Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Reboot, reflect, review (Don't You Forget about Me)

Today is the first day of the rest of our lives - and the first day of a new life on this blog.

Upon personal reflection, I've decided to change my approach here. I will still review movies, on the big and small screens. I will still opine on movie-related matters as the mood strikes me. But the manner in which I will do so changes, starting with this post.

I've decided to get away from posts like my wrap-ups of the DVD releases and of the theatrical movies coming out every week. Creating those posts had begun to feel like a chore. I was writing them because I felt I had to - not because I really wanted to.  If anyone wants to know about a particular theatrical or DVD release, or wants to know my thoughts on a particular issue du cinema, you can always ask me, either via comments or email.

My blog audience is very small - about 20-30 readers a day, if I'm lucky, and that's OK. It's mainly friends, family and associates. One of the benefits of having a forum like this is the personal freedom it gives me. And that makes me feel comfortable in taking this blog to a more personal place.

I'm going to treat this blog more as a journal - a movie diary. Some posts will be long, others will be brief. Longer than a tweet, but shorter than a novel. Either way, I'm going to write more often, and more thoughtfully about the movies I see and why I see them. It will do my soul some good, I think, and I hope to continue to give you food for thought too. More to the point, I hope you like what I serve.

So with that in mind ....

Browsing around the movies available for "Instant Viewing" on Netflix, I made an interesting find this week - a movie called Don't You Forget About Me. If those very words conjure up a warm aural bath of synthesiszers and "hey hey hey heys," you've probably surmised the movie has something to do with the late John Hughes. You would be right.

The doc, which is mostly very well done, follows a group of filmmakers as they attempted to track down Hughes and get him to talk on camera about his legacy and why he became something akin to the JD Salinger of cinema. (Obviously, the documentary was made  before Hughes' sudden death in 2009).

While I understood the need to give the movie a narrative "hook," the "looking for John Hughes" segments of the doc are its least interesting. The filmmakers' attempts to find Hughes are well-intentioned but come across as creepy and stalker-ish. It's almost as if someone made the pitch "Hey! Let's trespass on the private property of the most reclusive filmmaker since Greta Garbo, and film ourselves doing it!"

Much more successful are the various interviews. The crew managed to talk to many of Hughes' collaborators like Ally Sheedy, Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, Judd Nelson and director Howard Deutch, who made Pretty in Pink and its gender-reversed counterpart, Some Kind of Wonderful. No, they're not exactly Matthew Broderick and Molly Ringwald, but that was OK - I liked hearing the viewpoints of the lesser-known Brat Packers.

Impressively, the filmmakers also scored sit-downs with Kevin Smith (who calls his flicks "raunchy John Hughes films"), Ebert and Roeper, Up in the Air director Jason Reitman (prescience!), and even Jim Kerr, the lead singer of Simple Minds. Most striking of all are interviews with contemporary teens who are big Hughes fans and say that today's teens movies hardly represent them at all. ("Who has sex with a pie?" one wonders.)

And then something strange happened to me. Watching the clips, I found they hit me harder personally than they once did.

Why is that? A little background is in order. When Hughes'  films originally came out, I really wasn't that much into them. With the possible exception of Ferris Bueller, I don't think I saw a single one of them upon their original theatrical release. I caught most of them on VHS later, and liked most of them but did not love them.  I remember giving The Breakfast Club points because it was cool enough to mention John Lennon.

But that was part of why Hughes' films didn't resonate with me as much as they did my contemporaries. In a subconscious attempt to forge an identity as something other than "the kid with cerebral palsy," I cast myself as "the kid who likes the Beatles." It wasn't very cool to like the Beatles in the mid-80s, so I didn't see myself as the kind of angsty teen that populated Hughes' movies. I  prided myself on being off the beaten track and was comfortable in my own skin.

But as I watched Don't You Forget About Me, I found those scenes from Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, et al, resonating me more than they did when I was a teenager. I think that's because in the intervening years, I became more of the angsty lost soul than I used to be.

In large part, this stems from my lack of success in finding a significant other, especially since just last week, I was dealt a bad hand in the dating game. That pill is bitter enough to swallow under any circumstance, but when you're pushing 40, you just about choke on it. Suddenly, all that loneliness and alienation in Hughes' films hit me  where I have come to live. Talk about being a late bloomer.

What does all this mean? Well, I don't expect Hughes' films to shine a bright light and quote Lennon with to an uplifting sing-along of "Love is the answer, and you know that for sure." But seeing that documentary made me realize that Hughes wasn't just speaking to teens - he was speaking to everybody.

Not everybody listened, but I'm starting to do so.   After all, I will always be grateful to Hughes for helping turn the Fabs' "Twist and Shout" into a top 40 hit again via Bueller. For one brief, shining moment in the 80s, everybody knew what I was talking about. Who's to say something like that can't happen again?

Movie grade: B+
Available on Netflix streaming.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Back from a respite, with multiple reviews

Hello, all. I'm sorry for the gap in posts, but I was on vacation and for one reason or another, lacked the wherewithal to write. 

But did I still watch movies? Oh, sure. This post will catch you up with most everything I've seen lately, and then I'll take this blog in a somewhat new direction. More on that later.  

Big-screen viewing

How to Train Your Dragon: Hands down, this is the best picture DreamWorks has ever made. Do I consider it a coincidence that it just happens to be directed by two guys who used to work for Disney? Oh hell no. Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois made Lilo & Stitch, and some of the same "strange alien = endearing creature" sensibility reappears here, but this film is very much its own animal. While too many DreamWorks movies are iPod Shuffles of pop culture references, this one tells a story with real heart. Wall Street may say the movie underperformed at the box office last weekend, but I firmly believe the test of time will trump the test of short-sighted shareholders.  The animation is superb, both in its creative character design, and the absolutely breathtaking 3D visuals. It's the best use of the technique I've seen outside of Avatar.  Will young kids like it? Some scenes are intense, but the immensely charming 5-year-old I saw it with immediately started drawing dragons when she got home, if that's any indication. GRADE: A

Chloe: Pulpy sexual melodramas are director Atom Egoyan's stock in trade, and I liked this one better than most critics, thanks to excellent performances by the three leads: Julianne Moore as a woman who suspects her husband is cheating on her, Liam Neeson as the suspected philanderer, and especially Amanda Seyfried as the titular escort who taps into Moore's vulnerabilities. The climax felt a bit too much like it was drafted in from an Adrian Lyne film, but for the most part, the film works. GRADE: B+

The Ghost Writer: This film will forever be known as The Movie Roman Polanski was Making When he was Arrested, which is sort of a shame because it deserves notoriety for being pretty good. It takes perhaps a bit too long to get going and didn't feel very Polanski-esque in the first half, but the second half gains momentum as the director's knack for sinister mysteries takes hold. GRADE: B+

Small-screen viewing

American Pimp: I watched this documentary about pimps because it was directed by the Hughes brothers, who broke through with Menace II Society and most recently made The Book of Eli. The film doesn't do a lot more than say "Pimps are people too," but it does so in visually arresting fashion. 

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer: Solidly entertaining puffball of a comedy that's often mislabeled as a classic. It's not. Oh sure, it has classic stars in Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple, but let's face it - they're A-listers working with B material. If they weren't in the film, nobody would remember it today. But since they were, it still endures. And it stands as proof that even though Shirley lost her star power as she got older, she was still damn cute as a teen. GRADE: B

An Education: I didn't actually see this again on the small screen, but it is available on DVD today. Watch it and discover Carey Mulligan, AKA The Main Reason I am Jealous of Shia LeBeouf. If my vote were the only one in the Oscars, she would have won. GRADE: A

Where the Truth Lies: More Atom Egoyan, which I watched in preparation for Chloe. This look at a murder mystery between a Martin and Lewis-like team is not as good as it could have been, largely because it tries too hard to surprise with its twists and turns. Still, performances hold it together, although the best work coms from the least-known name. Kevin Bacon and Colin Firth are good, as one would expect, and even though Alison Lohman is slightly miscast as a naive book writer, she makes a valiant effort. Outshining them all is Rachel Blanchard as the murder victim, who is alternately touching and alluring. GRADE: B

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Holy hell! Michael Bay is RIGHT about something!

Michael Bay And James Cameron Skeptical Of 3D Conversions: “The Jury Is Out” – Deadline.com

Key passage: “I’m used to having the A-team working on my films, and I’m going to hand it over to the D-team, have it shipped to India and hope for the best? This conversion process is always going to be inferior to shooting in real 3D. Studios might be willing to sacrifice the look and use the gimmick to make $3 more a ticket, but I’m not. Avatar took four years. You can’t just shit out a 3D movie. I’m saying, the jury is still out.”

PS - Not that I actually expect Transformers 3 to be any good, even if it does have Frances McDormand in it.

More on this issue here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review Catch-Up: Green Zone, The African Queen, etc.

Time for an extensive review catch up, on all fronts

In theaters now

Green Zone: Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass' latest collaboration isn't the great film I hoped it would be. By now, a look at malfeasance in Iraq feels like old news, and this was the first time it seemed like Greengrass was repeating himself. I found myself thinking"OK, we know you can do hyperkinetic action (Bourne) and mix it with contemporary history very well (United 93) - what else is in your arsenal?"  Slight staleness aside, Green Zone is still a gripping and extremely well-made thriller, with a terrific performance by Damon.  Many reasons have been bandied about for its underperformance at the box office, but people are missing a good story well told - and that's a shame, whatever the reasons are.  GRADE: B+

DVDs out today

The African Queen: Bogie and Kate. Simply put, no self-respecting movie fan has any excuse not to see this classic now that its finally out on DVD, in a newly restored edition. I'm getting the Blu-Ray box that comes with Kate's memoir about the making of the movie. GRADE: A+

Bigger Than Life: I first discovered this Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without a Cause) film courtesy of Martin Scorsese's Personal Journey Through American Movies. In a way, it's very much of its 1950s era, but it was also ahead of its time in even daring to tackle the dangers of prescription drugs. James Mason, whose talents history still has not fully appreciated, powers the film with an unforgettable performance.  GRADE: A-

Brothers: This drama about a military man's presumed death in Afghanistan has a rather large plot hole, in that the military would never lead a family to believe their loved one was dead, as this movie tells it. Regardless, powerful performances by Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman and (in a small but key role) Carey Mulligan make up for any lack of credibility. GRADE: B+

The Blind Side: I can understand why people loved this movie, even if it never struck me as anything more than well-made hokum. Like so many films about the disadvantaged, it pats itself on the back too hard for being noble, but the story remains affecting, thanks in no small part to Sandra Bullock's Oscar-winning performance. GRADE: B+

Fantastic Mr. Fox: Think Wes Anderson's indie sensibilities wouldn't be entertaining for kids? Give this one a try and you might be surprised. His quirkiness meshes rather well with Roald Dahl's mordant humor. Great fun - and as an added bonus, it features one of the year's coolest soundtracks. Full review - GRADE: A-

The Men Who Stare at Goats: If this movie were as goofy as its title, it would have been one of the funniest films of last year; as it is, it feels curiously restrained. I wanted it to cut loose more. It's an amusing goof of a movie, no more, no less. Full review - GRADE: B

DVDs out now 

Astro Boy: Is it just me, or did this look like Frisch's Big Boy became an animated superhero movie?

Broken Embraces: Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz are always worth seeing, even if this one doesn't have the reputation of Volver.

Did You Hear About the Morgans?: Yes, and I heard they sucked, thank you very much.

The Fourth Kind: Hm, strange, I can't find much to say about this Milla Jovovich sci-fi thriller. Even people who saw it can't seem to find much to say about it, best I can tell.

The Princess and the Frog: Better than even Disney thinks it is, given all the Rapunzel/Tangled foolishness. Full review - GRADE: A.

The Twilight Saga: New Moon: The very fact that there are dolls that show Pattinson's/Lautner's ripped physiques is enough to make me reject this franchise altogether. For a series that supposedly caters to teen girls, it's uncomfortably close to Playgirl territory.

Small-screen viewing

The Confederate States of America: Clever idea for a satire: what if the South had won? There's just one teensy problem with the faux documentary - it's not funny. GRADE: C-

The Diary of Anne Frank: Here is the very model of how to turn a stage play into a movie - George Stevens' insightful direction conveys the claustrophobia of the Franks' hideaway, yet very cleverly and cinematically opens up the action with skillful editing and camera moves. Some of the dramatics, especially the romance between Anne (Millie Perkins) and Peter (Russ Beymer) feel a little too "Hollywood,"  but the film is still very moving on the whole. GRADE :A-

Lady for a Day: One of Frank Capra's earlier films is also one of his lesser known works, and that's a shame - it's a very charming fable about a band of hoods who tries to pass off a beggar as an aristocrat to please her long-lost daughter. The story doesn't stand up to scrutiny if one thinks about it too hard, so it's best to just go with the improbable flow. GRADE: A-

Seven Days in May: When this political thriller was remade for cable in the 1990s as The Enemy Within, my best friend who once managed a video store told me a story about a guy who asked to rent the original. He promptly returned it saying "I don't like black and white movies." (Facepalm) That guy missed an excellent drama. Maybe it's a little dry in places, but powerhouse acting by Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas and Fredric March carries the film. GRADE: A-

Saturday, March 20, 2010

'Zero Hour' is Airplane! Altogether!

Surely most if not all of you have heard of the 1980 comedy Airplane!  (Yes, the reference was intentional. And yes, I can hear the responses already.)

Well, as it turns out, there is another very similar movie that is almost as funny - only it wasn't meant to be. It's the 1957 film Zero Hour! And no, I'm not full of hyperbole - that title, too, comes with its very own exclamation point! 

Many Airplane! aficionados, myself included, know that Airplane! was based on Zero Hour! - which was also about a former pilot drafted to fly and land a plane when the crew and several passengers fall ill to food poisoning.

What I didn't know, until I just now watched it, was just how much Airplane! was based on Zero Hour! No, scratch that. Airplane! wasn't based on Zero Hour! Airplane! IS Zero Hour! - with jokes!

The Airplane! script doesn't merely borrow the plot of the earlier movie - it out and out steals it. I recorded Zero Hour! off of TCM, and was astonished to find that pretty much every "straight" line of dialogue in Airplane! was lifted DIRECTLY from the Zero Hour! script. Several dialogue passes in Zero Hour! match Airplane! almost verbatim - right down to lines as mundane as "Our survival hinges on one thing - finding someone who not only can fly this plane, but didn't have fish for dinner. "

The main character, played by Dana Andrews, is even named Ted Stryker (spelled with a sometimes vowel in Zero Hour! and with an always vowel in Airplane!) - although the twist here is Stryker is  the father of the kid who gets to go to the cockpit, but minus nudity, gladiator or Turkish prison references. 

The matches are so close, I'm astonished that Jim Abrahams, David Zucker and Jerry Zucker didn't mention Zero Hour! anywhere in the credits - not in the main titles or in the goofy end credits, where Charles Dickens does get his due as the "author of a Tale of Two Cities." 

It is a complete and total hoot to watch Zero Hour! and then fill in the comedic blanks - especially when Zero Hour! drops such gems as "It looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking." Yes, that line IS in Zero Hour! -  without the escalation to drinking or sniffing glue. And I'm sorry to report that there are no jive talkers in Zero Hour, but there is a hysterically silly "Elvis" shown on one of the TVs. 

And the strange connections don't stop with the dialogue. Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch, a  Pro Football Hall of Famer, was cast as the pilot in Zero Hour! - which may have given Zucker/Abrahams/Zucker the idea of casting basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabbar as the co-pilot in their movie.

This one has nothing to do with Zero Hour! vs. Airplane! but I found it intriguing that the cinematographer of Airplane! was Joseph Biroc who also shot Blazing Saddles. I guess he specialized in zany, oft-quoted comedies that broke the fourth wall.

But here's my favorite connection between the two films. Just as Fail Safe was the serious nuclear war movie to Dr. Strangelove's nutty nuclear war movie, it could be said that Zero Hour! is the serious airline disaster film to Airplane's nutty one - and what's funny about that is, in Zero Hour! the Robert Stack part is played by none other than Sterling Hayden - who played General Ripper in Dr. Strangelove. That's enough to make me lose a precious bodily fluid right there. 

I'm not sure who owns the home video rights to Zero Hour! but both it and Airplane! were both released by Paramount. It would be a trip if those were put together as a double DVD package. If Paramount did that, there would be several people, including me, who would like to buy the home video cheif a drink and shake his hand. So there. 

Watch Airplane! vs. Zero Hour (2) in Comedy  |  View More Free Videos Online at Veoh.com

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Previews Before Reviews March 19, 2010

The Bounty Hunter - Even before critics put out a hit on this film, I had already decided to avoid it because the ads made it look utterly devoid of humor, intelligence and appeal. Who would have guessed it would make one long for the high water marks of Along Came Polly and The Break Up? And is Gerard Butler made it his goal to appear in one lame Hollywood rom-com a year? Maybe THIS film should have been called The Ugly Truth.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Ordinarily I would pass on this one, but since I'm dating a teacher, I just might have to check it out. And as an added bonus, critics are grading this movie as better than decent.

The Ghost Writer - Goes a little wider this weekend, reaching Dayton. I'm always up for Polanski.

Repo Men: Sounds like a lame sci-fi version of Dirty Pretty Things. Pass.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

2 Much 3D?

I've found 3D movies a lot of fun, but I worry that the bloom may not be comin' at ya - it may be coming off the rose.

Sure, we just had the great success of Avatar - but unlike most movies released in 3D, it was specifically designed for, and shot in the process. James Cameron shot his movie using at least two cameras per shot, to get the proper 3D effect. Tim Burton, directing Alice in Wonderland, did not. Instead. the 3D was done entirely in post production. I did not see the film in 3D, I saw it "flat" - but many reports I've read indicate the 3D is superfluoous at best, and distracting at worst.

In this piece I've linked to below, a pseudonymous CG supervisor at a prominent VFX house explains why the post technique is not nearly as effective.

The Movie Studios' Big 3D Scam - movie studios - Gizmodo

Key quote:

The process of making a movie 3D after it was shot is a complicated and time consuming process but can be somewhat convincing. The problem is it will never reflect the same results as if you were filming using two cameras, simultaneously, from slightly different perspectives. Endless rotoscoping provides layers that can be separated to fake a different perspective for the second eye, but that's what it looks like, layers. So yes, you can push things away and pull things forward and enhance the depth, but the content within each layer has no depth. We use our eyes everyday and whether you know the geek stuff or not it's just not what we are used to seeing. 

Now we have a bevvy of films coming in 3D. Some will be designed for the process, like DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon. Some will not, like the Clash of the Titans remake. As Cameron himself points out in this interview, 

You know, everybody is an overnight expert. They think, "what was the takeaway lessons from Avatar? Oh you should make more money with 3D." They ignore the fact that we natively authored the film in 3D, and decide that what we accomplished in several years of production could be done in an eight week (post-production 3D) conversion with Clash of the Titans. If people put bad 3D in the marketplace they're going to hold back or even threaten the emerging of 3D. People will be confused by differences in quality.

I've had a lot of fun with the new 3D wave, but it's clear the studios are starting to use it as a way to make more bucks without artfully adding more bang. I'm not going to be seeing Clash of the Titans in 3D - in fact, I plan to skip it altogether, since that will be less a movie than a greedy cash-in on 80s nostalgia. Part of the reason the original Clash was fun was because the effects (created by the legendary Ray Harryhausen) had that funky old-school charm, even back then. Clash of the Titans looks like just another case of CGI sensory overload - and even moreso in 3D.

Bottom line - unless I know a movie is shot with 3D in mind, I won't be bothering with the extra expense.

What do you think?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Why shortening the DVD window is 'dumb'

Per David Poland of Movie City News.

As someone who still preaches the value of the theatrical experience, I'm inclined to agree, especially in the wake of Avatar's mega-success. This is typical short-sightedness by Hollywood execs who can't see out any further than a fiscal year. I realize I'm among the dwindling numbers of people who go to the theater frequently, but to say that the theatrical experience is on the way out betrays a lack of vision and thought.

What do you think? Is shortening the window from theatrical to DVD a good idea or a bad idea?

More on the 'Rapunzel' tangle

All apologies, but a truly hectic work day Monday has turned my brain into the same word you use to get sled dogs to run. And I'm sorry to say this may be true throughout the week. I do not possess the presence of mind to write a truly thoughtful post, or to do even the formatting that goes with the DVD posts.

For the time being, however, I wanted to point your attention to this column by Kim Voynar at Movie City News, who, like me, calls bullshit on Disney's rationale that The Princess and the Frog disappointed because it didn't appeal to boys. She cannily sites box office evidence that gives the lie to that reasoning.

MCN: Voynaristic: From Rapunzel to Tangled? Disney's Dicey Decision

I do take issue with Voynar in her claim that the film failed because it wasn't appealing - most people who actually saw the film loved it. It got an A Cinemascore and an A- from Yahoo movie raters. I think the problem was two-fold: Disney was facing not only those damn Chipmunks (Squeakuel indeed!) but it was also fighting years of distaste that arose when many people found their  hand-drawn films lacking. 

As it happens, The Princess and the Frog comes out today for home viewing. I am more than confident that it will find the larger audience it deserves. Here's my full review of the film. Don't lump it in with the misfires. It's a step in the right direction for Disney. Give it a chance and check it out. I think you'll be glad you did.

Green Zone placeholder

I will chime in (write in?) with my own Green Zone review shortly, but this review fairly well echoes my thoughts. I'll send out a notice when my review is ready.

Paul Greengrass reunites with Matt Damon for the thrilling but oddly cautious Green Zone - HitFix.com

Friday, March 12, 2010

Previews Before Reviews March 12, 2010

(Reminder: Title hyperlinks go to metacritic entries.)

Green Zone: Only four words matter when it comes to this film: Directed by Paul Greengrass. That is ALL I need to know. Even Matt Damon's name matter less to me. On the strength of Bloody Sunday, United 93 and the Bournes Supremacy and Ultimatum, Greengrass has become one of those directors whose name alone means I'm in.  I don't care if it's about the processing of cottage cheese. If Greengrass directed, the movie goes on my must-see list. And I will see it Saturday night. For the record, the so-called "shaky-cam" doesn't bother me, because Greengrass is one of the few directors who uses it artfully.

Our Family Wedding. RSVP: Not with those reviews

Remember Me: I've heard what the supposedly ludicrous ending was. I won't spoil it here, but suffice it to say I'm Team Don't Bother.

She's Out of My League: I'd say this kind of junior take on Knocked Up (minus the knocking up) is out of my league as well.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland

When I saw Alice in Wonderland, I decided to avoid the 3D showing. Unlike Avatar, Alice in Wonderland was not shot with 3D in mind. Instead, the 3D was added in post production. I'd read several reviews that stated the 3D effect was distracting, so I decided to see it "flat."

Well, as it turns out, the movie is flat no matter what dimension it's in. This is Tim Burton's weakest film to date - the first I can't recommend at all.

One of the most familiar refrains of the classic Alice in Wonderland is story is "curiouser and curiouser." This film is curious all right, but in all the wrong ways. It tries to give too many of the characters in the film a reason for being - something Alice in Wonderland not only doesn't need,  but should never have.

This movie isn't a straight re-telling of Alice's adventures. Rather, it's a sequel of sorts. In this chapter, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a 19-year-old who has no memory of her journey to Wonderland as a child, although she's haunted by strange recurring dreams with strange creatures. Just as she gets a marriage proposal, Alice sees the white rabbit, and before she knows it, it's "eat me" and "drink me" time again.

There are many things to admire in this film. Wasikowska is excellent as Alice - all at once vulnerable, yet crafty and determined. Helena Bonham Carter devours the scenery with relish as the Red Queen, Unlike other reviewers, I rather liked Anne Hathaway's icy take on the White Queen. And as is true of most of Burton's films, it looks great, with its wildly weird designs and mostly wonderful effects.

Still, Linda Woolverton's rather tortured screenplay obfuscates these good qualities. This may seem like a strange thing to say for a Hollywood film, but this screenplay "thinks" too much, trying to provide the characters with motivations, with  reasons for being. For example, we're treated to the backstory of the Mad Hatter, who apparently went mad because of a past misfortune.

As George Carlin once said "I did not need to be TOLD that!" I don't want to know why the Mad Hatter is mad. His madness is part of his intrinsic appeal, and to explain that away is to lessen that appeal. The movie ends up feeling like a bad trip to the psychiatrist's couch. I'm also sorry to say the Mad Hatter isn't one of Depp's more inspired portrayals. He's a mishmash of past Depp characterizations: a little Jack Sparrow, a little Willy Wonka, a little Sam from Benny and Joon. It's all shtick he's done before and done better.

Almost as if the filmmakers knew the story wasn't there, they tried to build to a big action climax, but it plays like a candy-colored outtake from Lord of the Rings. It's dull and ineffectual.

This film strips the wonder from Wonderland. As my friend Angie so cleverly put it, why spend so much time trying to make sense out of nonsense?


Disney's newfangled 'Tangled'

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair!

I mean, um - Walt Disney Walt Disney, let down your guard!

Seriously, Disney, I'm worried about you. For quite awhile you seemed to have things figured out. You settled that whole Eisner mess, you made sure Pixar stayed in the fold and your own animated movies started getting better, culminating in the revival of hand-drawn animation with The Princess and the Frog.

Unfortunately, however, that movie did not do as well at the box office as it should have, taking in about $103 million. Not bad, certainly, but I know you were hoping for better, especially considering in the early 90s, you sometimes made twice that - more if you adjust for inflation. It didn't help that you guys had to compete with the Chipmunks "Squeakuel." God bless young kids, but they're not exactly known for their discriminating taste.

Understandably, you wanted to make sure your next movie, Rapunzel, avoided a similar fate. Not understandably, you gave it a new name. Tangled.




Ick, blecch and yuck. Where's the hairspray when you need it?
Come on  - that sounds like your classic misbegotten, studio-group-think screw-up. That's almost as bad as Sony changing the title of a Nicolas Cage/Bridget Fonda romance from the very intriguing Cop Gives Waitress $2 Million Tip to the utterly bland It Could Happen to You.
What's Tangled supposed to mean, anyway? As Linda Holmes of NPR so wittily stated, "So now, instead of sounding like a princess movie, it sounds like a Lifetime movie about a murdered salon owner. Fantastic."

This decision is starting to remind me of your animation output of about 10 years ago, when movies like Atlantis and Home on the Range  felt script-noted, focus-grouped and test-marketed to death. NOT the era you want to evoke.

You guys are geniuses at selling your movies, but testing them? Not so much. What are we to make of the supposition in this Jim Hill Media story that "According to the Mouse’s market research, it would seem that – outside of the United States & Germany –  the story of Rapunzel itself has very little name recognition. More to the point, even those among surveyed who actually recognized Rapunzel’s name, these people had little or no knowledge of what her fairy tale was actually about."

Uh huh. Like Mulan was a household name?

I mean, really, guys. Tangled sounds like you're trying to hard to be "hip, contemporary, with it." No. When it comes to animated movies, that's not your job. Leave that to your inferior rivals like DreamWorks. The charm of the Disney brand for animation is that it's timeless, ageless. Rapunzel speaks to that. Tangled does not.

Speaking of DreamWorks, their next animated movie, How to Train Your Dragon, comes out later this month. It's directed by two guys who used to work for you - Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois, who helmed Lilo & Stitch, one of the best moves you made this past decade. I get the sense that DreamWorks is going to beat you at your own game, because Dragon seems to have more Disney charm than Tangled does.

But I hope I'm wrong. I'm still very fond of Disney. I like most of your animated movies very much. I will see Tangled, but I'm forced to admit I'm more worried about it than anticipating it.  In that sense, the title change is very appropriate after all.

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Pithy DVD takes, 3/9/10

Capitalism: A Love Story:  Not one of Michael Moore's better films, but still has very compelling moments. Political squabbling not allowed in comments. Full review - GRADE: B+

Old Dogs: Horrible-looking movies not allowed in my collection. (Hyperlink to purchase deliberately not included)

Planet 51: Interest 0.

Precious: Powerful and inspiring, but a little too well lived-in, which makes it tough to endure. Full review- GRADE A-

Up in the Air: Chances are not (insert film title here) that I will be buying the best film of 2009. Short review - GRADE: A+

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Oscars: Mostly happy with the awards, not the show

It is very late as I type this, and that's only inevitable after watching the Oscars - so forgive me if any of my thoughts seem less than lucid.

I was mostly pleased with the way the awards went. The biggest surprise and disappointment for me was Up in the Air losing Adapted Screenplay to Precious. I thought Precious was very powerful, but perhaps too punishing for its own good. Up in the Air was better crafted all the way around and moved me even more than Precious did. It saddens me that my pick for best film of the year went away completely empty-handed.

On the other end of the scale, I fully expected it to happen, but I was absolutely delighted to see Michael Giacchino finally win an Oscar. He was robbed when he wasn't even nominated for The Incredibles, and I was thrilled to see him get his due for his superb score for Up.

And, with writer-director Pete Docter winning for Up, I am delighted to be able to say that I have met and interviewed an Oscar winner.

But the Oscar show itself? The opposite of Up is Down.

Last year's  telecast was one of the best in years - and I have to say this was the worst since the 1989 debacle with Snow White, Rob Lowe and Co.

Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin did what they could, but their banter seemed too frenetic, and their material was not up to scratch.  The show's producers claim year after year the show runs too long, yet they keep finding ways to extend it needlessly.

That bit with Ben Stiller in Avatar getup? Maybe funny for the first minute. The other 39? Not so much.

Good idea: Bringing in Neil Patrick Harris. Bad idea: Having him do essentially the same thing he did on the Emmys, I'm told. Worse idea: Surrounding him with all those dancers with the feather boas. For a second I thought Allan Carr came back from the dead to resurrect his 1989 show.

Bad idea: Ditching the best song nominees. Worse idea: Killing time instead with a completely pointless horror montage. Dumb idea: Including Beetlejuice in a horror montage.  Worst idea: Having dancers perform a "What the hell was that?" routine to the Best Score nominees.

The show was even technically slapdash. The director mistimed several shots, and the use of "I Am Woman" when Kathryn Bigelow won was so on the nose, the musical arranger might as well have been Pinocchio. Would they have played James Brown's "Say It Loud" if Lee Daniels had won?

Even the stage decor was tacky. As my friend Mike put it on Facebook: "What's the deal with using the Home Depot lighting department as an Oscar stage backdrop?"

All in all, the Oscar telecast was an unfocused mess - much like Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. But more on that later. For now, tell me what you thought of the show, and the awards.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Eric's (mostly) steely Oscar predictions

I have been called the "steely-eyed moviegoing man," so I think it's only appropriate  I turn in mostly steely Oscar predictions. The awards are Sunday; I repeat the same too maxims I always do:

"Nobody knows anything"


"Deserve's got nothin' to do with it."

“The Blind Side”
“District 9”
“An Education”
“The Hurt Locker”
“Inglourious Basterds”
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire”
“A Serious Man”
“Up in the Air”

This is a race between the juggernaut known as "Avatar" and the critical fave "The Hurt Locker." Usually the Academy likes to go big and epic (how else do you explain the undeserving "Gladiator" win?), which would favor "Avatar." However, I keep hearing the same complaint about "Avatar" over and over again. "Great visuals, so-so story." I think enough voters will rank it low on their ballots for that reason, giving "Locker" the edge.

WILL WIN: "The Hurt Locker"
SHOULD WIN: No film affected me emotionally more than "Up in the Air."

“Avatar” James Cameron
“The Hurt Locker” Kathryn Bigelow
“Inglourious Basterds” Quentin Tarantino
“Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire” Lee Daniels
“Up in the Air” Jason Reitman

The Academy loves to make history, and many love Kathryn Bigelow's film. Her biggest competition, her ex-husband Cameron, has already had his glory, so even if "Avatar" wins Picture, Bigelow's got this.

WILL/SHOULD WIN: I had small issues with "Hurt Locker," but they were due more to screenplay issues and not Bigelow's taut direction.

Jeff Bridges in “Crazy Heart”
George Clooney in “Up in the Air”
Colin Firth in “A Single Man”
Morgan Freeman in “Invictus”
Jeremy Renner in “The Hurt Locker”

WILL/SHOULD WIN: This isn't even close to a contest. It's finally the beloved Bridges' year. And he really is that good in the film.

Sandra Bullock in “The Blind Side”
Helen Mirren in “The Last Station”
Carey Mulligan in “An Education”
Gabourey Sidibe in “Precious”
Meryl Streep in “Julie &  Julia”

This is more of a race between Bullock and Streep than some will have you believe. Yes, Meryl has not won in 26 years, she's overdue for her third Oscar. However, she's been nominated an awful lot in recent years, and I think voters will feel that's reward in itself. Moreover, Streep is likely to be back her soon. Bullock less so. And Bullock is in a Best Picture nominee, so she has the edge.

WILL WIN: Bullock
SHOULD WIN: Mulligan, for striking a beautiful balance of girlishness and "wise beyond her years" in her role as a teenager trying to be more worldly. 

Matt Damon in “Invictus”
Woody Harrelson in “The Messenger”
Christopher Plummer in “The Last Station”
Stanley Tucci in “The Lovely Bones”
Christoph Waltz in “Inglourious Basterds”

WILL/SHOULD WIN: There's no way Waltz loses after picking up every precursor under the sun. I have my reservations about the film as a whole, but not about Waltz's fantastic performance.

Penélope Cruz in “Nine”
Vera Farmiga in “Up in the Air”
Maggie Gyllenhaal in “Crazy Heart”
Anna Kendrick in “Up in the Air”
Mo’Nique in “Precious”

WILL WIN: The logic for Mo'Nique is the same as the logic for Waltz. He/she has dominated the early races too much to lose.

SHOULD WIN: Kendrick, for taking what could have been a two-dimensional character and breathing wonderfully nuanced life into her.

Other categories after the jump.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

The oeuvre of Tim Burton

With Alice in Wonderland in theaters Friday, it's time to go through a different kind of looking glass and review the films of Tim Burton.

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985): Burton's first feature-length theatrical film may still be his best in terms of sheer entertainment value. I don't think he's made a happier film. GRADE: A

Beetlejuice (1988): My, Michael Keaton certainly was unhinged, wasn't he? And was this the last time Alec Badlwin was that genteel? And remember when Winona Ryder was a great emerging talent? GRADE: A-

Batman (1989): To this day, I have never quite understood why people went apeshit over this movie. Sure, Nicholson is great, but the direction is fussy, and many of the action scenes are cluttered. The biggest problem? Kim Basinger was a boring love interest. It was Burton's most popular film - and the one that seems the least like him to me. GRADE: B

Edward Scissorhands (1990): Burton rebounds with a beautifully touching film that is sill my personal favorite of his. It would be his one film to get an A+ from me, if only Anthony Michael Hall weren't such a shallow nemesis. GRADE: A

Batman Returns (1992): Superior to the 1989 Batman in almost every respect, this film is much more Burtonesque, and his quirky humor comes through much more strongly. The Peguin (Danny DeVito) was a washout as a villain, but Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman cut me to ribbons - in a good way. GRADE: B+

Ed Wood (1994): What if a filmmaker had all the drive of Orson Welles - and none of the talent? That's the question Burton explored in his most personal film, about the legendarily awful director. Martin Landau deservedly won an Oscar for his wonderful portrayal of Bela Lugosi, but I wish the supporting characters were a little more interesting. GRADE: A-

Mars Attacks! (1996): No, not everything in it works, but dammit, I find those little green buggers a complete hoot. ACK! ACK! ACK! GRADE: A-

Sleepy Hollow (1999): My, my,  Tim does love the decapitated head, doesn't he? Underrated. GRADE: A-

Planet of the Apes (2001): Not quite as bad as most people remember, the film does boast some good performances and action scenes, but that ending tried too hard to "gotcha!" GRADE: B-

Big Fish (2003) Has some absolutely wonderful moments, but for me, the sum of the great parts doesn't quite add up to a fully satisfying whole. GRADE: B+

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) : Inevitably, people focused too hard on comparing it to the Gene Wilder/Mel Stuart film, which still wasn't fair, because the two movies, and the two Wonkas, are such different animals. This version is certainly better directed, and I suspect it's closer to what Roald Dahl wrote, but it makes a critical mistake by giving Wonka a sob backstory. GRADE: B+

Corpse Bride (2005): Fun, but pales in comparison to The Nightmare Before Christmas (directed by Henry Selick) beccause the story is less compelling and the songs are much less memorable. GRADE: B-

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007): For all of it's power and bluster, the film simply didn't stay with me. Maybe I'm just not a big fan of the source material. GRADE: B-

I'm not sure yet when I will get to Alice in Wonderland, but I will review it in this space as soon as possible. In the meantime, tell me what you think of Burton's oeuvre.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Our Favorite Movies: Girl on a Warpath's picks

It's been too long since I've done a Favorite Movies installment, so I'd like to return to that project today by offering the choices of a colleague of mine, who identifies herself as "Girlonawarpath." I shall tread as lightly as possible here. Fury and a woman scorned, you know. ;) I'll offer her commentary, followed by mine.

Love, love, love Big Fish. I must have watched that movie 20 times when I first got it.

A lot of people love this movie, and I can understand that, although for me the movie was only great in fits and starts. It had some magical moments (Ewan McGregor meeting Alison Lohman, for example), but I wanted the movie to sustain that energy all the way through, and it never quite did that for me. Speaking only from my own perspective, maybe my muted respect for this movie stems from the fact that I don't have major "daddy issues," so to speak.

It's kind of cliched, but I love Citizen Kane and All the President's Men.

You'll get no argument from me on either of those. Both are outstanding, although as far as 70s paranoid conspiracy thrillers go, I like Alan J. Pakula's The Parallax View even better than his President's Men.

Pirates of the Caribbean is definitely most of the fun movies I've ever watched.

It is indeed a lot of fun, although I've always found this movie, and certainly this series, to be a bit overrated. All the movies, from one degree to another, suffer from overlength, but the first is surely the best.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) is a definite favorite.

Absolutely OUTSTANDING choice. That film is a template of the Hollywood action movie, and in one way or another, movies are still ripping it off today. Amazing fun, and the Technicolor is explosively glorious.

The Princess Bride is a classic. Love Beauty and the Beast and the animated Alice in Wonderland. I also love the animated Thumbalina, but that might be nostalgia for my childhood.

The Princess Bride is indeed a great deal of fun. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite of the Disney renaissance films, and Alice in Wonderland, though imperfect, is quite the trip (pun intended). Too many people - Walt included - were overly critical of this one. Can't speak to Thumbelina, but for me Don Bluth's best is The Land Before Time.

American Gangster. I watched that multiple times as well. And I just got turned onto Kingdom Of Heaven, that is slowly working its way in my favorites.

Two Ridley Scott films. American Gangster had great moments, but should have been even better than it was, given its pedigree. As for Kingdom of Heaven, I hope she means the extended cut, which is a great film. The theatrical version sawed off giant chunks of the movie, including entire subplots, stripping it of most of its power. It's the most dramatic difference from a theatrical to a director's cut I've ever seen - even more so than Scott's own Blade Runner

Anyone who'd still like to submit a list is more than welcome to do so - I'd love to keep this going as long as possible!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Well, I'll never hear THAT song the same way again!

Being a visual medium, movies often change the way we see the world. But they can also change the way we hear the world too.  Rarely is that effect more striking than when a movie has its way with a song we know and love. The song is often altered forever - whether we want it to be or not.

I was on a Paul Thomas Anderson kick recently, and I watched Boogie Nights for the first time in a while. The film was building to a sweaty, fevered pitch as it hurtled through its third act.

Then "Sister Christian" came blaring on the soundtrack.

Before Boogie Nights, I had always regarded that Night Ranger song as one of those gloppy slices of Velveeta for which people of my generation carry a strange torch. I remember the video being played ad nauseum on MTV, when a couple of band members engaged in what I call the "dramatic Night Ranger squat"  (at about 3:41 in the clip).

But that's not what I think of anymore when I hear "Sister Christian." Now when that song comes on, even if it's not in the movie, I can't help but hear firecrackers snapping on the ground. And in a strange way, it gives the song a "cool cache" it NEVER had before.

"Layla" was a song I knew very well long before I saw GoodFellas in 1990. But after Marty Scorsese got through with it, I could never again hear it without thinking of a lot of dead bodies (9:24 in).

And then there's Roy Orbison's "In Dreams." Now - this is a slightly different case. I had never heard that song before seeing it in David Lynch's Blue Velvet - and I'm kind of glad I didn't. Because the ONLY image that song conjures up now is of Dennis Hopper being horrifyingly sadistic. That song wasn't "ruined," but it was introduced to me in a very, very twisted way. I can only imagine how my mind would have melted had Lynch used "Oh! Pretty Woman" or "Only the Lonely."

So how about you? What songs did the movies irrevocably change for you - for good or ill?

Pithy DVD catch-up

Time to get back in the swing of things vis-a-vis D-V-D. Since I have a fair amount of titles to catch up on, and I have another post in mind, I'll do these pithily.

New This Week

Ponyo: Should it have been Oscar nominated? Only The Secret of Kells knows for sure. GRADE: A-

2012:  Sorta entertaining junk about the world getting trashed. Full review - GRADE: B-
Where the Wild Things Are: Not as bad as audiences seemed to think, but not as great as some critics said it was. Full review - GRADE: B

Out Now

The Box: Did it really deserve that F Cinemascore it got? I'm almost curious to find out. Almost.

Cirque du Freak:   Vampire du Overkill?
The Damned United The rare sports movie (and even rarer soccer movie) that might actually interest me.

The Informant!:  Matt Damon AND composer Marvin Hamlisch should have been nominated. Full review - GRADE: A

Make Way for Tomorrow: Long lost Leo McCarey on DVD? Make way on my Netflix queue!

Sorority Row: Tuition denied.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Second thoughts on half of the Oscar nominees

Saturday I attended the annual AMC Best Picture Showcase, in which the theater chain plays all the Oscar nominees in a mini-marathon. Since there are 10 nominees this year, the marathon plays over two weeks. Saturday, it was, in order: Avatar, Up in the Air, Precious, The Blind Side and the bane of spell-checkers everywhere, Inglourious Basterds. 

Avatar: I've really gotten tired of people cracking on this movie because of its screenplay. I am going to declare this loudly, right here and now: JAMES CAMERON IS A GOOD SCREENWRITER.

Yes, I will agree that his dialogue clunks about as loudly as a wrench in a dryer. However, too many people are complaining under the misconception that if the dialogue is bad, the screenplay must be bad. NOT so. Any screenwriter worth their salt will tell you that dialogue is only half the battle - if that.

Cameron thinks like an engineer - he is extremely good at constructing his stories, at laying the groundwork for plot points that pay off later. It's not all in the camerawork. His use of the toruk (the large orange flying creature) is an example of that. In most sci-fi films that would just be the big monster for a battle at the end. In Avatar, he starts as a predator, but then becomes the instrument that Jake uses to regain the respect of the Navi after he is outcast. That, to me, is smart writing. Remember how early in Titanic (another wrongly maligned screenplay) Cameron explained exactly how the ship broke apart, so the audience would better understand what was happening at the climax? That's smart writing too.

No, the story isn't the most original one in the world, but as Pixar's writers will tell you, most of the great stories have been told in one form or another. (What is the original Toy Story, after all, but a variation on the buddy cop movie?) The trick is to put a new spin on them to make them seem fresh, and in my opinion, Cameron did that. Those who dismiss Avatar as "Dances with Wolves/Ferngully in space" are only being as facile as they accuse Cameron of being.

 .... and dismount soapbox. GRADE: A+

Up in the Air: Yes, it has a smarter screenplay than Avatar, but that's not why I like it better than Avatar. I like it better than Avatar. I like it better because it hit me harder personally. I could relate all too well to George Clooney's lonely character in many respects - which is why I see the film as hopeful even though I've heard people call it "depressing." Their loss.  If it were only up to my vote, this would win Best Picture. GRADE: A+

Precious: A sterling acting showcase to be sure, but this may be the single most punishing film to watch since Requiem for a Dream. Powerful, to be sure, but sometimes I felt more subjected to it than enriched by it. GRADE: A-

The Blind Side: It was interesting to see these films played back to back, as some see The Blind Side as the "lite" version of Precious. I can see why many people love this feel-good story, and it is well performed and well made, but it wouldn't be on my Oscar ballot. Like many an uplifting sports drama, this movie makes its button-pushing feel far too obvious. The "feel-good" nature of it, too, seemed too pandering, too "Hallmark" to me - and one could persuasively argue the movie strays a little too far from the truth. Still, I accepted it as genial, entertaining  hokum that went down easily. Bullock's brassy performance helps. GRADE: B+

Inglourious Basterds: My best friend's teenage daughter pegged this movie exactly right when she said "It had its moments" That's all Inglourious Basterds is to me. A handful of great moments surrounded by too much chaff. I've seen the movie three times now, and it has seemed less and less impressive to me on each viewing.

Simply put, Tarantino falls too much in love with his material and can't make judicious editing decisions. For every masterful scene, like the opening interrogation, there are two or three more that drag on too long, or are even completely unnecessary. That slow, boring scene with Mike Myers under heavy makeup that sets up the shootout in the bar? That could - and should - have been completely jettisoned in favor of a few smart lines of exposition. At certain points, the film almost grinds to a halt - and that only becomes more apparent when it springs back to life, in, say, the big climax at the theater. 

Inglourious Basterds is not a great movie - just a good movie.  And Christoph Waltz will absolutely deserve his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. But Star Trek was more deserving of a Best Picture nomination. I now call Basterds may least favorite of the 10 nominees. GRADE: B

PS On the other hand, it seems that Basterds is my ticket to free movies. The second time I saw it, at Studio 35 in Columbus, a couple of drunk jackasses  made loud, obnoxious comments throughout the movie. (This is why I hate that some theaters serve alcohol). Studio 35 had the good sense not only to throw them out, but to hand the rest of us free passes as an apology. And at the Oscar marathon Saturday, AMC Newport was wise to hand out passes after many people complained when we had to switch auditoriums because of Avatar's 3D print. If you want to know why I keep seeing a movie I don't really like that much - here's your answer!

The second half of the Oscar marathon is next Saturday, with screenings of Up, A Serious Man,  The Hurt Locker, An Education, and District 9. The Oscars themselves are next Sunday, March 7. I plan to post my predictions on Friday.