Wednesday, June 27, 2012
Tuesday, June 26, 2012
I saw this with my friend Dan Hasegawa on opening weekend and the next weekend, I took my wife. Both of them enjoyed it nearly as much as I did, and that says something because they do not have very similar taste. From your opening moments, you know that something about this movie is just different. The music is a little different, and the lighting of the film seems natural but maybe a little over saturated at times. There is nothing particularly distinctive about the camera work, if feels flat and static for most of the movie. When we get a chance to see anything that could charitably be described as a "special effect", it is so basic and down to earth it is hard to imagine. Compared to all the CGI effects that you see in even the cheapest of movies today, Buckaroo looks primitive, and that is one of the reasons it is loved by those of us who drink the Kool Aid for this movie. The flying saucers of the aliens seem to be sea shells, and the internal layout of both Buckaroos campus and Yoyodyne Propulsion, the headquarters for the rouge Red Lectroids, appear to be an endless series of hallways and tunnels, most of which were likely part of a DWP facility in the Valley. Duct tape and heating and cooling conduit pipes are used to make the environment otherworldly. The set decorator for this movie must have had a budget equal to an early episode of Trading Spaces.
So if the movie is shot in a non-dynamic manner, and the effects are chintzy, and the music is off, what is the attraction? THE SCRIPT!!!. This is one of the most logically off the wall concepts ever committed to film. The dialogue is a hoot and it is filled with memorable one sentence jokes and comments that stick in your head for no particular reason. "It's not my goddamn planet. Understand, monkey boy?", who writes stuff like that? "Lithium is no longer available on credit." Someone was warped and saw that if you can get people to pay attention to the actors and the dialogue, the crappy sets don't really matter. There was no way they were going to compete with the sci-fy extravaganzas of the day. Even the Star Trek Movies which were done on modest budgets were going to make this look like a weak attempt, so they shoot off in a different direction altogether. These are not visitors not just from another planet but from another dimension. Their presence here was covered up by Orson Wells with the "War of the Worlds" broadcast. Buckaroo is a neurosurgeon, zen master, rock star with his own fan clubs and comic books. The movie seems to be one of a series of stories that have been told with these characters and they are just dropped whole into the story without much background. Peter Weller is so dry, you could pour water on him and steam would come up. His delivery rarely sounds stressed or excited. Everyone else is over the top and playing with stereotypes.
Oh, and speaking of over the top, this movie has the greatest mad scientist, evil villain, John Lithgow performance ever. His look is insane, his accent is ridiculous, and his eyes will haunt you with how crazy good he can be with his facial expressions. I was laughing every time he was on screen. He says some of the most arcane insults and orders to everyone around in such a way that he cant help being the center of attention. He chews the scenery, then does a handstand and waves his arms over his head to say "Look at me!". And he sells every single minute of it. This was a comic performance for the ages. Credit the dialogue, make up and costumes, but don't ever forget the actor who was possessed by Lord John Whorfin.
The event we attended was also a live podcast featuring stand-up and quick-draw improv comic Greg Proops. I found his material before the show to be very entertaining although he wanders off on tangents so often that it would be easy to lose interest. After the movie he riffed on the film even more, however it did take a negative political turn and you could feel the wind come out of his sails. No matter how much louder he got or how emphatic his language was, he strayed away from the funny over to the political at a substantial cost to the audience and the event. The event was not up yet but it should appear at his site on i tunes "The Smartest Man in the World" . Lots of F-bombs and a load of bombast toward the end, but 80% entertaining.
Saturday, June 23, 2012
After the disappointment of last years Cars 2, Pixar comes back with a fresh story and a return to their high standards of movie making. "Brave" easily avoids the missteps of the last Pixar picture, and creates a series of instantly recognizable characters to populate the world that they are exploring in the new story. This is the first time that Pixar has strayed into traditional Disney territory. There is a story focusing on a Princess, there are enchantments gone wrong and witches and will-o-wisps and all sorts of anthropomorphic animals. In a twist, Disney's "Tangled",from a couple of years ago, is a much more free spirited and Pixar-like movie and "Brave" could much more easily sit on the shelf next to "Pocahontas", "Cinderella" or "Beauty and the Beast".
The movie is simply gorgeous from the start. Scotland as a setting give a wide latitude for scenery, including lakes and forest and mountains and snow covered peaks. These images are all lushly rendered with the attention that you would expect from the perfectionists at Pixar. The movie was created for a 3D presentation, and we only saw it in a 2D format. There were a few spots where it seemed to me that the image was fuzzy because we were not using the polarized glasses. Most of these segments were establishing shots of canyons and landscapes that in a traditionally filmed movie would have been done with helicopters. In computer animation, it is hard to figure how this might go wrong and I think it is simply that the detail is so thick that if you are not seeing it in 3D it blends together a little faster than you would want. I only noticed this effect a couple of times in the movie, but instead of irritating me, I simply want to return and see it in the other format. The characters are also designed so that we can relate to them immediately. Merida, the heroine of the story, is easy to understand. She is a beloved first born of an impetuous King and his wiser wife. She has the fiery personality of any Scottish maiden combined with the stereotypes of red headed women. Her Mother and Father are voice by actors who we are familiar with, and convey the right attitude toward her within just a few seconds. Her young brothers do not speak but are clearly set up as impish offspring with fearless personalities and ultimately good hearts.
For the first act, we get a very traditional set up of royal family conflict. A teenage daughter chaffs under the expectations of her parents. Her fearless personality and great athletic skills dwarf the potential suitors that have arrived to make a politically expedient marriage. The vast majority of the first act is given away in early trailers, so anyone going in has a clear expectation about how the story is going to develop. Where things change in a pretty innovative manner is in the second act. In a moment of frustration she makes a deal with a witch that goes completely in a different direction than is traditional. This is not simply "The Little Mermaid" revisited. I won't say how things turn out, but I will say that it all fits with what was set up in the first act and it creates a very emotional resolution at the end of the third act. I don't know that I was always satisfied with the turn of events. The "magic" element seemed to me to be something that needed a little more set up in that first act. I did not think there was anything wrong with it, but it felt somewhat abbreviated to me.
The best element of the movie is the heroine's story arc. She is willful and headstrong and certainly has difficulty seeing her Mother's point of view. The way events unfold allow her to understand her Mother a lot more clearly and in a way that seems realistic. Merida never stops being who she is, but she does become something more than she was. In the third act there are moments of heroism and contrition. I thought the traditional race against the sun rise was cliched, but it still works every time. There were some rather risque bits of visual humor and innuendo that might be a little over the edge for very small children, but I did not think any of it was offensive and most of it fit with the primitive Scottish setting that the story takes place in. The main conflict of selecting a spouse is handled in a different way than traditional Disney fare. There is no handsome prince that rises to the occasion and resolves things with a smile that turns our heroine's knees to jelly and finishes off the story. Instead we are left hanging on what may yet come. The path that brings us to that point is an honest one and I don't feel cheated by the ambiguity of the outcome.
From a technical point of view the most is top notch. The story is well worn but has some major modifications to it that allow it to feel very distinctive. I think the Scottish setting added a good deal to the humor of the movie as well as the look. Once again, Pixar shows us how character and story are the keys to a good film. This film should have a broad audience, but I do fear the usual resistance of little boys to a story that features a girl at it's center. If Madagascar 3 ends up being more successful, be assured it it not due to quality but rather the fickle nature of an audience for films aimed at children. By the way, stick with the movie through the credits, there is a brief stinger which should get a good laugh and is worth the three minutes of your time to get to.
Brave is preceded by another fantastic Pixar short. It is a lesson in story telling using no dialogue at all. We understand the characters and their points of view and function simply by observing their actions and appearance. Within a five minute span, we are introduced to three character, a whimsical setting and a nice morality tale on individualism. I love that Disney and Pixar have committed to animated shorts being part of the movie going experience. It gives added value to the memory and the heart.
This is the follow up to last weeks post on the Paul Williams event, tonight we saw the documentary film itself. The film is playing at the Nuart this week and depending on it's success will find more venues around the country. The screening we went to was sold out but that may be because the director and the subject were both appearing after the movie. There was another Q and A session and some of the same issues were discussed that were covered the week before, although it was less intimate and the time was much shorter. Here I want to focus on the film itself, rather than just the event. I have seen enough documentaries in my lifetime to be able to recognize their formats and styles. In the last twenty years, film makers have dramatically changed the way they choose to present their subjects in these kinds of films. Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock have inserted themselves into their films as a way to tell their stories. Each of them has outsized personalities and egos that tend to serve their story telling skills quite well. The Director of "Paul Williams Still Alive" is Stephen Kessler, and he is following in the path blazed by those other two. Kessler though is not a willing "star" of his own feature however. He became a screen presence largely because he had a very resistant subject and a theme that was not going in the manner that a traditional film of this ilk would take.
While Paul Williams is the subject of the film, and his career trajectory and celebrity descent are a part of the story, they are not the focus. This is not a story in the MTV style of "Where are they Now?". Paul Williams it seems is not suffering from a lack of being the center of attention that he was for such a long time in the 70s and 80s. He has changed in ways that will probably seem odd to our fame obsessed, celebrity driven culture. While he may have been one of the founders of that culture, he has come out the other side a wiser and more satisfied human being. Kessler pursued Williams to make the movie and Williams was largely indifferent. Even after he was given permission to film, Williams was uncomfortable being observed so closely, and self conscious of the camera and film maker. There were several years of contact and filming that went on before it strikes each of them how awkwardly the process was going. It is not until Paul directly confronts the elephant in the room that the story finally starts to take shape. Paul confronts Kessler and basically puts the director in the film as a central character.
Instead of a movie about the life of Paul Williams, we get a mediation on the expectations of the director on his subject and on the way his biases are challenged by Williams. For instance, there is one sequence in which Kessler rides with Williams and his wife Marina to a gig in Las Vegas. There are some awkward moments between the three of them over mundane things like where to stop for lunch. She is acting as his manager for the weekend and is shown in what might be an unflattering and unprofessional few moments trying to clear up band comps for the shows while the band is trying to rehearse. Sure the musicians got annoyed, because they were working at the moment and she interrupted them in a seemingly unconscious manner. But guess what, the show went on and there was no other big tension during the performances except for the directors intrusiveness. It is an incident in a professional career, it is not a story indicative of that career. Later on, there is a long trip to a dangerous part of the Philippines. The director is expecting the worst but for the most part Williams just plays the complications as they come up and he is unruffled by minor inconveniences. There is no diva here to focus on and again, the directors expectations become the story rather than the actions of his subject.
We do get to see archival footage of Williams on all those TV shows he did. Sometimes we get brief moments of pleasure at hearing his distinctive voice turn some of those phrases in his lyrics into moments of sublime brilliance. There are also the embarrassing, over the top moments that make us pause and think to ourselves, "why would he ever do that?" Williams alcoholism and drug abuse are part of the story, and at times it seems that is the focus that Paul himself wants to spin for this film. While his recovery is central to his life and a part of the film, this is not where we linger. The truth is Paul Williams is as clever and talented as he was forty years ago. The difference is that he is not as needy. He is both celebrity and everyman. Signing autographs for fans and being cheered on stage, but also eating squid at a nondescript Asian restaurant and carrying his own luggage when he travels. When he is confronted by an embarrassing, drug fueled, grandstanding clip of himself hosting Merv Griffin's show, the current Paul Williams is mortified. Here is where we really get to know him. Someone in the movie put it well, I can't remember if it was Kessler or Williams, but it seems that Kessler wanted to look back, whereas Williams wants to look forward. The achievement of the film is that it succeeds in doing both of these things at the same time.
Both the film maker and the subject have aspects of themselves that are unflattering, revealed for us on the screen. They also have moments of warmth and honesty and success as the movie comes together. The coda of the film reminds us that Williams has been sober for twenty years, that he has been a certified drug counselor for sixteen years, and that he is has been President of ASCAP, the most important musicians rights organization since 2009. All of those things are important accomplishments, but to me the most important thing the movie showed me was that Paul Williams has become a person that he would not be embarrassed to introduce to his own kids.
"There's not a word yet, for old friends who've just met..."
Friday, June 22, 2012
After Prometheus, this was my most anticipated movie of the summer. My daughter bought a copy of the original book for Christmas a couple of years ago at the U.S.C. bookstore (where she does most of her shopping), and when she got it home she noticed that they were signed editions so that was a nice extra. She also knows that Lincoln is a personal hero of mine and that I have a warped sense of what might be entertaining. It turns out she was right in making the choice, I loved the book. I found it very clever the way the that history was woven into the myth of Lincoln as a killer of vampires and I was highly entertained. When we saw that there was a film being made, we started counting down the days. Her only complaint was that Adrian Brody was not cast as the destroyer of bloodsuckers. In the long run it doesn't matter too much that there are no big stars in the film because the concept is the star of this movie.
The author of the book also wrote the screenplay for the movie. He has made some substantial changes to the story in order to make this work as a piece of pop cinema. Gone is the framing device of an author taking Lincoln's journals and turning them into a book. The life story of Lincoln is also highly condensed so that we get to him in an adult state very quickly. I did miss the tension and creepy factor that came with the Lincoln's moving frequently and the drunken revelation from his father about the reality of vampires. I understood immediately the necessity of moving through this material for time purposes and to propel the story more rapidly for a visual audience. There are several additions that the script makes to the story that allow it to sustain a single focus and stay visually interesting. The biggest change is having Lincoln engage in hand to hand combat with vampires after becoming President. This is the arena most viewers will come to the story knowing about Lincoln, so it would probably seem strange (if you can use that phrase in a movie about our 16th President being a vampire hunter) to not set much of the story during the Civil War itself. I think it worked pretty well and it gives us a more iconic image of Abe with a full beard kicking ass with his axe.
I'll mention a couple of scenes that added to the movie version of the story that did not exist in the book. Each sequence is designed to carry forward action in a visual manner that will work with a big popcorn movie. When Lincoln finally goes after the vampire responsible for his mother's death, there is a dramatic chase sequence. The vampire leads Abe on a action packed chase through a herd of stampeding horses. The horses are used sometimes as stepping stones, sometimes as vehicles and sometimes as weapons. It was a very original way to go and showed the determination of both sides in the future war. We saw the movie in regular 2D and there may have been even greater value in this set piece if it had been viewed in 3D. Late in the film, there is another elaborate set piece that takes place on a train. The slo-mo, high energy, twisting viewpoints are typical of most contemporary action films. None of it is meant to seem realistic, it is all in aid of giving the audience an adrenaline high and it works. There are fights on top of the train, in the box cars themselves and the train is threatened by a fire burning collapsing bridge. The reason Lincoln and his friends are on the train is another element that was invented to make a movie work. The concept is a good one and I am surprised that more vampire stories don't take advantage of silver bullets in the same way. Of course that may have to do with the confusion over the fact that you kill werewolves that way, not really vampires. On the other hand, most of these vampires seem to function in the daylight, so I guess a lot of creative license is acceptable.
If the title does nothing for you except bringing derisive snorting, then you should stay away. If you are a fan of the book, I think you will be very satisfied despite some major changes. Those of us who like the silly (as an alternative sometimes to the serious) and appreciate "Big Screen" entertainment (as counter-programming to artistic endeavors) will eat up this tale of revenge, vampires and ass kicking Presidents. To paraphrase Lincoln, "You can entertain some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can entertain all of the geek audience for 95 minutes." It's a blast and pretty much what it should be, enjoy my friends.
Sunday, June 17, 2012
Tonight I had a very special experience thanks to my friend and colleague Doug Kresse. Doug listens to NPR way to much and he enters contests all the time, and he often wins. Tonight I was the winner however because Doug's prize for the most recent contest was an event scheduled tonight, and he bailed out on an event he had a ticket for. When I saw the event he was offering to me I leaped at the chance to go. It was a Tribute to Paul Williams, with a concert featuring the music from his musical score to "The Phantom of the Paradise". Many of you may be unfamiliar with the movie. It was not a big success when it came out in 1974 although it has a cult status among many film lovers. Paul Williams on the other hand should be extremely familiar to anyone over the age of thirty and truth be told, most under thirty probably know his work even if they don't know him.
You can look up a biography and see the list of accomplishments of Mr. Williams, it will be quite lengthy. In the 1970s he was a ubiquitous presence in pop culture. He was a frequent guest on most of the talk shows of the times including; The Tonight Show with Johnnny Carson, Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, and Merv Griffin. Notably he wrote pop songs that were number one hits for "The Carpenters", "Three Dog Night", and Barbara Streisand. His songs appeared in dozens of movies and he was an actor as well. He can be seen in dozens of old TV shows, and movies. He was one of three leads in "The Phantom of the Paradise", playing Swan, the Satan based character that the Phantom has sold his soul to. Basically, Phantom is a rock and roll version of Faust.
Some time in the late eighties or early nineties, he seemed to disappear from the public spotlight. Admittedly fashions change and styles move along, but it does seem strange that someone so talented would vanish from the public consciousness in such a brief time. Well it turns out that in addition to changing public tastes, he had an extreme cocaine and alcohol addiction that was eating away at his life. Several years ago, a film maker Stephen Kessler, who had been a fan of his music, discovered Williams was not dead as he apparently thought, but was still very much alive and working in his now quiet way. Kessler managed to convince Williams to let him do a documentary on him, despite Williams reservations about drinking from the fame cup again. Williams was content with his life and did not want to come across as a fame whore again. Kessler was persistent and the result is a film opening in Los Angeles next week.
The evening tonight consisted of a Q and A managed by the programmer of Cinefamily, the sponsoring organization, with Stephen Kessler and Paul Williams himself. Everyone was quite lively and they covered a number of subjects, but the focus was primarily on the documentary, "The Phantom", "Ishtar" and "The Muppet Movie". There was one oblique reference to "Evergreen" the Academy Award winning song that Williams wrote with others, but they stayed away from insider Hollywood and focused on the music from these films.
The conversation was great and it was punctuated by film clips from the new documentary and a couple of compilations put together by the Cinefamily. The director of the event particularly likes "Ishtar", a movie I have championed since it came out in 1987. It was a critical bomb but I have always thought it is one of the funniest films I ever saw. The songs are supposed to be just professional enough to be believable, but also so off target that they are funny.
Williams pointed out that there are dozens of songs, he wrote more than fifty for the movie, and that the director Elaine May, wanted complete songs so she could choose the parts that she wanted to use. I remember when the film came out that there was talk of an album featuring the songs, but when the film crashed that went away and we have been denied that pleasure.
After an hour of conversation, there was a half hour break. Tickets to the documentary were being sold on the patio, but they were using laptops to make the purchase and it was moving slow so I will just have to show up at the Nuart next week. During the break there were several clips running of Paul Williams TV appearances, from talk shows to soap operas. I took a couple of quick pictures of two of those clips that were particularly amusing to me.
When we returned, a band had taken the stage. The musicians were all locals that seemed to be famiar to many in the audience. I was very impressed with the way they managed to turn these songs into a pretty effective concert. Sometimes there was a cue from the film used to set up the song, but they often just went right into the music when the singer was ready. The songs featured were from Phantom of the Paradise.
This is not from last night but it is very similar to the experience we had. This video is from Phantompalooza and performed by the original cast.
There were several songs from Phantom, including "Upholstery" which may have been a forerunner to the songs in Ishtar. The singer did complain a little because he did this song, right after a lovely performance of "Rainy Days and Mondays", which seems to be accepted as one of the great pop tunes of all times. Paul Williams frequently shouted out encouragement to the performers from his seat in the front couches. Everyone had a marvelous time. The theater was screening "Ishtar" and if I had known ahead of time, I would have planned on staying for it, but I was expected home. I did linger long enough to speak to Mr. Williams and tell him of my admiration for his song writing. He was gracious to everyone that night and shook hands with everyone who came up to him. He also made a point of asking everyone their name so when he spoke to you it was even more personal. He signed posters and took pictures with dozens of guests. I am really looking forward to seeing the documentary next week.
The event took place at the old "Silent Movie Theater" in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles. As I was leaving the parking lot across the street, Mr. Williams was crossing in front of me and gave me a wave as a drove out in my flagship. It was a terrific evening with a musical genius and an appreciative crowd of admirers. I will try to add a full post on the Phantom movie some time this summer, and if events allow, I will see the new film in the next couple of weeks. Again, thank you Doug and thank you NPR for taking Doug somewhere else so I got to enjoy this.
Friday, June 15, 2012
So there are two reasons to see this movie. Both of those reasons appear to be controversial in the first place, so just ask yourself how you feel about music from the 80s and Tom Cruise? If you don't care for at least one of them, you have no reason to be sitting in the theater. If both of them work for you, then there might be a reason to see the film but it might not be a strong enough reason to pull you in if there are other reservations. There is lots to see and listen to here, but most of it is innocuous fluff that would not be missed by fans of either Cruise or pop music from the 1980s.
I did not count all the songs, I'm sure somewhere on line that information is available. I was impressed with the number of songs and the frequency with which I recalled them fondly. They were not particularly obscure titles, but the shelf life on some of them was short in the beginning so they will be unfamiliar to anyone who has not grown up listening to oldies and classic rock. The performances of the songs cover a wide range, like one of those theme nights on American Idol. There are some standouts, usually done in a traditional manner on stage. There are some clunkers, usually used for exposition where the most tangential connection to the thin story is used to justify it's placement in the film. Finally, and most frequently there are middling versions of mediocre songs that will not be remembered five minutes after the movie is done. Sometimes those moments were briefly fun, frequently they were embarrassing.
Tom Cruise acquits himself pretty well in the singing segments. He has enough of a voice and enough electronic assistance, that you can accept he is a "Rock God" in an 80s hairband. The more successful aspects of his performance encompass the characterization he makes of a "Rock God" living the lifestyle. He spouts the most irrelevant comments and nonsensical responses you can imagine, but they come across organically. He carries off the brain-addled, over pampered, narcissist with ease. You will not doubt that Stacee Jaxx is a star modeled on some of the big names of the day. He could party with those people and fit in without a second glance. He and Malin Ackerman share one of the best scenes in the film, and both play it for comic impact. She goes straight for the laughs and he stays in character, giving the line readings and expressions that make the scene funny.
The love story between the young leads of the film is fine, but it is so predictable that it makes it even more clear how much was being forced together to get some narrative out of the story. The movie is a big goof to begin with, so if you don't see the humor in this when you are going in, it will probably irritated you coming out. I can accept the goof on the idea of this being a cliche ridden patchwork rock fable filled with cheesy 80's songs and over the top drama. I'll bet on stage, with an audience of theater lovers it works like gangbusters. Here, I don't think it works so well. In my head I kept seeing this as an extended episode of "Glee", only without the gay subtext. Imagine my chagrin when the gay subtext shows up, out of the blue and completes the concept as an elaborately staged episode from that TV series. As a hit or miss pop jukebox, video retrospective, it works fine, but as a story it is simply limp.
"Rock of Ages" is made for people who like theatrical musicals but are too lazy or poor to go out and see one on stage. It feels like a nice little revue that could be a bit shorter, a bit funnier, and a bit more memorable. I can imagine a lot of people hating it from the get go, a few people loving it for what it is, and almost everybody else who does see it, yawning indifferently and rendering a judgement of "meh". Tom Cruise almost makes it worth seeing, but that word ...almost...is really important to pay attention to. If you can live without being a completest on Tom's works, then you can probably live quite happily, just putting in an old CD and listening to the original versions of the music.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
I am a fan of animation, always have been. I am definitely looking forward to Disney/Pixar's "Brave" in another couple of weeks. Two years ago three of my favorite ten films of the year were animated. So I can say this without much prejudice, when it came to seeing Madagascar 3,it was big yawn time. These is something about this series that just does not work for me. The voice actors and visuals and music are fine, but I know exactly what it is that misses for me here, story. This series is about jokes and contemporary references and visual gags, but it has almost no heart. In the current film there is a weak effort to have an emotional pull, but in the end it does not resonate.
The music sequences are the one segment of the film that seems to work. In the original movie, everyone seems to remember the lemur dance to "Move it, Move It". That is just about all that I remember of the film. There was a second movie and I am pretty sure I saw it, but I could be wrong because other than building a plane in the jungle, I remember nothing about it. I planned on skipping this version in the theaters and probably seeing it on one of my movie channels next winter, but I got sold on it by a song. Usually Chris Rock is just annoying and loud. His humor is not my cup of tea so it was with a bit of surprise that I found I wanted to see the movie because of the "Circus Song" he does in the commercial. I got played. It was a funny bit, but I basically have seen it all since it was in the trailer.
Most of the musical sequences involve past songs being visualized as music videos for kids. The use of Katy Perry's "Firework" was a pleasant few minutes but it added nothing to the original song and was mostly an excuse for the animators to use some vivid colors and wild graphic illustrations to fill a few minutes of the film. It looked from the credits that much of the work had been done by illustrators from India. That may account for the different look of the film and the color palate for a lot of the sequences.
Basically, it is the same story as the earlier movies. The four main characters are trying to get back to the Central Park Zoo in New York City. That's it. Now all the writers have to do is create some contrivance to put them into a new local, introduce some new characters, find a main villain, and presto instant storyline. Except that the main characters in this movie never come to life as individual characters. There is a mild emotional story about a circus that they join which has seen better days, but it rushes through all of the background that could set up that emotional journey and just gives us the Cliff notes version. Again with no character development. The film makers are trying to rely on voice casting and the art work to create character and it is not enough. The new characters need to have personality, and the personalities of the old characters need to make some kind of journey of self discovery. Neither of these happen in a satisfying manner. The new circus characters are shallow, and only the Ben Stiller voiced lion Alex is given much of an emotional arc, and it is so perfunctory that it was hardly worth it.
I did not care for the villain character at all. She is so lacking in personality that it is a wonder they hired the great Francis McDormand to play her. The only characteristic she has is relentlessness. Usually a character like this would have a series of frustrating gags that blocked her path to success, but there were no gags involving her character. Only some of her underlings get a chance for comic relief. It is a little odd having such a fearsome, single minded killer without any humorous characteristics as the foil in a kids story.
The music sequences are satisfactory, the animation is adequate, and the movie is competently put together, but it just kind of lays there. We saw it in 2D and I noticed several scenes and actions that were clearly staged for a 3D experience. Maybe that would have made my assessment a little more positive, but it could not solve the problem at the center of this movie. It has no heart, you don't really care what happens in the end, and when it is over, you won't remember much except a couple of visual images and snatches of pop tunes.
Saturday, June 9, 2012
I don't know that many movies can live up to one's expectations when you have been amp-ed up for a year. The anticipation I felt for "Prometheus" was much like that of a kid with Christmas just a couple of days away. Once all the presents have been opened, the sugar rush dies down and you begin to assess the outcome. There is so much about this movie that I liked and can't wait to experience again, but there are also some elements that feel incomplete to me. This is an incredibly intelligent, well made science fiction horror story. There are some big questions that it asks and the answers are not as complete or satisfying as they ought to be. There are several harrowing and horrifying moments in the film, but just as tension starts to build, there is a shift in story focus that makes the flow of suspense feel less powerful than it should be. I have done my best to avoid knowing too much about the story and as usual, my comments will be about the film making and story telling, without giving away any important plot elements. I will say however, that the connections to the "Alien" universe are tangential. You need no familiarity with that series to enjoy this film. There may be some satisfying speculation at the end of the movie about how all of this ends up connecting the stories, but that is not the issue that anyone going to see this should focus on.
If you just watch the trailer, you will be able to see that from a visual point of view, this movie is amazing. There is some incredible imagination that goes into the imagery of the planet that our explorers visit, and the tools they used were innovative and based on some clever future visualizing. The ship "Prometheus" is itself, a wonder to behold. The exterior design is rugged and at the same time practical in a way that some engineer with too much time on his hands might come up with some interesting solutions. The concept of the probes that the geologist character in the story refers to as his "pups" is also one of those things that seems to make sense even though we do not have the technology available. There is a medical capsule that would be at home on the Star Ship Enterprise, that is if Dr. McCoy was demented and uncomfortable with a human touch being part of the healing process. Some of this technology is closely tied into the horror elements of the story and so I don't want to say too much.
The greatest technical innovation in the story line is the android "David". There is inevitably going to be a problem when robots are involved. I can't think of a science fiction film, that had robots as a part of the story, in which the robots were simply part of the background in the universe. If a robot is in a humanoid form, it is almost always going to be an issue for someone in the story. David is a great character, despite the absence of any obvious human emotions. Our feelings in the movie in regard to events and other characters is often determined by the way David approaches their presenter in the story. Androids are not good or evil, they are programmed. David sometimes gives off the impression of being emotionally and intellectually superior to the humans on the mission, but those hints of personality simply reflect the character's own expectations. There is a scene in which David and Charlie, one of the lead scientists, engage in a discussion of theology, and it is clear that David is simply reflecting back the attitudes he is perceiving from Charlie during their conversation. It does not make it less creepy but it was a subtle way to to make Charlies opinions less than hopeful.
If there is a failure of emotional elements in the story, it starts with the relationship between Charlie and Elizabeth. She is Charlie's lover and the other main scientist/hero of our story. Their connection needed to be stronger early in the film, and it does not feel as important as it should be in the later spots in the film. She is just intelligent enough to ask good questions but she was not emotionally invested in the relationship until it felt a little late in the process. The relationship she had to their mission was more clearly realized. Charlie on the other hand, starts off as an enthusiastic leader of the mission, but somewhere on the expedition, he becomes a disillusioned alcoholic for no reason at all. When he and she should be comparing notes and arguing over their discoveries, we instead get some sullen reflections from him with other members of the crew. Vickers, the no nonsense manager of the expedition is an enigma until later in the story. That makes some sense if we get more about the revelations at the climax, instead, we just have another character with some background that should be more involving.
There are two or three very good terror sequences, each of them with some good visualizations to give us some nightmares. My daughter, who was as pumped up for this movie as I was, felt a little let down because it was not as scary as she was expecting. Part of this is the problem with expectations, but part is also due to the lack of character development for most of our cast. David and Elizabeth are the only characters that get much chance to develop a personality that we would care much about. We need more investment in these people for the horror to be meaningful. Without a context, they are simply images and that is not enough to racket up the anxiety quotient to the heights we achieved in Scott's original Alien and the Cameron directed "Aliens". These sequences will get you but not in the same way as Kane's chest bursting or Dallas' demise in the ventilation shaft. There was a pretty good set up of one scare sequence with some secondary characters, and the good humor and personality that came in putting that moment together needed to be repeated in other spots in the film.
There were some good surprises in the story. The search for our past is not the only motivation for the expedition, that will probably not be a surprise, but the actual motivation will be a bit of a kick. Both the Charlie and David resolutions are nice and dramatic as well. The pacing of the movie felt right to me, you don't want to plunge into action before you have some background, but not everyone in our group agreed. We did all agree that once the events on the alien planet start unraveling, the movie does indeed take of and is at it's most effective. There is another little treat at the end of the film as well, so we can see how much of what has gone on before us will play out, even though we will not witness it. There is a possibility for a sequel, I don't know if one is necessary but it would probably be welcomed as a chance to further explore the ideas and story lines raised in this film.
The theological implications of the movie are not resolved and there is plenty of room for speculation. I liked the fact that the movie takes a point of view and runs with it, although the fact that our team runs in the wrong direction does provide us with some room for thought. Those elements of the story are not ponderous, the way they have been in films like "2001" or "tree of Life". We are pushed into the story by a desire to answer the unanswerable and the result is an exciting action film. The horror elements work, but are less intense than you may be expecting. Oh, and for the second week in a row, Charlize Theron is overshadowed by the visual elements of the movie that she is starring in. "Prometheus" is as provocative and amazing looking as you could want, but the horror elements don't always live up to the hype. I am looking forward to seeing this again so that I can put my perceptions to the test a second time. If you have an interest in the movie, I think you will be satisfied, and if you have no expectations I think you will be thrilled.
Once upon a time, a movie like this would have been Oscar bait, released in the fall in upscale independent movie houses. It features accomplished actresses, a rising young male lead, and a story based on a classic novel featuring politics and sex. The movie business has changed however. The lush setting and story line are not enough to draw in large crowds. The economic factors that influence movie funding and distribution, now put a small well crafted film like this on the same plane as a piece of exploitation like Piranha 3DD. Bel Ami is playing in a limited number of theaters but can be had for ten bucks as a video on demand presentation, the same day it opened in those theaters. Somewhere a bean counter made the calculation that the best way to recoup the money invested in this film was to cash in quickly and with as little outlay of marketing dollars as possible.
I guess that is a little ironic because the character at the center of this story acts in much the same way. He is aggressive in pursuit of money, and short sighted in regard to status or emotional commitment. Some of his actions are understandable, but many are cruel and carry negative consequences for him as well. This film reminds me of the Scorsese version of "The Age of Innocence" crossed with the Glenn Close/John Malkovitch version of "Dangerous Liaisons". Each of those movies had critical champions and award pedigrees. You will not find that next year for this film, not because it is unworthy but because it will be perceived as damaged goods because of the new Hollywood economics. This is a shame because Bel Ami is an outstanding costume drama that is well acted and extravagantly visualized.
Let me begin with the performances. Christina Ricci plays a young but knowing social wife who truly falls for our hero. She is gamine and sexual and still feels like she has a backbone of steel. The reason she keeps coming back to him is love and Ricci conveys that love with her soft eyes and delicate mouth. The expression on her face at the end of the movie tells us exactly what is coming next, even though we will not get to see it. Uma Thurman has the larger more central role, and she effectively conveys a woman with a secret agenda. She has two or three emotional scenes and gets the tears and tone right for those moments, but it is in those sequences where her true motives are revealed that she creates a complete character, one much more complex than the protagonist ever expected. Kristin Scott Thomas is a little too fragile and naive to be as effective as she could be. The fault is partially in the script which requires her to be the one insipid character in the movie. She also plays the character as being so brittle that that you expect her to crack the first time she is touched. Colm Meaney at first appears to be a minor character with an easy disposition. We discover in the story and in his distainful expressions what a rat bastard he truly is. This was simple good casting.
The main attraction is Robert Pattinson, the star of the "Twilight" movie series. Inevitably, he will be memorialized in his obituary as the brooding Edward Cullen. The success he has had in that film series will allow him to work for the rest of his life on the more serious and unusual parts he appears to be drawn to. It is easy to dismiss him as a pretty face because of those movies, but here, as he has shown in a couple of other parts, he is a good actor. It is true that much of his work here is done without dialogue, which would suggest that he is cruising on his looks, except the expressions are of longing and frustration and avarice. He manages to get those feelings on the screen without shouting most of the time. There are points where his character must act out as well, but the best work he does is really quite subtle. There is a quick clothed sex scene with Uma Thurman's character, and you can get everything you are supposed to know about the relationship out of his facial expressions. He does an excellent job.
I was not familiar with the original story, but it fits right in with the political and social morality tales I mentioned earlier. The costumes are striking, the women's clothes are detained and reveal much about their characters on the surface and underneath. I also found the score to be quite haunting and effective, although there was no distinctive melody that I can now recall. The photography and lighting are up there with the best period pieces, sometimes there were small changes in lighting that magnified the emotions very effectively without turning the scene into a cartoon.
Friday, June 8, 2012
I had every intention of doing a post on Blade Runner next as part of the retrospective of the Summer of 1982. One of the bloggers that I follow reminded me on his page, what a great year the Summer of 82 was. His list of Top Ten Films from that summer would do any pop movie lover proud. I think both of us would agree that Ridley Scott's Blade Runner was the most influential film on the list. But her's what happened, I started surfing on my satellite channels and Rocky III was starting at that very moment. It was on the list and I have not watched it in at least a dozen years, maybe more, so I committed to the two hours and soaked up the early 1980s feel of this Sylvester Stallone Directed sequel.
Stallone wrote the original Rocky and the story of how it became a film that he starred in is legendary. He came back to this character repeatedly during the eighties and ran it dry by the time we get to Rocky V. The first three films in the series are the freshest and most soul satisfying. When Rocky Balboa came out a few years ago, I think he managed to redeem the character for one last hurrah and put the character to rest with some dignity. Rocky III is the commercially and artistically successful middle story. I was disappointed in Rocky IV which felt manufactured to me, and I barely remember the fifth one. My comments on Rocky II can be found here.
Eric's blog post on Rocky III, seemed dismissive to me. His main criticism being the acting in the film. He does however point out the great emotional punch that comes from the resolution of Mickey's storyline, and I think Burgess Meredith sold that pretty well. The charismatic Mr. T makes his first movie or TV appearance in this film and he is a character you love to hate. Clubber Lang was Mike Tyson before Tyson was Mike Tyson. In addition, Clubber lacked the charm of Mr. Tyson as a boxer. His voice was as scary as his looks were. The small amount of time that was spent on his backstory is told primarily through montages during the story. We see him growling in the background while Rocky defends his title against lesser contenders. When their first match is set, we can see the loner hunger that drives him to be the animal he is in the ring. This was solid movie storytelling, showing instead of telling. It built up an antagonist for Rocky to have to measure himself by.
The three act structure of the story is really apparent, and the best acting moment comes at the conclusion of act two. Adrian has had little to do up to this point and Rocky's self doubt is preventing him from committing to the rematch the way he needs to in order to succeed. She gets a very good scene in which she gets to confront those unexpressed doubts and put them up for the audience to confront as well. The dialogue is not perfect but the tone works and Talia Shire sells it enough to justify the next moment, the start of the third act. Stallone is no idiot, he knows exactly what emotional button to push then, and we get the more intense training sequences underscored by the triumphant horns of the original theme song from the first film. At that point what follows is inevitable but it was also very satisfying. We have been hooked for an hour and a quarter and now are ready to be reeled in in the last twenty minutes of the movie. Stallone's performance may be the weak link here, but I think it is due primarily to the bad haircut that Rocky sports for the whole film. Only during the last fight does he start to resemble the palooka we fell in love with in the original film.
Saturday, June 2, 2012
We had to drive down to Hollywood to see this on a big screen in 3DD. That means a seventy five mile round trip, $12 for parking and a premium price for the tickets. Totally worth it. I have an extreme weakness for bad movies with fun ideas, even if they are not well made. My criteria is simple here: One, does the premise turn me on, two, are there some good bits of humor, and three, do the film makers know they are making a joke. If you can meet those requirements, you are most of the way to a successful couple of hours at the movies for me on a Saturday afternoon.
So we start with the premise, Piranha in a waterpark. Oh yea, I forgot, an Adult themed water park. What is there not to like about this? Now, if the film makers had had the effects budget of the first Piranha from a couple of years ago, this would totally have rocked the gore house. Unfortunately, there must have been a very tight budget on this because there are not as many inventive deaths as the setting demands. In the first movie, a para-sailing girl gets eaten from the waist down when her boat slowed down enough to let her dip in the water. There was nothing half as inventive in this movie. There should have been piranha shooting out of water slides and tunnels, or tossed in the air by waves in the wave pool. Heck, I would think anyone could imagine the scene with kids coming out of the wading pool on the stumps of their legs after having their feet bitten off. As I said, the budget was way too low for this film. Most of the gruesome images are static and many of the corpses looked like they might have been recycled. So while the gore factor was a let down, there were still a couple of very effective deaths that got a rise out of the audience. With sequels you go one of two ways, bigger to get more butts in the seats or cheaper to make the profit margins per butt a bit higher. They chose to go cheaper because the original was not as financially successful as they might have wanted.
Next, are there some good laughs? While the idea of a water park with an Adult section might seem far fetched to some, I think it is the next big attraction at some casino in Vegas. They should definitely steal the idea from this movie to get strippers for lifeguards. Excuse me, water certified strippers, my mistake. There was not as much fun from this as there should have been, the stupid story keeps getting in the way of the random nudity and the chance for crude jokes. There is however at least one line of dialogue that will live in the annals of my movie history. I can't repeat it here, because it would ruin a gag in the movie and I hate when that happens. Let me just say it is a sentence I will never forget. There are also several duds spread out through the film, for instance, the homely fat guy having sex with the water exhaust port was just contrived, lame and unfunny. He does get a good visual joke later but it is not the one you might expect.
Third, does the movie know that it is not supposed to take itself seriously? This movie absolutely knows that it is crap and it takes advantage of that in several places. In the opening, there is a cameo appearance by an actor that is simply a joke whenever his name comes up now a days. We get a return by Ving Rhames in the part of the Sheriff from the first movie, missing his legs and afraid of the water. But when the mayhem starts and he straps on his shotgun loaded titanium prosthetic legs, you know that no one is really trying to make art here. They are clowning for the camera. Featured star David Hasselhoff as much as says so when he mutters to himself about his stint as guest lifeguard "bottom of the barrel". The money spent to get him in the picture was worth it for the humor quotient although it may have cost them on the gore side of the scale. He mocks himself, the premise of the movie and his own fame and it still is a lot of fun.
Friday, June 1, 2012
A couple of weeks ago, I came across Ridley Scott's "Legend" and watched it for more than an hour. I've seen it dozens of times and have a very nice DVD copy that I hadn't got out for a few years. That movies' set design and art direction were ground breaking and the cinematography was truly special. Today, twenty seven years later, we can see the forest that has grown from that seed. Several sequences in "Snow White and the Huntsman" are set in enchanted forests that have both light and dark sides to them. Scott's accomplishment was done without the aid of computer generated images, so there are a few spots where the beauty is limited by necessity to some narrow sets that make up the forest. "Snow White" follows in the path of "Avatar", creating wide expanses of beauty and terror. The vivid images and creepy lighting will be the things that this movie is ultimately remembered for. "Snow White" is a demonstration by technical virtuosos on how to create an other worldly place but still keep it in the familiar.
Much of the story in this Snow White will be familiar. Snow White is an orphaned princess whose wicked step mother desires to be the most beautiful in the land. She flees for her life into the dark woods and is cared for by creatures and small men who once made their livings as miners. The huntsman that was sent to kill her spares her life and the witch of a Queen pursues Snow White. At this point, the resemblances to Disney are at an end. The dwarfs are not cute and charming, they are bitter and dangerous. The huntsman is haunted by the memory of a dead wife and is driven to act on desperation at his own depression. The Queen has an involved back story that might actually create some sympathy if she were anything but selfish. She is in fact an emotional doppelganger for Snow White herself. There is powerful magic that is largely unexplained but it puts the Queen and her evil brother in positions of power that look to be undefeatable. The set up of the movie prior to the appearance of the grown up Snow White takes a bit of time and introduces story elements that are new in this telling of the tale. The stakes are higher and there are battles and armies that will be effected by the outcome of the main plot line.
All of the leads are fine in their parts. Charlize Theron as the wicked queen is beautiful and bitchy. The relationship she has with her brother is vaguely incestuous although he appears to be perving over the young and ripening Snow White. It is a disturbing element that makes the story creepier but also a bit repellent. Some of her dialogue has to be over the top and out of control, it is a testament to Theron's skills that the character does not come off as laughable in those spots. Chris Helmsworth, fresh from his two appearances as Thor, continues to be well cast as the rough around the edges, physically imposing, near barbarian. He is easy to buy in the stalwart role of protector, but less convincing in the key emotional scenes. There are themes set up in this story that make it seem as if the film is only partially complete and most of that has to do with his character. We did get some character development on his role but the follow through is less than complete and he is required to act out of character in a couple of places just to add some drama to the proceedings. Kristen Stewart manages to make it through the movie without biting her lip constantly. She is a pretty young woman, but what needed to be emphasized more was not her appearance but rather that her heart is what makes her the fairest of them all. She has relatively few lines in comparison to the other leads, but she is the focus of the story and so it is appropriate that she has first billing.
There are three sets of peoples that Snow White encounters in the escape from the queen; the abandoned wives, the dwarfs and the outcast subjects of her father. Each of these groups receives the minimum amount of development to make the story work but because those strings are not followed very far, there is not as much emotional investment in what happens as there should be. Three actors that I would normally have recognized immediately, were hidden from me by the special effects that make them little people. Bob Hoskins, Ray Winstone and Toby Jones bring three of the dwarfs to life and add some spark to the movie that it needs in some other places. Ian Mcshane is also in the picture, but so many characters come in and out so quickly, I am not sure which character he played. One of the best ideas in the film is the notion that girls would mutilate their beauty to avoid being a victim of the Queen, but like a lot of things in the story, it goes by so quickly that the horror of the thought barely sinks in, it is another lost opportunity to make the movie something more than it is.
The ancient battle scenes are spectacular to look at but have little drama to them because most of the people involved feel anonymous to us. The opening battle sets the trap for Snow White's Father, and it is staged in a manner that makes it easy to follow. The final battle scenes involving an army of rebellious subjects storming the Queen's castle, is harder to follow and largely serves as a way to set up the final conflict between Snow White and the Queen. The final confrontation does pay off a piece of character development from earlier in the story, and it is one of the few places where there is follow through on an idea. The story needed more of that type of follow through.
"Snow White and the Huntsman" is a handsome film with some spectacular visual designs to it. There are elements of a deeply emotional story which are set up but not as successful as they need to be to make anyone care. In many ways, this feels like a lot of summer entertainments; Big, Loud, great to look at, but a little hollow inside. This Snow White is done on a grand visual scale but a perfunctory emotional one.