Saturday, December 29, 2012

Django Unchained

If you don't like Quentin Tarantino films, you will definitely not like this. This is essentially a remix of movie ideas sampled, and arranged by Tarantino to please himself and his audience. There is excessive violence, clever dialogue, and a mix of original characters being brought to a boil by the master of classy trashy cinema. I have always counted myself among the legions of fans who look forward to the next Tarantino extravaganza. I enjoy repartee and tension and humor all being mixed together by someone who has an ear for interesting ways of speaking. From his very first film, scenes he has written and directed have crackled with verbal exchanges that are often on mundane topics but never sound dull. In "Django Unchained", that verbal fencing is contrasted by the juxtaposition of elegant and proper language as spoken by a German immigrant to whom English is not native, and the barely literate (oftentimes illiterate) grunting, shouting and sloppy native use of language by domestic speakers.

"Reservoir Dogs" and "Pu;p Fiction" were riffs on modern American gangster films. "Kill Bill 1 and 2" are pastiche kung fu cinema from the Asian markets of the 70s and 80s. "Inglorious Basterds" was a World War 2 adventure story told through revisionist history. It is therefore no surprise that "Django Unchained" represents the spaghetti westerns of the 60s crossed with the black exploitation films of the 70s. The unusual story being told is cloaked in many of the touchstones of those eras. There is the smart outsider, who manages to beat everyone he comes up against, usually people you are happy to see him outwit. There is the wronged individual seeking vengeance in a single minded fashion. Finally, Tarantino throws in the oppressed black man against the white establishment as a way of challenging the conventions that guide the thinking of mainstream audiences. All of this is done with a flare for dramatic changes in fortune and mixed with a music track that is not in keeping with the setting but is entirely evocative of our cinematic memory.

In praise of the film, I'll start with the music selections. Everybody knows that in addition to the shots and stories and characters he sponged up as a young man, Tarantino has an ear for music. He finds cues and passages and whole songs that reflect the mood he wants us to feel or the memory that we need to have in the back of our mind. Ennio Morricone compositions are not a major twist, after all, this is a spaghetti western. So when the Morricone cue shows up, those of us who, like Tarantino, grew up on Sergio Leone films, will smile as we see The Man With No Name crossing a desert or facing down a band of evil doers. I may have mentioned this in a recent post but It bears noting here; Johnny Cash lives! I hear his music being used in trailers and films constantly. The reason Cash is used so much is that his voice, and the themes of so many of his songs, immediately evoke the lonely oppression of a man by the forces of the world. The chained slaves in sparse clothing being exposed to the elements under harsh conditions is underlined by the sonorous notes of Cash's voice. "Django" also uses a pop hero of the early 70's to bring in the beatitudes and despair of those times. Jim Croce died when I was a sophomore in high school, and I remember crying when news of his plane crash spread across the campus. He was not the biggest pop star of the time, but he was on the threshold of greatness and he had a handful of big hits that everyone could enjoy. The theme song from the race car movie "The Last American Hero" was Croce's "Ive Got a Name". The melancholy tone with the defiant lyrics works just right in the scene it is used in for this film. It should not work, but Tarantino senses that it would and he goes with his instinct instead of his common sense. Then there are a series of more contemporary songs and riffs from rap and R & B, that fit the themes of the movie. I can't name them all but the work a lot more effectively than they did in "The Man with the Iron Fists" a couple of months ago. Their use was more judicious and well timed.

Tarantino has a stock company of actors that he takes full advantage of. Somewhere in time, Michael Parks and Don Johnson, imprinted on Quentin and they seem to be muses for his retro visions. Michael Bowen and Dennis Christopher are not names that most people will recognize, but Bowen has been in at least three previous Tarantino films. Christopher is a welcome note from a late seventies film that undoubtedly impressed Tarantino. Samuel Jackson was built to deliver lines that include the "N" word and the use of the phrase "Mother ......". The background cast is well matched for the white trash roles they are placed in. M.C. Gainey is always a welcome presence and around our house Walton Goggins is a star. As for the leads, they are all as expected excellent. Jamie Fox is not given much range, but he glowers like crazy and the physicality of the role fits him like the short jacket and suede hat he wears in the last third of the picture. Leonardo DiCaprio is new to the Tarantino world, but I suspect he will be back because he oozes reptilian Southern Charm with an effete but cruel manner that is reminiscent of Christoph Waltz performance in "Basterds". Waltz himself is partially transformed. He is more culturally enlightened, and morally complex than his character in the earlier movie, but comparing him to that standard is unfair. Most of the amusing dialogue in the film does once again stream from his lips, which makes him the most interesting of the characters although he is really a supporting character to Fox.

There are no scenes as dramatically tense as the farmhouse introduction in "Inglorious Basterds" or as insanely over the top tense as the basement bar scene. The truth is Tarantino shot his three way showdown wad in that scene in that basement. So instead of the "Good, the Bad and the Ugly" faceoff we got there, here we get a more standard confrontation between Waltz's Dr. Schultz and DiCaprio's plantation owner Candie. The violence that ensues here is every bit as brutal and more so as the WWII picture. There are some very clever moments of dialogue for Waltz as he resolves his taking of criminals for bounty. Fox gets a chance to mimic and enhance a Waltz scene from earlier in the film when it appears that he has been thoroughly defeated. I felt a little like the love story that motivates Fox was under developed but that the hate story between his Django and just about everybody else was well done. Slavery is treated as the abomination that it was, and the vicious nature of human beings is exposed in a very unflattering manner. Some things are hard to watch, and that may be a good thing because it reminds us that we are all just a couple of steps away from being primate animals.

There are some sharp comedic bits in the film, and places where it hurts to laugh. There are also some simply silly moments of laughter, as evidenced by the trademark on top of Dr. Schultz wagon. The mixture of genres and tones by Tarantino has resulted in some calling him more of a DJ rather than a director. I can completely see that analogy. At the moment, "Django Unchained" ranks as a middling effort from my point of view. It never quite achieves the heights that "Inglorious Basterds" reached and it is not as obsessively referential as the "Kill Bill" movies were. All of his films would stand near the top of any list of entertaining movies, so to be in the middle of a very strong list is not something to be ashamed of. If you like Tarantino, you will like this. If he irritates you, this is not the film that will relieve you of that condition. I just hope he keeps turning out entertainment on a regular basis. We need film makers who want the audience to care about movies and be able to remember them.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Jack Reacher

Since the earliest days of movies, stars have been fascinating to audiences. Fan magazines have been packed with pictures, stories and interviews featuring their favorite actors. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, those stories were carefully managed and negative info about the stars rarely made the headlines. There were occasional exceptions like the trials of Fatty Arbuckle and Errol Flynn, but for the most part, private lives were often kept private. We live in different times now a days. There is a 24 hour media cycle and everything ends up on line at some point. Tom Cruise has been maybe the biggest star in Hollywood films for most of the last thirty years, and his dirty laundry is often exhibited and speculated over. Frankly, I don't give a damn. His religious views, marriage, sex life are of no importance to me. I care about his films, their production development, business decisions and his performances in those movies. Everything else can pound sand as far as I'm concerned. Tom Cruise is a "MOVIE STAR" and he makes films that for the most part work.

After the debacle of "Rock of Ages", Cruise is back in familiar territory with Jack Reacher. This is a criminal procedural with a heavy action bent and a good measure of vengeance film thrown in. I have not read any of the books the movie is based on, but after seeing this I am very likely to become a fan. This is a great idea for a character. In essence, Reacher is a modern day Lone Ranger. He is an outsider with skills and a willingness to pursue justice, even if it means he has to go outside the lines to do so. This will allow the character to work in different scenarios, settings and with different casts of characters on a regular basis. I heard some of the criticism of his casting last year, Cruise being 5'7" and the character in the books being 6'5". As he has proven repeatedly in his career, Cruise is usually up to the challenge when it comes to physicality. His devotion to staying physically capable of doing these roles is obvious by his build and the lack of obvious aging in his face and body. I don't think he needed to loom over the other characters in this story to be intimidating.

The story gets a little convoluted at times. The ultimate source of the motivation is as out there as the pharmaceutical company conspiracy that turned out to be the motivation in "The Fugitive" twenty years ago. It's one of those "huh?" moments, that ultimately does not matter. We can follow how Reacher's character strung out the facts, looked at events and then made inferences. There is a lot more deductive reasoning in this movie than there was in the Robert Downey Jr., Sherlock Holmes films. The action in this movie also makes a lot more sense. There are a couple of very well staged fight sequences, and an excellent car chase scene. The car chase will remind anyone who saw films in the 70s of movies they probably loved as well. The chase is reminiscent of the car chase scenes in "Bullet", "The French Connection", and "The Seven Ups". I still have not caught up with "Drive" from last year, but I suspect it features some of the same kinds of real world stunts and a actor who looks believable behind the wheel. Cruise sells this character especially well when he drives that Chevelle SS though Pittsburgh, chasing down bad guys while simultaneously being chased by the cops.

As far as I'm concerned, now that Clint Eastwood is semi retired and Gene Hackman is permanently retired, there is no better actor on screen than Robert Duvall. He gets to put in a short appearance in this film, but he shows up at the right moments and leaves the exact kind of impression you want from a character such as he plays here. Rosamund Pike is a beautiful woman who plays intelligence very well in this part. While she does end up being the damsel in distress, before that happens she is a fierce character that Reacher plays against and she adds a good deal to the quality of the film. I think Richard Jenkins is one of the great character actors working today, but he needs more parts that take advantage of his gifts. His role in this film was not distinctive enough for him to be filling it. None of the bad guys gets much chance to make an impression. Werner Herzog, is creepy, but that is mostly the script and the makeup that sells this character.

The backstory that Reacher tells concerning the original suspect in the crime is also chilling. There was one line that I thought introduced a bit of political bullshit into the film, but it had nothing to do with the story itself so I quickly forgot it. This is the film that will fill the action void until all the shoot em ups open in January. It is actually a pretty smart mystery, that introduces us to a unique new film character. I enjoyed the hell out of this film and I want to spend more time with Jack Reacher, especially if he is played by a professional like Tom Cruise. This looked like a pretty modestly produced film. There are not a bunch of special effects shots or big set pieces. We get good actors selling a solid story, that involves a good amount of physical brutality. That shouts "Merry Christmas" to me.

Les Misérables

Every year since I was first married, we have made it a point to go out after Christmas activities at home and see a movie. That first year, we went despite my parents protestations to see a movie at 10:00 at night. 1980's film was "First Family" a truly terrible comedy starring my favorite TV star Bob Newhart. Over the years our selection has been a bit more careful. Some of our holiday selections seemed to fit with the mood or spirit of the day; for example "Phantom of the Opera". Other choices flew in the face of the holiday, I guess a kind of counter programming, like "I Am Legend". Last year we saw the Spielberg film "War Horse" on Christmas Day, and it was a solid mixture of drama and hope for the holiday. Lat summer, when we saw the trailer for Les Misérables, and it proclaimed that it was opening on Christmas, it seems our fate was set. The haunting singing of Anne Hathaway in the piece provoke tears within the short time span of the promo. I have never made a secret of my sentimentality and this movie was tapping into it before I even knew what was happening.

I've never seen Les Misérables on stage. Although it has been a popular musical for nearly thirty years, it was not something that I sought out. I have seen the 1935 film version of the story, so I had a passing familiarity with the plot. Anyone who has watched TV or You Tube in the last few years has heard "I Dreamed A Dream", as it was the song that Susan Boyle sang that got her all that attention. It is a lovely song and it works for the film, but it is only one of maybe three songs from the film that seems complete. Having grown up on musicals made for films, I am used to songs having a beginning and an end and they occur in a context or story. It is true that "Phantom" uses the same sing through style as this film, I found that much easier to make sense of and enjoy. Way too often, the movement in the story here consists of people singing the script, without melody or chorus. Instead of finding it engaging, I found it off putting. My guess is that had I been more familiar with the music and the story, I would have embraced it more fully. I'm sad to say I'm not as enthusiastic as I would like to be.

The movie is shot (or at least it was presented in) an aspect ratio that feels a little cramped. It looked like a straight 1:85 framing, which is fairly standard, but is not typical of big screen films with sweeping backgrounds and soaring camera shots. There are so many close ups to allow the performers to connect with the songs that it literally gets right in your face with the melodramatic events taking place on screen. Hugh Jackman sings his heart out and his voice is strong and moving, but we get caught up looking in his eyes so often that other characters seem to be unnecessary in the scenes he is in. Hathaway is spectacular in voice and look. The tragic arc of her story seems so quick to me however that the fall has less of the emotional depth to it than I was expecting. Russel Crowe may not be a professional singer, but he acquitted himself admirably here, he was certainly not the embarrassment that Pierce Brosnan was in "Mama Mia" a couple of years ago. Crowe also gets the close up treatment, and in his case, the method seemed to work better because he was using his eyes more than his voice to convey the character's feelings.

The last third of the picture introduces a new story line and moves the characters we have been following to the background. These new characters never get much of a chance to develop, they are icons of "heroic student", "intellectually awakened rich boy", and "plucky but tragic street urchin". There is a love story that seems to develop almost entirely off screen, so that when characters act in a manner that suggests that their love is the only thing that matters, it is a little hard for me to go with. The one character that stands out is a conflicted romantic rival for Cossette, the little girl grown up and in love. Eponine is also a little girls grown up but she gets the big song in the last part of the film and while it does produce goosebumps, that is mostly due to the performance and not the story of her sacrifice.

I enjoyed the movie immensely, but I never felt the passion in the 2 hours and forty minutes watching it, that I felt in the minute and a half of the teaser trailer. That is an emotional letdown. The film is beautiful to look at, despite the often ugly parts of life it shows us. The performers are all top notch, and some of their voices deserve awards just for the sounds that they produced. More than any other musical of this sort, I felt the stage origins of the film. The key songs attempting to finish an act in a rousing way, the spotlight song for a featured performer, the scene and setting of events for dramatic effect all seemed to shout "THEATER" to me. I do enjoy the theatrical experience, but i wanted a more cinematic experience with this movie. I wanted to be taken into the story, and I wanted to care about the characters. I simply felt I was watching them go through the story, as performers rather than actors. It was a good film with some flaws that took me out of the experience. Maybe a second shot will improve my reaction to it, but for now, muted praise rather than glorious enthusiasm.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

This was a film that looked "indie" from the first time I saw the trailer. In truth it it fairly mainstream, with a story line that would fit in alongside most of today's romantic comedies. The main differences are the things that separate and bring together our two main characters. Both Bradley Cooper's Pat and Jennifer Lawrence's Tiffany are afflicted by deep emotional problems . They have the kinds of mental illnesses that are treatable, but require a discipline that each of them has difficulty mastering.  We get to know these characters in a traditional way, with a traditional story arc, but the dialogue, complications and settings are what make it unique. With one minor reservation, I bought the story and the outcome, but the reservation is an important one that might effect another persons willingness to go along for the ride.

It probably will sound petty, but my concern has to do with the accuracy of the way mental illness is depicted here. In the first half of the film, it is harrowing, and frightening and incredibly honest. The way Pat is obsessed with his former wife and the delusions that he suffers from are shown in vivid detail. It is too easy to imagine what a nightmare it would be to have a family member so close to going over the edge at any minute. Pat's family is subjected to abuse, embarrassment and fear as a result of his outbursts. His mother legitimately worries that he could end up institutionalized, and she has taken on the responsibility of making sure he gets back into the world. His father is also concerned but seems to be distracted by his own mental health issues. Pat Sr. is played by Robert DeNiro in a performance that reminds us that he is indeed a talented actor, even though he has been coasting for years in a variety of product. His facial expressions and world weary voice, combined with a calm mania, show us that the roots of mental illness may indeed be genetic. This will probably be a performance recognized at awards time in the supporting category. DeNiro is not flashy in the role, he is just real and emotional enough to make us care, despite his obvious failings.

Bradley Cooper has been a pretty boy movie star for several years now. Here, he gets the chance to work some acting chops that he has shown in other roles, but which now bring him forward as a true dramatic actor and not simply a leading man. The expressions on his face reveal his yearning for his old life and his wife, but they also share the underlying anger and aggression that frightened her off in the first place. The script tells us what he did to get into this position, but even better, it allows him to show us where he is at any given time. In the fist part of the film, all of this rings true. When the story starts to play out the conventions, he still does a good job, it is the script that weakens the film. There is progress made in the story for both of our leads, but that progress seems like it was earned a little too easily given what we see from each of them. Jennifer Lawrence is in the third movie I have seen her in this year, and she does her best acting in this film. She is so believable as the wounded widow with disturbing social tendencies, that it is a little hard to believe the story arc develops as quickly as it does once the dance competition is on the horizon. Again, the fault is in the conventional arc of the story, not in the performance itself.

Other than the "too pat" changes in their mental stability, the story is a winner. Each of these people has to find the ability to trust the other and discover the strength to face their problems. There is a dance competition which becomes Tiffany's main focus and for which Pat has to be cajoled into caring about. Pat has to confront his father's fanaticism about the Eagles Football team, and his own obsession with his wife. Most of these issues come together like any straight rom-com, simultaneous and with the greatest chance to disrupt the blossoming romance as possible. Each protagonist has failings that they then have to own up to in order to gain the final acceptance that we want all along. While traditional in structure, the devices are different. They involve gambling, ballroom dancing and dysfunctional relatives. In addition to Pat's Dad, Tiffany's sister and brother in-law have mental issues to be resolved. Even Pat's therapist has his own problems that become an obstacle over the course of the film. The creativity of these issues and the way the characters play them out are what make this movie special.

The music was exceptionally good in the background. The score fit well with the story and the popular music selections worked as devices to bring characters together or remind us of the circumstances. I heard a Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duet in one scene. Johnny Cash was a great musician, and it seems right to me that we hear so much more of his music now in films than when he was alive. Chris Tucker comes out of nowhere and injects some fun into the proceedings in a way that makes Cooper and Lawrence's development a little more believable. In the end, you know that the story is not going to pull the Ernest Hemingway plot development that so enrages Pat early on. Instead, we are going to get the ending that his character would have written if he was the author of  A Farewell to Arms. It may not be cutting edge indie film making, but it is romantic and satisfying.

Friday, December 14, 2012

The Hobbit An Unexpected Journey

When my kids were three and five, I'm afraid I doomed them to life as geeks. I read them a chapter a night of "The Hobbit" and they were hooked. Twelve years ago we anticipated the release of the "Lord of the Rings" films and watched each one, enthralled by the detail that Peter Jackson managed to get on screen. That sprawling work covered a canvas of three films and nearly twelve hours once the special editions of the films were made available. Everyone knew that if it was possible with all the legal entanglements, a version of "The Hobbit" would be coming our way. What we did not know is that Jackson planned on making a book that was less than a third as long as the "Ring" series into a three part epic on the same scale. I think many fans were a bit nervous about this. It seems to be an over reach and a money grab, two things that a lot of fans would be turned off by. The film was also shot using an advanced 48 frame per second technique that has been both praised and trashed, and it was also shot in 3D. So a lot of things can go wrong.  I made a conscious choice to seek out a standard format version of the film because I did not want all of the bells and whistles to interfere with the story and the experience.

Last month for "Skyfall", I went to the midnight preview showing with my youngest, last night I saw "The Hobbit" with my firstborn. Her sister was not feeling well and skipped going with us, but Allison has been waiting for this since she was five and she was not going to wait any longer. I am glad to report that both of us liked the results quite well. She is a bit more enthusiastic than I was, but I have only minor issues, that for many fans will not really be a problem at all. Ultimately, I think it would be interesting for Jackson to reverse engineer the film and instead of expanding it for "Special Edition", he releases a two and a half hour, streamlined version of the film that sticks very closely to the original book. The material that fills the movie is often interesting, and it fills in information about characters and background history, but it is not essential for the story.

The first thing that is very noticeably about this film is that it is being closely tied in to the earlier set of films. Even though the events we are seeing are supposed to have happened sixty years prior to "LOTR", characters that were a part of that series are introduced into this storyline. The two sentences that make reference to the Necromancer, who we later discover is a renewed version of Sauron, are turned into a side plot that will continue to crop up in the rest of the story. The character of Thorin Oakenshield is given an elaborate background and a continuing plot line that involves orcs seeking revenge. This gives rise to more chase based elements in the film than were present in the book. It works for keeping the action in the film going, but it changes the tone of the story from a simpler quest, to a broader ongoing battle. Again, it feels like this is all being set up as a prequel to LOTR, and not the story of Bilbo Baggins adventure. Despite the length of the movie, because of this change, events often feel rushed. The leisurely but hazardous journey to the Lonely Mountain, becomes a series of escapes not from situations that the Dwarfs, Hobbit, and Wizard fall into, but the machinations of a deeper power. This works well for all the fans that want the epic nature of the other films, it diminishes much of the charm of the book, which was essentially a children's story to begin with.

For an illustration of what is lost, although we got a lengthy visit and meal at Bilbo's hobbit hole in the first hour of the film, most of the Dwarves remain nothing more than the visual caricatures that they are designed as. There are no long conversations on horseback, or around the campfire that give us a chance to be familiar with the individuals of the company. Two of the other thirteen get a scene of two to show what is important about them or how they fit into the story. The rest remain a chartering collection of types that can be moved around without much planning or consequence as to which is which. I can say that the casting of Bilbo himself is practically perfect. Martin Freeman has a humble everyman quality that radiates comfort. He is also witty and brave when we least expect it. In the final fifteen minutes of the film, his version of Bilbo gets to stand out quite a bit more and we can see the potential that Gandalf saw from the beginning. The game of riddles that he plays with Gollum, works out because he has just the right amount of fear and pluckiness to pull it off. The film stops at a pause in the adventures, not at a complete story. Once the whole series of films are available, I suspect that the movie will feel a bit different. I enjoyed what I experienced, but it was not the atmosphere of adventure that I expected. The solemn nature of the group and the background story, push this film to be something different.

I have read some brutal criticism of the movie in it's 48 fps format. That while the format works wonders for some scenes, it renders other cheap and artificial. The standard screening that I saw had none of those problems. All of the epic outdoor scenery of New Zealand is used to suggest Middle Earth, again in spectacular fashion.   There was substantially greater use of CGI in this film than in the older movies. Most of the orc characters are clearly not actors in costume and make up. Although the scale is often the same, I think some sense of personality is lost as a result. The actors playing the fourteen members of the company, are real. The antagonists they face are often not and the tension is lessened a bit as a result. I will be visiting Middle Earth again as part of the holiday season. My impressions may change somewhat, but as for the moment, I can recommend the film to fans of the LOTR series wholeheartedly, yet my endorsement for fans of "The Hobbit" is slightly more muted.

We get only a couple of shots that hint at Smaug, the dragon who is the real antagonist of the story. This seems strange since ultimately, this is what the quest is all about, dislodging him from under the mountain. Allison and I disagree as to how the final two films will distribute the story. She is expecting a longer trek to the Lonely Mountain. I on the other hand, believe the confrontation and banter with Smaug will be the focus of the next film. We have a year to find out, in the meanwhile, there is plenty to keep you occupied during Bilbo's "Unsuspected Journey".

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Red Dawn

Having been a big fan of the original "Red Dawn" when it first came out, there was pretty much no need for me to go see this. The context of the original revolves around heightened tensions during the Cold War. While it was unlikely that conventional warfare would come to the U.S., at least the idea was plausible and the international situation provided a real sense of "what if?". The opening credits of this film do play upon a number of American vulnerabilities, mostly economic, and the continuing belligerence of the North Koreans. Of course most people know that when this movie was completed three years ago, the enemy in the film was China. Somewhere in the marketing department, it was decided that the Chinese as antagonists would limit the appeal of the movie in international markets. So, CGI and some re-shoots, render the Asian invaders Korean instead of Chinese. A scenario that is even less plausible and sort of shoots the "what if?' factor in the foot.

I won't spend too much time on the storytelling issues that undermine this movie. They tend to be glaring and it is not really the point of the movie. The original was a piece of rah-rah Americanism, at the height of Cold War paranoia during the 1980s. This version keeps the story in America, but moves it from the mid-west to the Spokane area. maybe the Koreans needed the lumber instead of the wheat fields, there is really no reason for this alteration or location. The idea of an insurgency against invaders, ought to have some dramatic parallels since the U.S. has been fighting such resistance in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The main character, a veteran of Iraq, has a couple of lines that deal with this but that is all. The original involved a conflicted Cuban Officer working with the Russians, in a reversed position. We spend almost no time in the enemy camp. There is no discussion of politics or strategy or history. Whether you likes the original John Milius script or not, it clearly had a point of view. This rendering has no point of view other than to stage action sequences. There is a hint of building an internal resistance but it is mostly just that, a hint. This movie is not interested in bigger ideas, it wants to make cool action scenes and develop a traditional set of romantic stories against this background. Blow stuff up and look cool doing so, that's it.

So how well do they do the action scenes and the blowing up of stuff? It is just competent enough to be satisfying from an action point of view, but it is not really memorable. There are a few ideas repeated from the original film, but it takes the "Wolverines" about ten minutes to go from scared teens to dedicated insurgents. They get access to equalizing explosives within a couple of minutes of their actually engaging the enemy, and then it is all, bang, bang, bang. The only attack that I can recall just a few hours after seeing the movie was the skateboard delivery system in one sequence. That one worked alright. The others were just part of the usual cacophony of background explosions. There are a couple of chase sequences that indulge in the dreaded shaky cam experience, thankfully those episodes are relatively brief. In the last quarter of the film, there is a traditional infiltration action sequence that was serviceable but again not memorable.

The 1984 version of "Red Dawn" was not a deep character study, but you at least knew who the characters were before they were sacrificed in the story. Here you get characters dying, but you barely have any idea of their existence prior to their death. There are two exceptions toward the end of the movie, but at that point it is really moot, we have been reduced to Cowboys and Indians in the backyard. The teens in the original had to fight the elements and were nearly starving. Here, they move in and out of town freely and I am not sure why they thrill to grabbing a whole bunch of food from Subway, except it was probably a product placement deal. The citizens of occupied Spokane are still going to fast food places, so why the "Wolverines" can't side up to a five dollar footlong is never really explained. The strategy of the invading Koreans is not explained, and the need for the secret communication system that resisted their own weapon is underdeveloped. The outside American forces are injected into the story, not as lost soldiers but rather, draftees sent on a mission.

Chris Helmsworth has gone on to bigger and better films since this. He does however have the two best lines in the movie. One I won't repeat right here, it was a little crude (Although my wife thinks it would make a good bumper sticker). The other may be a real saying of our military personnel, but it was the first time I remember hearing it. As a Marine, visiting home when the invasion starts, he brings the locals a lot of knowhow. He also is free with the platitudes. The line that I am caring with me after this movie is pretty simple, "Marines don't die, they just go to hell and regroup". That's the best line in the movie, and if it is not enough to interest you in seeing this, then by all means skip it. There will be something else with explosions coming along to entertain you soon.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Every Christmas, I hope for a Holiday treat to take home in my memory and warm me up for the holidays. Last year I got "Artur Christmas", a delightful re-imagining of the Santa Claus story. In the past, I've been lucky enough to see "A Christmas Story" and "One Magic Christmas" and "The Santa Clause" as part of my Christmas season. Now those films are old chestnuts that we can bring out on video during the season and enjoy again. This Christmas, there basically are no Christmas themed films. I am not sure what happened to Hollywood, whether they have given up on Holiday films or if there are simply no more stories to tell. The closest we have come this year to a seasonal film is "Rise of the Guardians", a children's adventure animation that features Santa Claus as a character but actually takes place around Easter.

I did not have high hopes for the film going in. The story sounded a little complicated and it reminded me of some bloated drama, straining for relevance and trying to build a franchise. The idea of a team of heroes working together goes back thousands of years. Earlier this year we had "The Avengers", so it is not a new concept. It just seemed to me that The Sandman, The Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Jack Frost were pushing it a little bit. None of these folklore really seem the action hero type. However, it has been too long since I saw the inside of a movie theater, my daughter was really up for it, and it was as close to a holiday movie as I was going to get this year so I plunged in. I am happy to report that I quite enjoyed myself, and while it may not be a holiday perennial, "Rise of the Guardians" should entertain you and the youngsters for a couple of hours and leave you with some pleasant memories.

This is an animated film, and that does mean nowadays that computers are being used to render the illustrations in a lifelike way. The drawings are beautifully designed and they come up with some creative ideas to make things a little fresh. The Easter Bunny for instance is not a cuddly little rabbit bu a well muscled and armed hare, with an Australian accent courtesy of Hugh Jackman. I don't know that there is a reason for these slight changes, but they do make the story seem a bit more unique. Santa Claus appears to be Russian, with dark trim on the red suit instead of white. He is also tattooed with the naughty and nice lists on each of his forearms. I guess this is a tip to the now well known trope of "Love" and "Hate" on each hand. Santa also carries two big sabers, maybe that is why he needs to be Russian, to justify his choice of weapons. While both the Bunny and Santa sling those weapons around at different points, they are never directed at actual human beings. It might be a bit traumatizing for the Easter bunny to bash in a head with a boomerang or for Santa to decapitate a villain before he comes down the chimney into your house.

The other "Guardians" , designated by the Man in the Moon to protect the innocence and dreams of the children of the world, are given much more backstory. The Tooth Fairy, is designed as a cross between a rainbow trout and a butterfly. She is assisted by thousands of miniature fairies who do the actual collecting of teeth. The Sandman for some reason has no voice but appears to have the greatest amount of power of all the guardians. He is vividly brought to life as a golden imp who spreads magic dust and can command some of the elements to assist him. The newest Guardian is Jack Frost, a reluctant draftee in the battle against fear that the guardians are to undertake. The story takes the greatest liberties with his appearance and history. In the end it works very well at giving us a little mystery and a rooting interest. As Jack is the newest of the Guardians, I suppose he is also the most vulnerable, so that is why he is the main propagandist standing up against "Pitch" Dark, also known as the "boogeyman".

There are a few too many direct confrontations between Jack and Pitch. The use of frosted lightening against black sand becomes a little repetitive after a couple of these confrontations. The final resolutions are pretty traditional by children's heroic standards. All of it is beautifully illustrated, the design of the backgrounds, and the details of the characters are really well worth the money you'll spend seeing this. Santa's elves reminded me quite a bit of the minions from "Despicable Me". The Tooth Fairy and her "baby" faeries are a little precious, but kids will love them, and it is a lot less scary to think that they are coming into your bedroom at night rather than Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. I also liked the fact that while there was a song, it was not inserted into the film, but played over the credits. Sometimes a movie like this can be a little cloying by the presence of a musical moment. I remember how the song in "Hook" took us out of the story, even though it was a nice tender moment. Nothing like that here.

"Rise of the Guardians" is a colorful adventure story for kids. It has enough inventiveness to make the characters feel a little more "new" while still sticking to some traditional roots of those characters. The idea of a team of heroes is not as far fetched as it first seemed to me to be, and the look of the movie is really solid. While it is not a true holiday film, it plays like one because of the audience it appeals to and the characters it features. I was impressed with some of the creativity and story telling, even if it did seem convoluted at times. A solid family film that doesn't insult your intelligence.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


History is where the greatest stories are found. There is drama, surprise, horror, romance and suspense in the events of the past. The number of subjects that can be explored is limitless and the subject of Abraham Lincoln, is rich with potential and has been mined deeply in the past. Biographical pictures can sometimes introduce us to characters that we have barely any knowledge of, or they can celebrate those we know well in a grandiose manner. What it takes to make a successful movie out of those bits and pieces of history is a great storyteller. Over the last forty years, there has been no greater cinematic storyteller than Steven Spielberg. From "Jaws", to "War Horse", Spielberg has usually managed to tell us compelling stories that are highly visual in nature and they touch our hearts. This film should have been the perfect combination of subject, story and film maker. While the story is intelligent and thoughtfully told, in the end for me, it was more hollow then it should have been.

Otto Von Bismark, said more than a century ago that "laws are like sausages, it is best not to see them being made." The story of the passage of the 13th Amendment is the real focus here. Although that passage was accomplished through the cleverness and political acumen of our 16th President, it is still a legislative process with multiple characters whose motives are mixed. Way back in 1972, a stage musical was transferred to film on the passing of the Declaration of Independence. "1776" was an interesting movie, but not a popular success and even with songs, the legislative process is a slog. Aaron Sorkin has written brilliant stories about the political process of legislation both on television (The West Wing) and in movies (The American President, Charlie Wilson's War), but he had the advantage of plugging clever word play into the mouths of fast talking characters. Tony Kushner, the screenwriter for this film, had a more difficult task. He had to find a narrative that would put many of Lincoln's own words into this story, he had to invent words for all the other characters, and he had to stay true to the political speech of the times. As a result, we often get great stories told by the President, forced into meetings that might not have made the most sense for them to be used in. During the first half of the movie, every scene with Lincoln has one of those charming stories. While the homespun wisdom of Lincoln feels accurate to the character, it also feels shoe horned into the narrative.

A complete Lincoln biopic may not have been necessary, and I understand the need to focus the story a bit. Yet by cramming it into the short window of the lame duck congress that ultimately moved the legislation forward, the emphasis stays off of the President too much of the time. This may have been Lincoln's last great success as President, but from a story perspective, it lacks the kind of drama the Emancipation Proclamation presented. Having read and loved "Team of Rivals", the book that Spielberg and company largely based their story on, I can say that it was the proclamation that represented the more interesting dilemma Lincoln faced, and it was a more natural story to focus on. There is one sequence here where Lincoln gives voice to the whole process of the decision that he used in issuing the Emancipation Proclamation.  It was a more interesting five minutes of mid 19th century politics and law than most of the histrionic speechifying done in the Congress in support of the 13th Amendment in this film. The backroom deals and political payoffs and the political divisions in the Republican Party at the time, are shown clearly but just not made very interesting. Instead of being a living breathing embodiment of Lincoln's political skills, it feel more like a tableaux of Lincoln, during the process. This film is a history lesson not a drama. I like history but it may be difficult to embrace it without the narrative it needs.

There is so much right in the film that it is difficult to pinpoint those elements that ultimately undermine it. Daniel Day Lewis, is spot on perfect as Lincoln. From what I have read of his speeches and the history around them, his voice is probably closer to the real voice of Abraham Lincoln than the sonorous tones of Royal Dano, who provides the voice of Lincoln at Disneyland and Disney World. Day-Lewis manages to stand tall even with the bowed shoulders of Lincoln. His face looks gnarled and worn in the job. His movements display the real movements of a man who is tired and carries the weight of both the world and his young son on his shoulders. (Just watch how Tad climbs up on father Abe in the sequence in front of the fire, it seems like something a man of that time would do with a child). The only weaknesses in the performance come from the tense confrontations he has with his wife, played by Sally Field. In those scenes he seems to be straining for drama rather than interacting with his wife. Sally Field is actually more subtle in the two "fight" sequences.  When he is telling the stories that Lincoln told so often, he is a natural. When he explains his positions to the cabinet and his political allies, Day Lewis feels authentic. He is robbed of greatness sometimes by the way the script forces the stories into the narrative. The opening sequence tries to cheat the Gettysburg Address into the time period of the story, by having soldiers repeat the lines back to the President who had said them almost two years earlier. We get a great version of Daniel Day Lewis doing the Second Inaugural address, but it is done as a benediction after the President has been assassinated. Too often, great moments are being imposed on the story that the filmmaker chose to tell, and the stitching is too obvious.

The movie is filled with great moments and terrific actors. Behind every beard or costume was a performer doing some darn fine work. The technical elements of the movie are also superb. The visuals are right, the sets impressive, the cinematography is excellent. I did not notice John William's score, which is both a blessing and a curse. We get a more natural story when the events are not always being sweetened by the music, but the parts of the story that touched me usually had music to them. Not the music of the score but songs of the times, sung by soldiers and by the congressmen. In the final analysis, I admire the movie a great deal, and I was moved by some of the bits and pieces. "Lincoln" is not a work to be ashamed of, but it is not a work of art, and the biggest failing for me, who reveres Abraham Lincoln above all other American Heroes, is that it is also not a work of heart.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Twilight Breaking Dawn Part 2

Since the first time I saw the poster for the first Twilight movie way back in 2008, I thought this was going to be a soap opera featuring teen vampires and werewolves. We got the books and ran through them lickety split, just in time for the release of the final novel, "Breaking Dawn". In the whole time, my opinion on these has not wavered, it is melodrama, disguised as horror, with pretty people play acting earth shattering love. None of what I have just written should be construed as a slap at the series. I just want to point out that judging it by any other standard seems to be a little silly. As a soap opera featuring teens playing monsters, it is the emotional ride that the readers and viewers want. If it is not what you wanted to see, then there was no point in watching it, and certainly very little point in bitching about it. The final novel in the series, which has been broken up into two parts for the films, is just over the top crazy with emotional payoffs for the faithful. There is a wedding, a wedding night, a monster baby and birth, followed by animal imprinting in a way that resolves the big emotional conflict in the whole series. Once that is done, there was not much more to say, but since your story needs to have some conflict, let's toss in a vampire war and a bunch of random characters to try to make it interesting. Viola', instant melodrama satisfaction. If this is up your alley, then "Breaking Dawn Part 2" is up your alley.

The story is told in a pretty efficient manner. I thought this movie was a lot more economical and time sensitive than Part 1 was. The characters never really develop after the first movie or book. They have the same emotions just jacked up on a bigger scale with each subsequent episode. Bella loves Edward, Jacob loves Bella, Edward loves Bella but is conflicted about doing so. When the magic non-immortal, but probably not dying anytime soon Renesme comes along, Jacob's romantic story is finished. He has bonded with Edward and Bella through their child and it is now one big creepy weird family dynamic. These are really issues with the book and not with the movie. The film does a credible job of trying to make all this hyper ridiculous material believable on film. If you have been all in for four movies, there is not any reason to not tag along now and finish it off. The accelerated growth of the baby is accepted by everyone, including one of the least likely characters to let all this pass, Bella's Dad Charlie. From the beginning of the series, Charlie has been the most realistic character and the one actor who gives a performance that is not simply mouthing words that sound portentous. Billy Burke grounded this character in the part of the stories that could actually be true, an estranged father and daughter coming to realize how much they really do need each other. After four films playing it straight, he has to make a switch and play the fantasy element along with everyone else. There is a scene where Jacob tries to make this easier for him to take, and it gets a big laugh, but for the first time Charlie is the butt of the joke. Still, Burke manages to pull it off with some dignity and the story plays out with minimal reference to the real world again.

Anyone who remembers the book probably knows what a big build up to nothing it was. It was all tease about a big vampire war but when the end came, not much happened. The biggest success of this film is to overcome that weakness of the novel. The big battle does basically take place, and although it too is a bit of a cheat, at least the audience gets some of the visual treats that a movie ought to be providing. Michael Sheen shows up again playing the unctuous leader of the vampire royalty the "Voltari". He hams it up pretty well and compensates for the amateurish line readings by all the other "evil"vampires in the movie. After the horrible performance she turned in as Jane in the "Eclipse" episode, Dakota Fanning is reduced to basically no line readings in this movie, she utters one word twice, and is silent for the rest of the big confrontation. Still, when the character's storyline is played out on screen, it got a big reaction from the fans in the audience.  The fighting here is even less realistic or horrifying than the kung fu in "The Man with the Iron Fists", but it is nicely choreographed with lots of flying, spinning and kicking. One of the reasons this never works as a horror film is that all the horror elements are CGI effects and basically makes most of the action look like a big cartoon. I enjoyed the cartoon nature of the action scenes, but it is hard to ever feel too invested in the outcome.

The Cullens are aided in fighting the false charges against them, and in the fight at the end, by a motley crew of other non-Voltari vampire types. We get a little back story on some of them, but others just show up, mutter a couple of lines and then fade into the background. Joe Anderson, an actor we have sort of taken a liking to, appears as a nomadic vampire that everyone seems to expect great things out of, but he vanishes from the movie without doing anything other than serving the fan desire to see as many of the characters from the book visualized as possible. There are a couple of Eastern European vampires, that actually act and sound a bit more like traditional vampires, who show up and enliven the time while we are waiting for the big battle. They leave the story unhappy but if there are ever more sequels, expect them to play a part. Bella's big gift, that she actually has had since the start of the series, is that she is a shield to the powers of all the other characters. Of course this makes no sense since Jasper and Alice have been manipulating her feelings and seeing her future from the first story. That's OK, because the vampires also only sparkle in the sun when the story calls for it. I don't have any excuse for sloppy storytelling, except that it just doesn't matter in a story like this.  These movies are teenage angst, lived out like a big role playing game. There are some tuneful songs in the background and some characters that you might like if you buy into any of it, or you will hate if you are a hater. I just can't develop enough reason to hate this stuff and it gives so many other people pleasure, that I am happy to go along for the ride.

I've read all the books once, and seen each of the movies at least once. From that I can say that the film stays true to the book and manages to make at least one thing about the book better. The end of the film had a coda that was unnecessary, with the umpteenth pledge of undying love between Bella and Edward. Whatever it is that the "Twihards" are projecting on to these characters, continues to escape me. The love story of these two appears to have been replaced by the characters in a "Twilight" based fan fiction that has become extremely popular this last year. I look forward to seeing "Fifty Shades of Grey" and all it's sado-masochistic  sex being played out on the big screen in a hard "R" rated film. I think it would be most appropriate for Pattinson and Stewart to play the leads there as well. Maybe we will get some real characters having real sex and we can leave the mystical sparkling vampires to their own place in cinema history.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Retro Skyfall Fan Made

It's not perfect but is is a good attempt to bring back the old style to the new school. Found it on Facebook and thought you might enjoy.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Bond: My List in Love

I used the letterbox site to put this together, then I did screenshots to be able to load the images here.

Friday, November 9, 2012


OK, the build up was too great, the addiction was too strong, and my need to see this overcame my common sense. Yesterday evening, when my daughter got home from work, I asked, are you up for a midnight show? She of course is genetically wired to love James Bond, and she is a spoiled child as am I, so we ended up at the local cinema after a long day, with an early morning staring us in the face, and waited for the start of the new 007 adventure. I thought I was done with the need for these masochistic midnight screenings. It appears that the fifteen year old boy that is still inside me somewhere, has enough influence to make me ignore all the warnings of old age. So, the big question is, was it worth it? Not to put to fine a point on it but HELL YEAH!!!

Skyfall met my expectations and those expectations were pretty high. After Casino Royale was such a success in my mind, the letdown of Quantum of Solace made me very cautious. There was a good deal of wisdom in letting the franchise percolate for an extra couple of years. We got a chance to reassess Quantum (not as bad I as originally thought) and we were forced to anticipate something more significant. With the fiftieth anniversary of the cinematic James Bond, it was important to get this one right. The producers went all in with an A list director in Sam Mendes. They got Academy Award winning actor Javier Bardem to play the villain. Two other veteran actors fill in key roles, Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney. Finally, they take a pretty solid story and load it with smart dialog mixed in with high tension, and then some fantastic nods to the fifty year legacy that they are continuing with this film.

As usual, I will try to remain discreet as regards story. My wife mentioned a rumor that she had heard a week or so ago, and I was irritated to even have it in my head, regardless of whether or not it was true. The pre-title sequence is an exciting chase and fight that takes place in Istanbul. I recognized it immediately not only because of the familiar skyline, but because there was a similar rooftop chase in "Taken 2" just a month ago, that appears to have used some of the same locations. The story and locale work very much better here than they did in the Liam Neeson sequel. The chase involves cars, motorcycles, rooftops, and a train. The action is splendid with a memorable visual of Bond straightening his jacket as he jumps off a steam shovel that he has just used to move from one train car to another. That oh so brief act, carries so much Bond imagery as history it is amazing. I got an immediate flashback to Connery pulling the wet suit off of his dinner jacket in Goldfinger, or Roger Moore dusting off briefly after a fight in Cairo. Those little bits of business tell us all that Bond is both a fighter and a dashing man about town, even in the wreckage of the moment, he wants to look right. It is a touch of humor that was mostly lacking in the first two Daniel Craig outings. It is also a portent of things to come.

The title sequence is beautifully done and only has real meaning once you have seen the whole film. It features what may be my new second favorite title song. Adele's recording is haunting and fits with the mood of the film. It can't reach the hyperbolic urgency of Goldfinger, but it's not trying to. She has simply set the tone for the movie with a smashing pop tune that makes you recall earlier Bond film themes, but is completely original. It has been more than thirty years since a Bond Theme song was nominated for an Academy Award, I think the drought is about to be over. I will mention only one other thing about the opening of the film, it lacks the gunbarrel tracking shot that has proceeded all the other Bond films. It does make an appearance, but it is in a different spot and it works like gangbusters when it shows up.

It gives nothing away to say that the story revolves around a revenge plot against MI6 and M herself. The opening sequence has set us up for understanding why someone might have it out for the head of the British Secret Service, especially an insider with long standing resentments. Bond himself gives into some of those resentments, but being Bond, in the end he manages to overcome his own doubts through sheer force of will. As the plot unfolds, we are also given a clever narrative that explains the twisted logic of the scheme. Bardem's Silva character oozes festering anger and demented analogies. The words he is given to express them work really well to make his character an enemy that Bond will want to throw down. Like his Academy Award winning villain from "No Country for Old Men", Bardem's character does much of the acting with his hair style. There is something incongruous about this dark Spaniard with bleached blonde hair. Every time there is a sequence with Silva chasing or being chased, the hair is a reminder of who the villain is and where he is in the scene. Add to the visual his great line readings and you have the enemy with the best character development since Grant in "From Russia with Love".

Much of the story also involves some of the intrigue that goes on around the offices of MI6. Politics is a part of the story, but it is a generic type of political power infighting. M is faced with tough decisions everyday, sometimes about who lives and who dies, but also in how money is spent and resources are allocated. The fact that she is, in the end, a bureaucratic figure, accountable to political interests is also part of the story. Judi Dench makes her seventh appearance in the role of M, the head of MI6, and she has one of the best story lines for her character of any of the earlier portrayals. Having once been identified as the "Evil Queen of Numbers", it is nice to see how she has come around to view the need for field work and especially the double O section. The relationship she has with Bond continues to be a professional one, but it also is layered with a deep seed of mutual respect and loyalty. Her introduction as M in Goldeneye" was a little controversial. Subsequent outings in the Brosnan Bond films ranged from serious to nearly comical. In the Craig movies, she has been a stern authority figure and no cheap laughs are forced into her dialogue.

There are several of the usual action sequences. Bond follows and fights an assassin in Shanghai, matches wits and fists with thugs in Macao and confronts a platoon of hired gunmen as part of the climax of the picture. Almost all of these sequences are filmed in a traditional action mode, without the shaky cam and quick cuts that have marred so many recent features. There is sustained tension in the capture of Silva and then in the interrogation process when we know that bad things are coming despite all surface looks. When there are flaws in the story, they are usually quickly shuttered aside by an engaging piece of action or some dramatic visual. I can't say that the story is perfect. The main reason is that flaw that most serial killer/revenge/procedural stories have, the plans of the villain always work out as planned, despite their complicated nature. The number of paid mercenaries that Silva has to sacrifice in order to sell the bait in his trap is really high. No one seems to question why they are doing something, and they ignore the consequences to others and proceed to follow orders in spite of their foolhardiness. These are minor quibbles that are designed to show you that I am aware of the films faults, so that when I praise the movie I don't simply sound like a lovestruck fan boy.

I will finish up by noting several satisfying moments in the movie. The new Q, is not just there for comic relief, and is not always a likable character. For someone so full of himself, he make a cardinal mistake that I could see a mile away. He does have some great exchanges with Bond, some of which gently salute and mock simultaneously the prior Bond gadgets. An old friend of 007s returns in the last third of the picture and the warmth of that return was palpable in the audience. The glee I felt as an homage to the 50th anniversary was gratifying. I got the feeling that the producers and screenwriters recognize that they had strayed a bit from those things that made Bond fun for fifty years. Quantum was so serious and set on making Bond over in the mold of a Jason Bourne, that they lost the legacy that was their trademark. This movie brings it back. The series feels as if it is fresh and ready to move into the future but that it knows what the past means and they are not going to forget it again. There are new characters that I look forward to seeing return in future Bond adventures, but I don't want to anticipate them too much because I want to revel in the Bond we have right now. I'm going back to see it again tonight and I may go on Monday as well. Welcome back James, your legions of fans are going to be happy to spend another fifty years with you.

Sunday, November 4, 2012


Denzel Washington has played dicks before. He won an Academy Award for playing a huge monster of a human being in "Training Day". So in a way he is returning to familiar territory here. His character is a hero, like Captain Sully from a few years ago, who landed a plane on the Hudson river and saved everyone's life. This story is premised on a different scenario. The captain does an unimaginably heroic landing, but he is also a deeply flawed person. The crux of the tale is not that the accident was managed as well as it was, but that the Captain cannot manage his own life half as well as a severely damaged plane diving for the ground at six hundred miles an hour. That my friends is a screwed up life and it is really what the movie is all about.

Captain Whip Whitaker is an alcoholic. I try to avoid spoilers in these reviews, but I can't think of a way to write about this without discussing the main plot engine in some detail. His drinking and drug use have no real impact on the events of the plane crash. In fact, it is the opposite that happens. The crash forces him to consider the toll that his behavior is taking on everyone else but most especially on himself. Actors love to play parts like this because it gives them a chance to stretch some important acting muscles. Denzel gets to be intoxicated, belligerent, self righteous and thoughtful all within moments of each emotion. He has to be good for us to accept that he is a real person and not just someone play acting for us. In the long run, Denzel is a good actor, so he is convincing and gets to have a pretty good story arc.

The fact that the actor is good however, does not make it easy to put up with the reckless self destructive Captain Whitaker. Any one with a drug addict, alcoholic, or philanderer in their life will understand this. Whip is given multiple opportunities to turn things around. Friends come to his aid, a supportive fellow addict drops into his life, and the fates seem to conspire to give him a lift out of his screwed up life. At each turn, he makes the wrong choice. Look, millions of people enjoy a cocktail without ever having a problem, but when some one does have a problem, it is lights out. I never want to be in these situations and have to face the troubling image in the mirror and ask, what have I become? That is what Whip Whitaker has to do, and it is a frustratingly ugly sight. There were a couple of sequences which seemed to mock religious faith as a way to lead ones life. When all is said and done however, it seems that the hand of God is needed to put things into place.

The first half hour of the movie includes the lead up to and the actual crash of the plane. It is a harrowing experience and as close to an actual air crash as any of us will ever hope to be. From a technical point of view, this part of the movie is flawless. Robert Zemekis, the director, previously traveled this path with "Cast Away" and Tom Hanks living through a plane crash but being trapped on an island. In essence, this film is a remake. Alcoholism is the island, recovery is the rescue and the girlfriend addict is Wilson the volleyball. There are other characters in the picture but they are also just stand ins for the obstacles that our protagonist has to overcome. Don Cheadle played Denzel's deadly funny friend "Mouse" in "The Devil in a Blue Dress" nearly fifteen years ago. They are reunited in this picture and are again good counterparts, although Cheadle feels a little underused here. Bruce Greenwood as the old friend and pilot's union representative, is the fire on the island that sustains Denzel's character, but delays him in making the decision he must ultimately confront. John Goodman appears and just adds energy to the movie.

As much as they might need each other for help, addicts also threaten each other with relapse. We have what little caring for Whip as we do, because of his entanglement with a woman facing some of the same issues he faces. Their meeting and subsequent relationship is a result of another addiction, nicotine. This addiction is so strong that even a dying cancer patient they encounter, can't provide enough warning to wake Whip up. Listening to their dialogue sometimes feels theatrical, but the cruel things that are said in pitiful self righteousness are exactly the kinds of aggressive counterattack that addicts use to deflect from themselves. The movie is sometimes a little hamfisted with the story, but it still feels real for the most part. The actors are top notch and although it is not always pleasant to watch, it is well done and well worth a look.

Wreck-It Ralph

Animated films have always been a favorite, but they need to have a solid story to hold my interest. Years ago, "Toy Story" took inanimate objects and brought them to life, now Disney returns to the same vein to strike it rich again. This time providing an unseen life and environment for video game characters. These heroes and bad guys work all day in the salt mines of a video game in an arcade, and then after closing time have their own lives to lead. Apparently however, they are unable to slip the boundaries of their character's role in the game as easily as they slip out of the games to mingle with each other.

"Wreck it Ralph" is the hero of our story but not of his game. The theme behind the film is as old as "the Wizard of Oz", which is "there's no place like home". Throw in a little empowerment and an evil background character and you have the makings of a pretty standard kids film. As the story unfolds, we meet a lot of characters that are fun in their games but not necessarily great to hang out with. Ralph seems to be one of the only self aware characters, despite attending a support group for villains in video games. It is a little unclear why they all don't see the issues Ralph is facing since they face much the same dilemma. "Fix it Felix", the hero in the game that Ralph has become discontented with, actually appears to be a good guy who simply can't bend to the feelings of Ralph's character as easily as he does to those other characters in their game. The antipathy of the characters in his own game lead Ralph to seek a solution elsewhere, although he really just wants to be part of the gang.

I was never a gamer, either on arcade machines or home consoles. I may have played a few games of Pac-Man or Asteroids, but not enough to get good or to care whether I got good at them. Kids who grew up with this stuff will probably enjoy this film quite a bit since it uses many identifiable avatars from classic style arcade games. The two main games featured in the story however, appear to be original creations of the screenwriters. The "Wreck it Ralph" game looks like a variation of Super Mario Brothers, and the graphics are designed in a clever way to suggest that it is an older game. "Sugar Rush", the location of most of the action in the story, is a racing game with a sweet theme and cute little avatars straight from the "Hello Kitty" school of design. There is a combat game that briefly figures in the action, but the main plot centers around the activity in "Sugar Rush".

The graphic design and art work in the "Sugar Rush" game are fun to look at. The characters seem familiar even though the game does not really exist. The racing cars driven by players in the game are constructed in a separate level of the game and feature some wild candy themes accessories. Trapped inside of the game, is a character that needs to be released from a "cyber" limbo and this is where the story works the best. Ralph, starts off as a morose, somewhat self centered character and travels a path that allows him to empathize with others. He also turns out to be no dummy, so he quickly figures out that something is wrong in this world. As he discovers the true programming glitch in the game, there are additional points of jeopardy and plot development. The strings all come together almost as well as one of the Pixar films. The weakness is the motivation of the villain and the credibility of the character dynamics. Kids may not care that the rules don't always make sense, but they do want to care about the characters and be able to relate to them. For the most part, they will.

The look of the movie is excellent and there are some stand out bits of humor. Kids will laugh at the Dooty jokes, and adults will not be able to eat a certain chocolate sandwich cookie again, without a familiar tune from their own childhood ringing in their heads. The sentimentality of the story takes a while to build up and the payoff is pretty sharp. To use a sports metaphor here, it is a home run but not a grand slam. Disney scores with an effective animated film that will satisfy the family audience and make you feel glad you came. It may not be on your list of great animated films, but it is definitely a solid hit.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The Man With the Iron Fists

 Here is a movie that doesn't attempt to be profound, deep or even good. It just seeks to be entertaining and it largely succeeds. This is a Kung Fu movie for people like me who like Kung Fu movies but are not aficionados. I don't know all the actors and directors of every Hong Kong chop socky epic of the last thirty years. I could not tell you the difference between the styles of martial arts or the first time that people started defying gravity in these sorts of movie. I just know that hundreds are killed, moves are fetishized, and Russel Crowe shows up to kick butt along with all the other names in the picture.

There is one immediate drawback for me. The soundtrack includes a lot of urban music that uses a certain word which people in polite society refrain from. No, not that one. The one I am concerned about starts with n and ends with er. What that music is doing in a film about 19th century China is a little confusing. Since the writer/director RZA, is apparently a music figure, I guess it is his right to mix in the genres. I was put off by having to listen to the use of the "N" word a couple dozen times in the Wu Tang Clan song that opens the film. Later in the film, when the score is cribbed from Ennio Morricone, I was more tolerant because there are some themes from old westerns in these movies. The connection to any of the plot is tangential for most of the tunes. They appear to simply have a sound that the director felt worked with the scenes.

Waring clans in silly wigs and costumes, populate the picture. None of it makes much sense but then it doesn't need to. We don't need to understand anything more than this group want to kill that group. The reasons don't matter, only the amount of blood splattered is going to make much difference. I did find that the frequent use of CGI blood, undermined the film a bit. Quentin Tarantino is a producer on the film. He introduced a red band trailer for "Django Unchained" that is playing with this film. It is clear he is not relying on CGI to make his upcoming epic bloody, and it looks all the better as a result. The flying acrobatic kung fu moves in the movie are all fun to watch, but I did sometimes long for Jackie Chan to show up and just do the same things without the wires and slow motion.

The director RZA, casts himself as the title character. That is unfortunate because he can't act a lick. His face is primarily blank and motionless. His body movements seem so rehearsed as to be mechanical. His voice never seems to vary, he has the monotone of a bored shaolin monk. There is an elaborate backstory created for the character, but no one needed it and I know I didn't care anymore about him after it was revealed than I did before. In contrast, Russell Crowe seems to be acting just enough to sell the character he plays without investing enough of himself to make it more memorable than his hat and weapon. RZA's blacksmith character also relies on a costume to act the part for him, too bad his look was dull instead of the ridiculous look that Crowe sports.  Not to be too insensitive here but Crowe is fat. At least for this movie. Now I know what middle age fat guys look like, and intimidating is not it. They shoot him in full costume most of the time but he is just a couple of Big Macs away from Col. Kurtz wandering around in the dark. There is one silly scene where he is muff diving for beads out of a prostitutes money maker, in a bathtub. His are the only breasts seen in the movie, and it is a wet tee shirt moment we can live without. Other than that he was fine.

The Man with the Iron Fists Movie PosterThis movie is silly, violent, well choreographed and badly scored. It will sit on the shelf with a dozen other English language Kung Fu epics that entertained without enthralling us. For the two hours I was watching, it was fine. I'd watch it again on satellite just about anytime. I won't be adding it to my video collection or putting it on any must see lists. Catch it quick. Better stuff is out there and better things in this violent action genre are coming soon.

Countdown to Skyfall: 50th Anniversary of 007 Part 6

 With a little over a week to go, I am closing out my reviews of the James Bond films by actor playing the role, by featuring the first James Bond. Technically, since I have been counting up based on the number of times an actor played Bond in the films, Connery would have been in the previous post. He only made the six EON 007 films. Because of unusual lawsuit, writer's credit and a determined screwball, we got a seventh James Bond adventure featuring Connery and allowing me to finish with the ultimate Bond performer.

 I have nothing against "You Only Live Twice", the truth is there is not a Bond film that I won't watch (or watch again).  This adventure has the advantage of an exotic setting that was new to the franchise and it featured a set that became the standard by which spy films would be parodied for ever after. Who doesn't think the idea of hiding the villain's secret base inside of a volcano is funtastic? The gadgets in the movie, especially "Little Nellie" are a kick. The opening of the movie features the second death of Bond in the pre-title sequences and it makes the title make some sense since the haiku game Bond plays with Tiger Tanaka while getting plastered on sake has been eliminated. 

The reason this film ends up at the bottom of Connery's 007 films is that he seems a little bored with the part here. He is required to undergo a disguise, for one of the very few times in the whole series and it is not a very convincing disguise. When he gets identified by Blofeld as not a real astronaut because he tries to hand his oxygen tank into the space capsule, it ignores the fact that he is also twice as big as the other astronauts. The background characters start the trend of repeating ideas orally that are being shown on the screen. "Closing Blast Doors", "Astronauts ascending vehicle" and the countdown all are irritating and they all really start with this movie. Neither of the Bond girls seems very interesting and once one has been killed it makes no sense to continue the disguise. Donal Pleasance would have been a good Blofeld for the whole series, but in retrospect, the scar and the distinctive vocal mannerism would be a hindrance in other episode.  The theme song is beautiful and I remember where it was I first saw the film (AMC Rosemead 4). It does have the distinction of being the only Bond film my father ever took me to. I think he was nostalgic for Japan where he served as part of the occupying forces after WW2, as far as I know I don't have a half brother in Japan but stranger things have happened.

Second from the bottom of the Connery pile is "Diamonds are Forever", Connery's return to the role after a one picture hiatus.  I remember seeing the movie "Patton" at the Garfield Theater in Alhambra. In the outdoor foyer, right next to the box office window, was the poster for this film. It looked dazzling with Bond standing aloft a moon buggy and girls draped over him and the diamonds in the reflector of the satellite behind him. How cool it was. When I saw the movie I thought the same thing. However, additional viewings over the years have been less than kind. Connery looks bored, the story is full of odd holes, and the villain is left hanging and we don't get to see for sure that Blofeld is finally eliminated.

As a young man this was one of the first times I had been exposed to gay characters on the screen. That same year there were some mincing hitchhikers in "Vanishing Point" and Clint Eastwood disses one in the park right before meeting Scorpio. Wint and Kidd were deviate killers who were also comic relief. Today, they would never have made it to the screen. Times have changed and so have attitudes toward homosexuals. The fey killers who hold hands and get a sexual thrill by having their hands lifted between their legs from behind, are part of a legacy of sexual mores long put behind us. Their stupidity in being unable to eliminate Bond a half dozen times however should be the issue that people complain about, not the swishing portrayal by musician Putter Smith and Crispin Glover's Dad Bruce. The whole Howard Hughes angle is pretty solid and there is a terrific theme song from Shirley Bassey. I did like the sexual innuendo in the film from Bond toward the women
 James Bond: Weren't you a blonde when I came in?
Tiffany Case: Could be.
James Bond: I tend to notice little things like that - whether a girl is a blonde or a brunette.
Tiffany Case: Which do you prefer?
James Bond: Well, as long as the collar and cuffs match
"As long as the collars and cuffs match", I had to be a little older to figure that one out. "Named after your father perhaps", that one I got right away. I also noticed that the Mustang switched sides when rolling through the alley, there was a funny continuity error.

While not an official part of the Eon/Danjaq catalog, this film can't really be ignored the same way the 1967 Casino Royale can be. This is a straight 007 adventure, a remake of Thunderball and it stars the guy who originally played Bond. After parting ways with Eon, Connery left with bad feelings concerning his compensation for playing the part. He donated his salary from Diamonds are Forever to A Scottish Political group, but always felt shortchanged by Saltzman and Broccoli. This may have been a poke in the eye as a way of saying so. This film exists because Fleming had been foolish enough to work on a series of scripts using Bond as a potential television series. Nothing came of that and he used some of the material from those scripts in writing the novel Thunderball. Unfortunately he had a collaborator on some of that material. He tried to launch his own series of Bond films, and ultimately worked with the regular producers to make the original Thunderball film. His negotiated agreement gave him the remake rights after a ten year period and he went forward with this production. This film was released the same year as "Octopussy and did about 60 to 70 percent of the business the official release had done.

There are several things about this film that I like quite well. Barbara Carrera played Fatima Blush, and she is so over the top fun, she actually got a Golden Globe Nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I love the way she dances down the stairs when she thinks she is going to get to kill Bond. Klaus Maria Brandauer plays Largo, and he has so much more personality in the part than the actor from the original Thunderball, it makes the earlier performance noticeably weak by comparison. Watch the way he blows on his fingers after getting shocked in the video game he plays against Bond, it is a moment of delightful madness. You can see in his manner and eyes the sort of insanity that would be required to attempt the crime he is perpetrating. Max Von Sydow should have been Blofeld in other Bond films, he was very well cast but severely underused here. Kim Basinger is a pretty nonentity in an early role. I have no idea why Mr. Bean is in the movie, and Edward Fox as M is such a prig that it besmirches the memory of Admiral Messervy. Throw in the lack of real Bond music and some weak support from Bernie Casey, and you end up with a shadow of the original.

The original "Thunderball" was one of the biggest blockbusters of the 1960s. When adjusted for inflation it stands as the most financially successful of all the Bond movies. The audacity of Goldfinger was multiplied by a bigger canvas for the story telling. More exotic locations and bigger set pieces are put into place. As a kid I wanted the 007 lunchbox with all the frogmen fighting underwater. It was an image that sold all of us on the adventure we had coming. As far as I know, this is the first story to exploit the idea of nuclear terrorism. It was not of course the last. Here was SPECTRE as a real organization, with a board of directors and a chairman presiding over crime and doling out death as a punishment for failing the company. In a way, with all of the numbers, and secret locations and passwords or codes, it is the mirror image of MI6, and the bureaucracy that Bond actually represents.

There are great sequences in the picture and some real imaginative gizmos in the story. The jet-pack is just so outlandish that it gives the ejector seat a run for it's money as the most over the top toys of 007 in the early films. The miniature breathing apparatus looks like it could be practical for emergencies. Bond gets taken for a ride in an early Mustang, he has an underwater version of the jet-pack, and he gets yanked into the sky forty years before Batman uses the same technology in "The Dark Knight". The problems with the film have to do with pacing. A slog through the stuff at Shrublands, hide and seek in the Mardi Gras like parade in Jamaica, and the underwater battle looks cool but needed some editing. "Thunderball" is like one of those great Thanksgiving meals with so many choices, that are so rich and you want to try them all. When you do, you feel a little sick afterwards. "Thunderball" doesn't exactly make me sick, but my blood sugar is usually a little high after I watch it. I should get up and go for a walk, but I usually just fall asleep contentedly. Another blogger El Santo, did a fantastic piece on the music from "Thunderball', that goes way beyond the theme song. I hope he is OK with my linking it here, you should read and listen.

The first James Bond film introduces us to the character and to Sean Connery at the same time. The two will be inseparable for all time. I hope Connery knows how much his playing the part did for all of the fans of the books and the movies. Actors get identified with roles and sometimes it is a burden. Here it is a crown. Connery is the Best James Bond ever and the first three movies prove it every time someone watches one of them.

Connery is handsome and dangerous in this initial outing. We get a sense of the coming insouciance with the early dispatch of the fake driver who picks him up at the airport.[Bond pulls up to the front of Government House with a dead man sitting up in the backseat]
James Bond: Sergeant, make sure he doesn't get away.

 From then on, Bond is both funny and heartless. He can be moved by the right woman and has no compunction about betraying the wrong one. Assassins come in all forms, blind trigger-men, duplicitous geology professors, and creepy crawlies in the middle of the night.  He defeats them all but not always with ease and sometime brutally. Bond has had hundreds of great lines, but one that espablishes his character comes from this movie.

[Professor Dent tries to kill Bond, but his gun is out of bullets]
James Bond: That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six.
[shoots Dent twice]
You don't screw around with Bond and expect to get away with it. This movie introduces the Bond theme, the idea of the Bond girl, and a long line of imaginative villains, lined up tp take advantage of the world but finding 007 standing in their path. I don't know exactly why it is only the third greatest of Sean Connery's Bond adventures, except that it lacks some of the gadgets and the conclusion of the movie seemed a bit quick. The first three 007 films are the triple crown winners of the greatest James Bond sweepstakes. Dr. No is the jewel on the left.

My favorite Bond novel was "From Russia with Love", my favorite Bond adversary is Donald "Red" Grant. My favorite Bond girl is Tatiana Romanova. Once upon a time the movie of "From Russia with Love" was my favorite Bond film.There is so much about this film that works it just amazes me. The cold war intrigue was great, the fact that the two sides were being played against each other was brilliant, and the hidden face and disembodied voice of Blofeld was perfect. I love the vocal of Matt Monroe doing the theme. It does not actually appear at the beginning of the movie, but it is featured on the radio when Bond is out punting with Sylvia his London girlfriend, and it plays over the end credits.  Monroe had a smooth silky Sinatra type voice and gave the tune a rich romanticism that the plot called for.

I fell in love with Tatiana when I first saw her as a kid of ten years old. I did not need to wait for puberty to be sufficiently moved by the image of a beautiful woman wearing only a black ribbon around her neck as a nightgown. If ever there were a defining moment as to ones sexual identity, this pretty much put me on the hetro team. The fight between Bond and Grant is legendary. I need to travel on the Orient Express just to walk in the footsteps of 007. Kerim Bey was maybe the most enjoyable ally Bond ever had in the movies. Connery was getting ever more comfortable in his role. At some point Bond stopped wearing hats, but this early 60s time capsule showed that it was still possible to be a sex symbol while wearing a fedora.

That leaves us with the best of Connery's interpretation of the greatest gentleman spy of all fiction. It should come as no surprise because everyone know that it is not just Connery's best, it is the best Bond film ever. "Goldfinger" is the movie that made Bond an eternal character. Other movies had had sequels before. Many film series had had several follow ups, but this was the first time that a third film in a series, raised the stakes like this. Other series simply tried to milk the character for what it was worth before disposing of him. This movie made the character more, made us want more, and delivered more than we had any right to expect. After this, we always expected Bond to be bigger and better than he was before. Even when he did not succeed at doing so, he usually tried and if he failed, he went big doing so.

This film also features the greatest of the James Bond Theme songs.

I hope you took the 2:49 seconds necessary to enjoy a piece of pop perfection. Shirley Bassey did three Bond themes, all of them were beautiful but this one slays us. Listen again to the horns, they sound incredible but they can't compete at the end with the bellicose howl of this amazing chanteuse

Goldfinger had Odd Job, the greatest henchman of all time. It had the Aston Martin with an ejector seat, the greatest gimmick of all time. It had Auric Goldfinger, the best and most completely realized 
villain of the series. This movie even made golf interesting to watch. The images and names and plot of this film set the standard for all Bond films to follow. Maybe Skyfall will challenge some of these films for position on the list of great Bond films. I hope so, but I don't know how anyone can come close to this piece of 20th century cinema perfection.

Countdown to Skyfall Part 1
Countdown to Skyfall Part 2
Countdown to Skyfall Part 3
Countdown to Skyfall Part 4
Countdown to Skyfall Part 5