said that the movie world had hit bottom with a movie based on "Rock um, Sock um Robots". Sorry you fools, that movie was made years ago, and it was called RoboJox. Five years ago we got the first Transformers movie and it is basically the same thing. When I saw that Hugh Jackman was starring in this movie, I knew it was not just going to be a special effects extravaganza. You don't need a movie star to sell a battling robots movie. This had to be something more, and it is.

The title credits mention that the film is based on a story by Richard Matheson, well known for his work on the Twilight Zone and best known for writing the novel "I Am Legend", which has been made into a movie three times so far. In fact, on the original Twilight Zone, Lee Marvin starred in an episode titled "Steel", from Richard Matheson, that told the story of a guy with a fighting robot, who has to step in and pretend to be a robot to stay in the fight game. Many of the same ideas are in this film, but it would be unrealistic to imagine Hugh Jackman passing himself off as a robot with the massive creations featured with todays special effects. So, instead he is a robot fighting "trainer", who has to find a way to make his robot a winner, using his own skills instead of computer programmed strategies. The question is, where can he get the heart to do this and win, when he is basically a broken loser in the first place? This is where the story heads off in a direction that marks this as a drama, rather than just a Science Fiction special effects film. Jackman's character Charlie, has a son that he abandoned eleven years ago, and now he has to work out custody issues with the sister of the boy's dead mother. The kid, "Max", is a bright but resentful pre-teen and the rapprochement between father and son is the crux of the movie, not the fight game.

If you see the second trailer, you know how the story is going to play out. All you have to do is know that the kid is involved and you have a pretty clear idea of what is coming. There are virtually NO surprises in the movie. It follows the path of least resistance right up to the end. Yet, as I have said, there is a reason that boxing movies have worked for so long. This is a combination of "The Champ" and "Rocky" with battling robots. I have made no secret of the fact that I am a sentimentalist. It is not a result of my age, I have always worn my emotions on my sleeves and I find that movies which stir me are the ones I can care the most for. The intellect behind a film such as "Raging Bull", can be admired for it's frankness and willingness to look at the ugly in life, but it can't stay in my heart the way a beat down Philadelphia club fighter managed to do. I admire films that force us to think, and I appreciate them for the questions they ask and the mirror that they sometimes hold up to our faces. At the end of the day, I would not want them to be any different. "The Wrestler" from a couple of years ago is a good example of this kind of film, it flirts with sentimentality but demands that we be realists. It is a great movie, but I saw it once and may never see it again unless someone else wants to watch it when I am around. Same thing with the movie "Eight Men Out", which I thought was the best film of the year when it came out. I've seen it only once since then, and I still admire it but do not love it.

"Real Steel" is not a great movie in the sense that it is art. It is mainstream entertainment that understands that emotion is the key to bringing an audience to your movie. It is not hamfisted, the film makers don't slap you in the face with the obvious. It is told as a good story should be told, with care and a little bit of audience manipulation. There are large sections of the movie devoted to the cardboard characters of Charlie and Max. They are needed though to make the fights mean something. The robot fighter "Atom" is a machine, but he represents the struggle of their relationship. It is the emotional bond between the father and son that needs the robot to be a surrogate heart. Everything that happens does so to bring us emotionally to the point where we want this relationship to be saved. and "Atom" is the savior.

The performers are fine. Jackman starts out as an indifferent ass, that can't think straight enough to see the things that are obvious to everyone else. His acting meets the demands of the script, but it is a professional job not an outstanding one. The kid, is not a natural actor, but he has the right kind of face and a grace about him when he does his dancing with the robot. He sells the moxie of the kid, and the script calls for the kid to have big dreams. His is a case of casting saving a movie when acting might not have. If George Lucas had done the same kind of careful casting with the Star Wars prequels, we would have better childhood memories. This is a crowd pleasing, well made entertainment, if you have disdain for the idea going it, you will probably be surprised that there is more heart here than you expected. I had higher hopes for the movie, and it lived up to them. I'll be able to watch this for years, and although my intellect will not grow, I know my heart will not shrink.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Star Trek


In the minds of the Kirkham family, this was the best film of 2009. We could not understand how after expanding the nominees for best picture to ten, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could neglect this exciting, artful relaunch of a historic franchise. This movie got fantastic reviews and did very good business when it came out and there was no reason that anyone should shy away from it. There have been criticisms I have seen from trolls on a number of sites that refer to J.J. Abrams as Captain Camera Flare. I think the camera flares were used in a great way in making the movie visually dynamic and removing some of the stodginess that plagued the films when they made the original leap from the small to the big screen.

AMC Theaters was running a series of films to promote their IMAX screens this last week. You could see "Fast Five", "Inception", or "Star Trek" for seven bucks. We went last Sunday and we went to an evening show which is why this post is just now going up (I've been pretty busy this week). Amanda and I both object to AMC using the "IMAX" label to sell these theaters. I know that they have special projection and sound, and you can tell that the theater screen is slightly larger than a traditional movie screen. Still, it hardly constitutes a justification for picking peoples pockets of an extra 5-7 dollars just to say you saw it in IMAX. Back when the film was originally in theaters, we did spend the extra money to see it in real IMAX, with the steep seating and the immersive seven story screen. That was worth the extra bucks. We decided that since they were showing it for a discount for all screenings for $7 , we were not really endorsing "Faux MAX", but rather we were exploiting it. Still the sound and picture were great, but as big as the screen is, there is no way to compare it to the stand alone theaters that IMAX originally represented. This screening took place at a theater we have been going to for a dozen or more years. The Covina 30 is now really the Covina 17, they had to close half their screens because they are down from the peak number of guests at more that a million in 2000, to the 70,000 they had last year. One of the reasons that attendance might be down is that people dislike being hoodwinked by the promise of one thing and the presentation of something else.

OK, let me get off my high horse and just talk about the movie a little. This film is spectacular to look at and is filmed in a very dynamic way. The space battles are shown from a variety of dimensions. Which can be a little disconcerting but is less problematic than the shaky cam that most other films employ now a days to show action. The story sets up an alternate reality featuring the familiar characters but in younger forms and slightly different relational circumstances. It uses a time travel device to accomplish this without attempting to erase all of the history that those of us who love Trek care about. I first saw Star Trek on TV in 1966, it was a color show and the day my father brought home and set up our first color TV, Star Trek was on that night. I was not a regular Trek viewer until the show was in reruns, playing on afternoon early evening TV on our local stations. Both of my brothers watched it with me in the giant family room in a house my parents rented in the MidWick section of Alhambra. I continued to be a fan after we had moved and my brothers shifted to other interests. There is so much that is admirable about the original series that there was some trepidation concerning this reboot.

The casting is perfect. Mr. Scott is much more mischievous than in the original series, and he serves as comic relief her. That is a shift from the use of Checkov in the original series as the comic foil, but it works. Spock and Uhura have a vastly different relationship in the new movie, and it promises some interesting future plot lines. The two characters that are pretty much the same and both perfectly cast are Captain Kirk and Dr. McCoy. Chris Pine is a handsome young man with solid acting chops and he makes the future of Kirk look bright. Karl Urban has channeled DeForest Kelly and got it perfect. My only complaint is that Dr. McCoy and Captain Kirk need more by play in the main part of the story. Again, I see great room for growth in future episodes. It appears that we have had the last big screen acting from Leonard Nimoy, and he gets to leave on a winning note. Eric Banna is better in this movie than anything else I have seen him in.

It may be too late for you to get out to the AMC to catch this during it's current run, but don't fear. Filming is scheduled to start in a few months on the next big screen adventure of the Star Ship Enterprise, and I hold great hope that all will go well. Until it hits the big screen in 2013, "Live Long and Prosper."

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Lion King 3D



I know that the 3D boom that has hit in the last few years is about to burst. Too many films have used the effect to try and sell an mediocre movie as something special. It worked for Disney's Alice in Wonderland, which became a big hit despite being a big mess. There have been a number of movies in the last few months that have not increased box office because of the presence of 3D and they have alienated the audience with the unnecessary intrusion of the optical glasses. However, just because it is a gimmick that is too often unwelcome, does not mean that it can't be used in select circumstances. This is one of those cases. The truth of course is that "The Lion King" did not need any real buffing up for an audience. When it came out seventeen years ago, it was the first animated movie to make over three-hundred million at the domestic box office. It was the culmination of the Jeffery Katzenberg era at Disney and the start of animation box office avarice ever since. Dreamworks exists because the vacuum created at Disney by the death of Jeffery Wells, Disney's then President, was not filled by the guy who was largely responsible for the revival of the animation studio. His acrimonious departure and lawsuits, set the stage for other animation studios, particularly Pixar, to step in and steal the marketplace away. "The Lion King" was the last great roar of traditional hand-drawn animation before the thunderbolt of Toy Story and the dawn of the computer animated age.

So it might seem ironic or blasphemous, to use digital tools to turn "The Lion King" into a 3D special presentation. I did not find the 3D effect disconcerting during the viewing we went to this morning. In fact there were several traditionally drawn scenes that the added depth made more beautiful without becoming simply a novelty. The flock of flamingo like birds flying over the savannah looked more spectacular with the 3 D. The elephant's graveyard seemed a more dangerous place as Simba and Nala tried to flee the hyenas. The wildebeest stampede did not seem more threatening to me with the added 3D, but Rafiki's tree, and the vision of Mufasa in the water did seem richer with the extra depth. So much of the movie is bright, that the drawback of dim projection, which is inherent in a 3D presentation, was not noticeable. The best reason for the release of the movie in this format however, is to get parents to pull their kids into a theater to see a classic, animated movie on the big screen. I know I just paid to watch a commercial for the Blu-ray release of the Lion King, but I was glad to do it because many movies deserve to be enjoyed in a theater. The added 3D will not be enough to make me commit to a 3D television. Life is already complicated enough. There is no anger however from having been hooked into the theaters by the 3D gimmick.

We originally saw this movie in it's release in 1994. That was the year all hell broke loose in our lives. My mother had passed away, my Dad was living with us and he was suffering Alzheimer's related dementia. We were buying a house, and the move is beyond almost anything you can imagine. My parents had a three bedroom apartment filled with the equipment from their lives (having been professional entertainers for nearly fifty years). We had our own three bedroom apartment to move as well. Also, every storage unit in the apartment building we lived in was filled with my parents possessions as well. As were the two large storage rooms in the garage. During the escrow process, my wife and I spent every week night packing material. I moved hundreds of boxes back and forth from our apartment to the new house twenty miles away. Sometimes I made two or three trips a day in our overfilled mini van. This was all in advance of the real moving day that would not occur until late July. Father's Day weekend however, we took off and went to see this with our fiends ans my Dad in tow. It was a great break from all the work we were doing. The story of Simba, losing his father really pulled at my heart at that time. My Dad no longer called me by name, and he did not know exactly who we were most of the time. He did however love all the kids we went to the movie with, and it was a little bit like Mufasa in the stars when he was laughing and talking to us that day.

Revisiting a movie that you love and have not seen for a while is a wonderful experience. There is so much about the Lion King that is memorable and worth enjoying again. The exuberance of "I Just Can't Wait to be King", is energizing. The whole sequence of Scar and the hyenas plotting a take over of the pride land was so reminiscent of a Nazi rally in Germany of the thirties that it is a wonder it made it into the film. Of course the humor of Timon and Pumba is broad but also very clever. The story works it's wonders from the very opening. In fact I remember that the trailer for the Lion King in it's original run was not really a trailer at all. They simply ran the first few minutes of the movie with the "Circle of Life" section ending with a crashing title card to punctuate at the end. Today, I heard the people behind me, suck in their breath, just as I had done we we first saw that opening.

The songs from Elton John and Tim Rice were just as charming today as they were seventeen years ago. Hans Zimmer did the score and the African themes are so effectively used that they sound familiar, even if you don't listen to world music on a regular basis. I had completely forgotten that Johnathon Taylor Thomas provided the voice of the young Simba. I don't think I ever knew that Moria Kelly was the voice of the adult Nala. Like most animated movies, the voice actors are the key to making the images come to life for us. Everyone was well cast and I don't mean to diminish their work, but Jeremy Irons and James Earl Jones just completely own this movie. Iron's Scar is one of the truly evil characters in the Disney stable of villains. His oily delivery and bored indifference to the suffering that comes later in the film is just right. Jones had already cemented the title of world's greatest voice casting in the Star Wars movies. It seems unfair that he should get to be the voice of Mufasa also, but there could never be anyone else that would have been right.

I understand if you don't want to give in to the Disney marketing machine and see this in 3D in the theaters. It may appear to be manipulative to add the unnecessary third dimension, and it takes hutzpah to ask people to pay to see a commercial. I however can live with my choice because I got to relive a wonderful movie, remember my father in better times, and I did not even get a headache from the experience.