Friday, November 29, 2013


Twenty years ago, I would have taken my small daughters to see this movie on a chilly day after Thanksgiving and they would have loved it. It has music and funny characters and two princesses. They would probably fight for the rest of the year over which princess they got to be when they played together.  I have no doubt that there will be 1000s of little girls and their parents enjoying the same kind of enchantment I might have enjoyed then. The problem however is my kids are grown, and while I did take my youngest with me (she is 25 now) we have grown more critical in our willingness to embrace a movie on mere concept. Execution matters. There is a lot to appreciate in this Walt Disney Pictures Release, but it falls far short of being a classic that you will want to return to time after time.

I love musicals, so when I say this film falls a little flat on the musical side, know that it is not because I object to the format. I have noticed that many musical films, especially children's films, start heavy in the first half and then as the narrative gets denser and more convoluted, abandons the musical sequences. Except for the Umpa Loompa song in Willie Wonka, once they go through the tunnel, the only distinct song is the "I Want it Now" Veruca Salt number. In "The Wizard of Oz", after they meet the Wizard the first time, there is only the guard song and it hardly counts as a song at all. This film has a dozen musical sequences in the first half and none in the second. When all those songs are stacked on top of one another in the first part of the movie, none of them gets to stand out. They are also pretty much the same style and sung by women's voices that are strong but not particularly distinct from one another. The Disney films of the early nineties knew that you needed a show stopper, not just a character piece. All the songs in this film feel like showcases for the singers but not for the story or the song. None of them advances the story or reveals anything surprising about the characters. They sound very "Broadway" with a little bit of contemporary teen pop to make them radio friendly. We need a "Prince Ali" or a "Be Our Guest" to make the show distinctive.

The set up of the dilemma with the two little princesses is nicely done but the reason for Ilsa having special powers is not explained and is taken as a given before we know it. There is a crisis that immediately follows our discovery of this gift and it is resolved by another unexplained phenomena, a village of rock trolls. The magic seems arbitrary and the explanations are rapidly zipped through. The loving parents are made to vanish for no particular reason and in a manner that seems to belie the circumstances in which they live. The whole first part of the movie skips over the relationship between the sisters after the opening incident. Since that relationship seemed so intense in the start of the story, it feels sadly underdone after that. The appearance of a love interest and the ease with which he is accepted by all but the new queen is another oddly undeveloped point. I also felt that the animation style, computer generated images, sometimes seemed to be used for display of ideas rather than telling the story. The best part of the artwork is not the magic of the frost covering the land, but the characters faces and the charm of the non-human characters.

As in most Disney films, the hero has a horse (or in this case a Reindeer) who has personality plus and steals the scene from under the lead. The nice touch in this story is that the hero provides a conversational voice for the animal and then carries on dialogue with himself as if the Reindeer were answering. Most of you with pets know what I am talking about. I liked the fact that this forces the hero Kristoff, to make decisions for himself but blame it on his reindeer Sven. The relationship between Kristoff and Princess Anna develops nicely through the adventure they travel through together. The introduction of the Snowman Olaf is a little less effective. As a character he provides comic relief and a narrator perspective on things, but he also seems to be obviously shoehorned into the story for just that purpose. There is also a villainous Duke from a neighboring kingdom who meddles in the affairs of Arendelle, the kingdom of the new queen and her princess sister. There is a sudden turn in the way the story plays out that is a bit of a mean cheat for the kids following along. It also feels like a convenient plot device rather than an organic twist in the narrative.

OK, enough with the grousing, the movie is perfectly fine family fare. I don't think it stand up next to "Tangled" or "Bolt", two other recent Disney brand films that have more going for them, but is is servicable for the holidays. I wanted to like the film more than i did, and I was inclined to because I was surrounded by parents with their small children who did seem to love it. The film was packed and there were lines for the next showing, so it will clearly be a hit with the audience it is made for. It just won't be as big a hit with those who have reached a different stage in their life. Enjoy it but don't expect to feel a need to revisit it. It is a clockwork piece of entertainment that has too many rough edges.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Thor: The Dark World

The God of Thunder returns in a film that features his own world for most of the story. Everyone will discuss how much the movie needs more Loki, and they will be right but it has a variety of other surprises as well. I am a couple of weeks late in getting here but it is an entertaining film and I don't think there are big secrets out in the webs that would spoil it for anyone.

Four films in one day and I'm too tired and it is too late to complete all the reviews. I will fill in all of them this week.

Now I am finally catching up with the films from last weekend. I am planning on seeing some new things today and I don't want to be behind.  This is the simplest of the four films to review. If you liked "Thor", you should like this film. It keeps all the original elements in place and  lets the actors carry on with the parts that they have established. The only exception being Stellan Skarsgård, who's Erik Selvig gets turned into a figure for comic relief and as a consequence, is undermined when the weapon he has devised is brought into play. 

There was more Anthony Hopkins and Renee Russo in this film and that is an improvement from my point of view. Russo as Thor and Loki's mother gets a good dramatic story line and appears to fuel the temporary alliance of our two demi-god brothers.  It is not clear what the resolution for Odin's character means, it was not very clearly explained but that will probably be the basis of the next stand alone Thor movie. It looks for all intents and purposes as if Marvel has managed to succeed in making the films work as part of a collective universe but also maintain their stand alone story lines. I did not feel impressed with the "Dark Elf" antagonists in the film. They were satisfactory but largely cardboard cutouts. Loki remains the key ingredient in making this story of conflicted Prince of Asgard Thor work. 

The movie is much grander than the original film. It features more action in Asgard and other spots in the Universe, as well as more interesting locations on Earth than the desert town found in the first movie. I actually found Natalie Portman to be less annoying in this film as well. She seems to have lightened up a bit about working in a comic book story and that makes the film feel less like it is reaching for grandness and more like it is trying to entertain us.  Tom Hiddleston steals the movie as everybody expected to happen. He plays Loki just right, so at times we can believe him and then at just the right moment, his voice changes, his eyes gleem and we know that we have been suckered in by a trickster. There is a fleeting cameo that got a big laugh in the film and it worked completely for me because it features a character that I like better than almost all the other characters in this Universe. 

So, the movie is big and loud. It has some spectacular set pieces and there are a number of good laughs. None of the material will surprise you or elevate the movie above it's comic book roots but it will please fans and entertain those who have enough patience with some simplistic story telling. There is plenty of eye candy for the female fans, both Chris Helmsworth and his chiseled look and Tom Hiddleston and his dark eyes will make many fans want a return to the land of the gods in the nine realms. Go and have fun, there will be a new comic book movie in the spring, this one will tide you over until then.  

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

This generation now has the equivalent of an "Empire Strikes Back" moment. The second film in a series, matches and in many ways exceeds the original and it ends in a cliffhanger that will leave the audience breathless in waiting for the next episode. Jennifer Lawrence is a rising star with an Academy Award in her back pocket and a hugely successful movie franchise to back it up. The movie is as creatively successful as it will be financially.

I'm still trying to catch up with the tsunami of movies that we saw last Sunday. The third film we saw was the biggest hit of the weekend and may turn out to be the biggest film of the year. It helps immensely that the movie is actually very good. It is far superior to the "Iron Man" sequels that it will be competing with for top box office honors. This is a young adult series that has not been afraid to tackle some serious issues. From my point of view there is a dangerous parallel between the fascist government in the story and the times we live in. People inside "the Capitol" (read "the Beltway") see the hinterlands as a source of resources for their own power and status. This is so much like the relationship of the current government to the rest of the country it should come with a political disclaimer. "The Hunger Games" are designed to remind the rebellious that there is a cost to challenging government authority. All the pomp and circumstance is made to be a distraction from the lack of jobs, freedom and hope that everyone is saddled with.

The second film in the series has clearly had an upgrade in budget and scale. The vision of the Capitol city and of the surrounding Districts is much clearer in this film. There is a strong sense of the technology and how it is integrated into the power structures. When the storm troopers arrive in District 12, the whole country gets a brief look at the clash that Katniss has provoked among the proles that have had their necks stood on for 75 years.This is a world ripe for revolt and the snakelike President Snow, recognizes it. His open animosity toward the winners of the games, makes it easier for the rebels to maneuver the star of the games into a position as a figurehead. The politics of the film are as important as the pyrotechnics of the games. Then, you add the games on top of this and the movie becomes entertaining as well as thoughtful. The ability to visualize the challenges of the new games, with their new rules and manner of selecting the tributes, is very praiseworthy. We get a little more insight into the motives of all the districts and we meet the contestants in more detail this time. The fact that many of them are old, middle aged, and still able to find a reason or a way to fight is pretty encouraging. It is another thing that moves this from being a one note love story for tweens into a full fledged science fiction epic.

Katniss is more conflicted in this story. She knows that the games are a death sentence meant for her and the only thing she wants to assure is that her counterpart Peeta survives. One big difference in these games is that the arena is much more focused on eliminating the competitors than they are interested in eliminating each other.  The alliances feel different this time and it turns out there is a reason why. It is not clear how all of the twists are managed but they seem to be leading to a very serious story conclusion that is not light hearted at all. There are a few moments of humor and some moments that provoke sadness but when the end comes, it will arrive with a sharp intake of air from viewers who have not read the books. This is another comparable element to the second "Star Wars" film, things take a turn and they don't always turn out well.

In reading the books, they declined in my opinion, starting with the strongest and devolving to a climax that felt unsatisfying. I get the feeling that the films are reversing that trend. There is hope that the weak finale of the story can be turned into a more admirable outcome in the films. I don't expect the story will change but it feels like the story telling is much more controlled and thoughtful. I expect, based on what I have seen in this film, that the plot will be more meaningful and the characters more interesting than they were in the book. I guess I will have to save that pronouncement until we get those last films, but "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire", has me hoping that the film makers can pull it off. 

Dallas Buyers Club

A second great performance by Matthew McConaughey this year and one that is likely to bring him substantial attention. It is a dramatic story about tolerance, AIDS, and FDA bureaucracy. It certainly does not sound like a laugh a minute but there is a great deal of humor in telling the tale and although much of it is of the gallows type, there are a lot of targets that needed to be skewered and this movie goes after them.

 McConaughey plays a drug using, homophobic, redneck rodeo cowboy who gets an unexpected H.I.V. diagnosis. He suddenly has to confront the fact that he has what he would describe as a "gay" mans disease. The social context is now on the other foot and in addition to figuring out how to fight against what at the time was a death sentence, he has to confront his friends who suddenly are not so friendly.The medical procedures at the start of any new crisis are uncertain and they may require sacrifices. The controversy over F.D.A. policies at the time reflects a bureaucratic mentality rather than a political one. While A.I.D.S. patients were understandably frustrated with the slow rate of reform and expediting the treatments for the disease, no one, including the doctors doing the research or the pharmaceutical companies, wanted anything more than to find a cure. Ron Woodroof was not the kind of guy who would wait around for others to figure it out.

The physical transformation that the star goes through is frighteningly dangerous. Like DeNiro gaining a hundred pound to play Jake LaMotta, Matthew McConaughey loses weight like you can't believe. He looks sick before the story has even started. The fluctuations in his physical health are reflected not merely through make up and acting but by real physical change. This is the kind of stuff the critics groups and Academy will eat up. This is a much more flamboyant performance than his turn in "Mud", and it will probably be the one that gets the accolades. I prefer the more subtle work in the other film but that is just my preference. This is the story that will connect with the Hollywood community. Jared Leto gives a similar performance in the film as a drag queen facing the same kinds of issues that Ron has. Both roles take advantage of strong emotional elements in the story and they mirror each other in effective ways.

The battle with the FDA and with an apparently unfeeling medical community is cleverly given a populist resolution by  McConaughey's character taking advantage of loopholes in the law to be able to supply patients with medicine that might help them. Every opportunity he has to stick it to the man is cheered by the sympathetic audience. We all admire the perseverance of a man who is unwilling to go silently into the night. He demands the kind of help that everyone facing a terminal disease would hope to get. The fact that the disease is new, that the treatments are untested and that the rules require sacrifice is not something he will take laying down. This movie succeeds not only because the two leads are terrific actors in very cinematic roles, it is that they are empowering people to take control of their lives.

There are great character actors in a variety of parts in the film. Michael O'Neil, who I will always think of as Ron Butterfield from "The West Wing", is the F.D.A. bureaucrat who needs to be taken down. Griffin Dunne was not recognizable at first as a defrocked physician, making a clinic in Mexico work for patients in need.  The great Steve Zahn is a cop and friend to Ron, who knows exactly how far the law should be enforced. Jennifer Garner is not quite a love interest but is definitely a stand in for the audience in building sympathy for the two leads. Everybody does good work and the story plays out as expected but with very effective emotional touchstones despite the straight forward story arc. If you like good acting and a story of the little guy punching back at the powers that be, than "Dallas Buyers Club" is right up your alley.


12 Years a Slave

This has been the most talked about film of the year. It is certainly deserving of acclaim and it will be awarded many accolades before the Awards season is done. I have nothing but praise for the film but I do think the hype needs to be tempered a bit.  While it's depiction of slavery is accurately cruel and devastating, I'm not sure that it is as new or distinctive as many have said. Much of what transpires reminded me of other films that displayed the shame that this type of bondage represented.

This is the first film from director Steve McQueen that I have seen. I can't say for certain what his style is yet, but based on this film it appears to be direct and subdued. He lets the actors fill the screen with their performances and is not playing with the camera or lighting the scene in ways that seem to be self conscious. There was only one shot in the movie that I thought drew attention to itself rather than the story. That was a lingering close up on the star's face, while there was no dialogue. It was noticeable but the nice thing about it is that the shot focuses on the actor rather than the direction and that makes it less problematic. 

It is not necessary to recap the story for the most part, after all the title tells you what is coming and that there is a resolution.  While there is clearly a plot/history that is being followed, the real strength of the film is in showing the everyday hopelessness faced by human beings treated as property. There are incidents that are heart-wrenching and moments of  cruelty that are unfathomable to our modern senses. The film does a nice job showing how the just and self respecting tried to live with the institution, even as the miserable and the cruel were exploiting and surviving respectively. Chiwetel Ejiofor is the star and he gives a solid performance as Solomon Northup, a free man, kidnapped into the peculiar institution. Michael Fassbender may have trouble getting work in the future if people associate him too much with the part of the cruel slave owner Epps. His character is unpredictably unbalanced. He carries the air of a privileged aristocrat and the self loathing of a man debased by the slave holders power over others. Ejiofor has to play his part subtley because his character must be subdued in order to survive, but Fassbender gets to let it rip as he fights his own depravity, gives in to it and then punishes others for his weaknesses. 

The other great performance in the film is from newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, as a young woman tortured for being the thing that the master most desires and hates himself for wanting. She has the heaviest physical burden as a performer, she is beaten, raped, insulted and deprived of her family. All of that allows for a wide range of acting techniques to be displayed by the actress in her role as Patsey. She is not the focus of the story and the failure to have any resolution to her plight, while it may be honest, is also unsatisfying in the long run. In fact, the wrap up to the story seems to happen very quickly and it leaves several points dangling. On the other hand, the resolution for Solomon is quite satisfactory and well earned by the film makers, even if they are just following the history of the actual man's life.

The film is excellent and there is good reason for it to be praised, but some of the on-line hype may have influenced my perception a bit. I was not floored in the same way that others have been. It is an emotional story and I did respond to it, but it exists within a well worn path of similar stories. I suspect the passage of time has diminished some peoples memories of "Roots" which was equally devastating and almost as visually brutal as this film. Last year's "Django Unchained", while a revisionist western action flick, also addressed some of the loathsome qualities of slavery. The themes are not fresh but the story is compelling and I would be glad to recommend this film to anyone, just don't expect the second coming, it is not miraculous.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

About Time

Regular readers of my posts know that I am a marshmallow and a sentimentalist. If a film moves me and leaves me feeling better and happy after seeing it, it will certainly get my approval. This is a film that did both big time. It comes from writer/director Richard Curtis who created one of my favorite Christmas films of all time "Love Actually". There is a definite style and pace to both films that mark them as unmistakably from the same creative team. Cynics need not spend their time with the movie, although if there is aheart in there somewhere, this story should be able to reach at least part of it.

The romantic fantasy here involves an interesting conceit. The men in this particular family can travel back in time to any point in their life. The rules are as they say in Great Britain, a little dodgy, so you just have to accept the premise as it unfolds. Much like "Groundhog Day" this film expores what it means to strive for perfection in a relationship. Unlike the sour character Phil played by Bill Murray, the hero of this tale is not really pursuing redemption. Tim, played by Domhnall Gleeson, is a likable character who just seems to be missing on opportunities for a romantic relationship. He uses his power much like Murray did, to try and manage a successful relationship with the woman of his dreams. The point of the story is that ultimately, our dreams really are what our lives are all about.

His gift is not ever explained in any scientific way, and the conundrums of time travel come up in convenient spots for the story and are ignored in inconvenient spots. Tim's Dad is played by the continually delightful Bill Nighy. He gets some great moments in the film, like when he first reveals the secret to his son on the boys 21st birthday, but especially wonderful are the commentaries he engages in while playing table tennis with his son. The most sentimental moment is the toast he offers at Tim's wedding. If you can keep a dry eye through that, then there is a black hole where your heart ought to be.

Tim has an interesting arc, since he moves forward and backwards in time. He has to make some tough choices at times and the story tries to emphasize that the heart will guide you correctly more oftenn than the head. He manages to meet a woman who is perfect for him, and he does so without the use of his secret at first. When he changes the outcome of a friends destiny, it also changes his and he has to then use his gift to try and restore the magic that he almost lost. Rachel McAdams plays his love interest and she manages to look plainly beautiful instead of stunningly beautiful. The difference between those two types of beauty matters as Tim discovers in the course of the film. All the little things in his life matter and that is the theme the movie develops very effectively.

The final moments of the movie were very reminiscent of "Love Actually". There is a charming song in the background, some sweet narrative from our main character and images that will evoke both sadness and happiness simultaneously.  This is a movie that will certainly rank high on my end of the year list. It did everything I want a movie to do, I laughed, I cried, and I nervously held my breath that the right outcome would arrive for the characters created in the script. A thoroughly satisfying movie experience for romantics everywhere.

Captain Phillips

The drought is over the deluge is about to begin.  I've been out of theaters for almost a month and there is a ton of stuff to catch up with. Tonight I started back with a vengeance by seeing a really fine film with a couple of solid performances. Everybody already knows that this is a great film, so my comments will not be designed to convince anyone, they will merely be an attempt to explain what I admired about the film.

[ It is nearly midnight at the moment, so I will pause here and finish the post in the morning. If you come by and this abbreviated version is still here, please come back later tomorrow and I will have it complete]

There has been some controversy about this movie because several of the crew members have complained that Captain Phillips was largely responsible for the ship being in the wrong place. Plus, from their point of view he was a bit of an ass. The one thing I have not heard being disputed is that he was in fact taken aboard the lifeboat and he was threatened and beaten, and he was rescued in dramatic fashion by Navy Seals. I don't want anyone to think that I am confusing this with an historical document, it is a movie, but it sounds like the story largely got this right.Maybe Phillips sees things differently than the crew, but he wrote the book and the screenwriter has dramatized the events in a very effective manner.

Tom Hanks is excellent in the part. He plays Phillips as a hardworking professional who sometimes is not as relaxed as those around him. The captain of a ship probably can't be too casual, despite all we know about that job from watching "Love Boat". The sequence of events is not in dispute and it appears that the crew did all they could to keep the pirates from getting on board. The Mareck Alabama was not the first ship taken and it won't be the last unfortunately. I found the details in the way the crew tried to disable the ship and frustrate the pirates to be very interesting. Phillips is a part of that story because he is a central figure but the crew carried out the actions and they are the ones who turn the tables on the invaders when they were being hunted in the bowels of the ship. Dramatization keeps a lot of the story focused on the bridge and the dialogue may not always be authentic but the tone of danger almost certainly is accurate.

I don't think anyone seeing this will sympathize with the pirates too much. That is another criticism I have read. It is true that they are depicted as nearly being victims themselves, by the way their community is dominated by thugs who control through threats and violence. The situation in Somalia sounds and looks horrible, but they are all willing to take another persons life to gain wealth and tribal glory, so my sympathy is very limited. It is a brutal world out there, and choices have to be made, sometimes they are rotten choices but that does not mean you have to choose the path of self destruction. Everyone had opportunities to pick a different outcome, and they turned those opportunities down. The four actor who portray the pirates are apparently novices and were chosen for their heritage.

Hanks is the titular character but he is not always the hero of the story. When you witness the descent of the SEAL team from their planes to the ocean below, your confidence in the outcome goes way up. These guys don't mess around. They are serious and they do their jobs with such discipline that it is awe inspiring. For my money, the U.S.Navy is one of the best investments our country has made in trying to keep the world civilized and safe.  It's not just the warriors that are admirable, the corpsman attending to Phillips after the raid was so professional that it was eery. She spoke exactly as I would want to be spoken to in that situation, with professional sympathy and reassurance. Another example of someone doing their job. In fact this whole film is about doing a job; ships captain, pirate, second in command, sharpshooter, negotiator. We know next to nothing about Phillips background and even less about everyone else. We know what they do, and how well they perform their job. That is maybe the real heart of the film. 

Doing the job he does best is Mr. Hanks. He adopts a New England accent and it sounded authentic to my ears. He looks frightened at the appropriate times and his manner with the crew came across as realistic. The biggest praise for his performance will probably be based on the scenes immediately following the SEAL assault. He does indulge in a bit of his crutch facial yawning and soundless utterances, you will see that in a lot of his roles, but he played the most realistic depiction of shock I have seen. It is understandable how the trauma of the two days as captive and the bloody rescue could put someone in that condition. My understanding is that Hanks improvised a lot of that scene and if he gets nominated or even wins for this role, he should be sure to thank himself.