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.