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."