Sunday, June 26, 2011

REVIEW: Cars 2

Save Cars 2!

That's what I felt shouting after seeing Pixar's latest movie, to which other critics have been uncommonly unkind. I left the theater jazzed.  I was baffled as to how they missed the boat by a mile or two.

I didn't see this sappy, cluttered, confusing, inconsequential mess, this ... this CARTOON that Pixar DARED to make. And then, looking over the reviews, I found that a lot of writers weren't so much reviewing the movie as they were the IDEA of the movie. "They made a sequel to Cars? How crass! How commercial! How shallow!"

I prefer to review what's up there on the screen. And what I saw was a great deal of fun. No, it does not rank alongside Pixar's great films. Yes,  I'd probably rank it last, alongside the original Cars.

But as Michael Wilmington of Movie City News (formerly of the Chicago Tribune) sagely pointed out, naming Pixar's worst movie is like trying to pick the Beatles' worst album. Sure, you could find an album that wasn't as great as the others, but the Beatles didn't have it in them to make a bad album. And I doubt that Pixar has it in them to make a bad movie.

Cars 2 tells a pair of stories that dovetail with each other. About a third of Cars 2 is an international grand prix racing movie with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) at the center. The other two-thirds is an homage to  James Bond pictures, with Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) being mistaken for a master spy who's trying to find out why racers in the grand prix are being sabotaged.

The James Bond angle, in particular, was right up my alley. I love that series. So I got a giant kick out of seeing Finn McMissile transforming from an Aston Martin to a submersible. Very Goldfinger/Spy Who Loved Me. I loved the various chases and shootouts, which were thrilling to watch.

Some people had problems with the fact that Mater was front and center in this movie, but not me. Mater is not merely a dumb country bumpkin. In fact, the story addresses that very perception. Mater is a bumbler to be sure, but he never means to cause trouble. His heart is always in the right place, and since he IS a tow truck, he knows all about the various models of cars, and that comes in very handy here. I especially loved how the bad guys of this movie were autos with horrible reputations, like Gremlins, Pacers and Yugos.

Those who know me know that when I love something, I really love it. And since this movie combines Pixar and Bond, I probably was bound to enjoy it more than most. While I sometimes wear rose-colored glasses, I am not willfully blind.

I will admit that sometimes Cars 2 does get a little too frenzied for its own good. I wish it had taken the advice of the original film and slowed down a little. I will also concede that Cars 2 is not particularly ambitious. It skews young, and there's less here for adults than usual with Pixar. If you're not into cars or Bond, you may be more at sea than I was. Emotionally, it's a little thin. Most Pixar movies make me tear up. Cars 2 only made my lower lip stick out a bit.

Some may say that since Pixar sets the bar so high for itself, Cars 2 inevitably comes up short. I prefer to take a glass half-full approach. After nearly 20 years of making the best animated features, Pixar is allowed - perhaps even entitled - to make a movie that's merely a heck of a lot of fun.


PS - Wow, I made it through the review without making ONE lame automobile pun!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

REVIEW: Super 8

Those who gripe that Steven Spielberg dumbed down American movies really need to see Super 8.

The common party line against Spielberg is that American movies were hip and edgy and personal in the early 1970s, then Spielberg, George Lucas, et al came along and ruined everything with their mass-marketed entertainments like Jaws, Star Wars and Close Encounters. Overnight, studios went from making the great American movie to the great American hit.

Super 8 proves these naysayers wrong, even though Spielberg himself didn't direct the movie.

Granted, Spielberg was a hands-on producer of the film, and writer-director J.J. Abrams is very obviously paying homage to his boss/mentor. But in so doing, Abrams reminds us of a time when movies were pure, joyous entertainments and not labored, busy marketing machines.

Even something as decent as Thor or as accomplished as Cars never quite escapes the fact that it's trying to sell comics, toys, sequels, soundtracks, etc. Super 8 is never concerned with selling anything other than itself. And it sold me so much I bought it twice so far.

Of course, a large part of it was a nostalgia blast for me, not only for the late 70s (fictional) Southwest Ohio setting, but for its technique. The picture heavily evokes the wide-eyed wonder of early Spielberg movies, with the most obvious inspiration being Close Encounters. Both movies are filled with wide compositions such as a large object dominating one side of the screen while a smaller object provides contrast. Both films are replete with lens flare, swooping overhead crane shots, and push-ins on actors with their hair blowing in the wind (machine).

The visual effects, created partly by master Dennis Muren, never once feel fake, nor do they look too modern. In particular, a train crash scene takes its place in cinema history as the most spectacular one ever shot. It's at once horrifying and thrilling, which is a very tricky balance to master.

But Super 8 is much more than just excellent technique. It's also wonderfully human, particularly in the unforced, guileless performances of the young actors. Joel Courtney is a real find as the lead, Joe, a makeup specialist who is coping with the death of his mom in an industrial accident. Riley Griffiths is funny and touching as Charles, the self-appointed boss of a group of friends and the writer-director of the home movie that drives the story.

But besting even them is the remarkable Elle Fanning, who gives a wonderful  performance as Alice, the girl who seems remarkably talented, yet also vulnerable - the kind of girl I once fell for. Fanning's ability to modulate emotions so quickly and convincingly makes her a marvel to watch, perhaps even more than her accomplished sister Dakota. Elle deserves consideration for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar. She's that good.

Does Super 8 measure up to those early Spielberg classics? Not quite. The sci-fi part of the story doesn't gel as well as the dramatic side, and the ending struck me as a bit too pat and abrupt, with symbolism that was a little too on the nose.

Still, where Spielberg and Abrams differ, at least in terms of Spielberg's early films, is that Spielberg excelled at telling stories of individuals, or small groups of people, like the trio on the boat in Jaws or Roy Neary in Close Encounters. Abrams is a bit more adept at ensembles, which is why Mission; Impossible 3 was the film that best captured the team spirit of the TV show. It's also a large part of why his Star Trek reboot worked so well.

I'm sure there won't be a sequel to Super 8, even though I wouldn't at all mind seeing a follow-up called Betamax.

No, scratch that. Not as romantic. Best to leave very well enough alone.


Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Oeuvres: Steven Spielberg

I'm not quite ready to review Super 8 just yet - I want to get another look at the film first. In the meantime, however, it's more than appropriate to look back on the career of the man to whom Super 8 is a loving homage. He's my second favorite director, after Martin Scorsese. They have very different styles, but both share a great passion for the power of film - and Spielberg is perhaps the most intuitive of them all. He's a born entertainer - and more importantly, a born storyteller.

This roundup considers only Spielberg's feature-length projects as a director, and not his work as a producer. Cos then I'd have to talk about the Transformers movies. Ew.

Duel: To this day, I think this film is the reason that trucks make me nervous when they pass me on the highway. GRADE: A

The Sugarland Express: Spielberg's feature debut is an underseen gem. Even at this early stage, his command of composition and logistics was truly impressive. GRADE: A

Jaws: Still the only movie that has ever made me scream out lout. Not even The Exorcist pulled that off. GRADE: A+

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Spielberg once said the shot of the little boy opening the door with all that light flooding in was his shot that best represented him. I wonder if he still thinks so. GRADE: A+

1941: Not nearly as bad as its reputation suggests. In fact, it's not really bad at all. Sure, it's noisy and cluttered, and it's several rungs down from his previous work. But darn it, it has a lot of laughs in it, particularly the great opening scene. GRADE: B

Raiders of the Lost Ark: My favorite of Spielberg's "popcorn" movies and the best action film of all time. One of the greatest moviegoing experiences of my life was when Indy shot the swordsman and that huge ROAR went up in the theater. GRADE: A+

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial: "I'll be right here." *sniff sniff* BAWL!!!!!! GRADE: A+

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom: Great beginning. Great ending. WEAK middle section. And awfully mean-spirited too. GRADE: B

The Color Purple: Some consider this film the problematic beginning of the director's "grown up" work. Even though the slick technique sometimes feels at odds with the material, emotionally, it packs a wallop. GRADE: A

Empire of the Sun: Here's the real problem child of the "adult" period. Individual sequences are brilliantly staged, but the screenplay loses focuses and ultimately the movie feels a bit hollow. GRADE: B

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The series rebounds, with the brilliant casting of Sean Connery. GRADE: A

Always: Spielberg takes what was a merely decent programmer from the 40s (A Guy Named Joe) and turns it into a confection so gloppy it sticks in all the wrong ways. The one movie in the director's filmography I can't recommend. GRADE: C

Hook: Not nearly the misfire people said it was, but not nearly the classic it ought to have been either. Still, it has enough good moments to carry it through, especially in the first half. GRADE: B

Jurassic Park: A return to popcorn form. Enormous fun, and as is no longer the case with a lot of films from the same period, the effects are still spectacular. GRADE: A

Schindler's List: Oh, only one of the 10 best movies ever made. GRADE: A+

The Lost World: Jurassic Park: Some outstanding action sequences redeem a rather lazy screenplay, and the ending sequence in San Diego is uncharacteristically clunky. GRADE: B-

Amistad: Sometimes strains too hard for effect, but when it works, its extremely affecting, thanks largely to great performances by Djimon Hounsou and Anthony Hopkins. GRADE: A-

Saving Private Ryan: Some revisionists have said this film is only worth it for the D-Day sequence. Hogwash. It's the best modern-day film about World War II, pure and simple. GRADE: A+

A.I. Artificial Intelligence: This adventurous melding of the incongruous styles of Spielberg and Kubrick doesn't always take - and yet, even in that way its absolutely fascinating. Haley Joel Osment's spellbinding performance gives it a strong heart. GRADE: A+

Minority Report: A supremely exciting and thought-provoking sci-fi thriller, with some truly imaginative action sequences on the level of Raiders. GRADE: A+

Catch Me If You Can: Marred only by an overlong third act, this film is a wonderfully entertaining breeze, not least because it's the film where people first noticed one Amy Adams. GRADE: A

War of the Worlds: One of Spielberg's most underrated films, it transmuted H.G. Wells' classic into a terrifying treatise on a post 9-11 world. GRADE: A+

Munich: An emotionally overpowering look at how killing eats away at the soul, even when you can argue that it's justified. In an interesting way, like its predecessor, this is also a 9-11 statement. GRADE: A+

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: No, it's not as good as it should have been. But screw you naysayers, I liked the fridge gag - because we all know we love the Indiana Jones movies for their gritty realism. (scoff). Even though the climax is disappointingly inert, on balance it's still a better film than Temple of Doom. So there. :P   GRADE: B+

Monday, June 13, 2011

REVIEW: The Tree of Life

Reviewing The Tree of Life feels like walking out on a limb. It's exciting and scary.

If you praise it effusively, some moviegoers will declare you an artsy fart who doesn't like anything fun. On the other hand, if you criticize it, you run the risk of being called a troglodyte who simply didn't "get it."

However, I pride myself on being able to balance the scales of an argument (I am a Libra, after all.) I freely admit I didn't "get" much of The Tree of Life. And I didn't expect to. To be able to "get it" after only one viewing would only diminish the impact of this often overwhelming  film. At the same time, I believe a film should be judged not so much on what it tries to achieve, but on what it actually accomplishes. And on that score, writer-director Terrence Malick's reach exceeds his grasp.

Malick, whose short filmography includes Badlands, Days of Heaven, The Thin Red Line and The New World, has never been big on plot. Some may claim that "nothing happens" in his stories, but Malick has always emphasized mood over narrative. To him, what's important is not so much what happens but what his characters feel. And that feeling is often intensely powerful.

More than anything else, The Tree of Life is a memory album, an evocation of a time of lost innocence. The film recalls 1950s Texas in glowing visuals, most often  seen from the point of view of a child. Malick keeps his camera low to the ground as it gazes in wonder, or sometimes confusion. The movie's eye darts about restlessly with our protagonist (Hunter McCracken), whose soul is torn between a loving but stern father (Brad Pitt) and his free-spirited mother (Jessica Chastain, who has a lovely ethereal presence).

Because the emotions of those scenes are so stirring, I wanted the entire film to leave me breathless of wonder. But it often falls unnervingly short. A framing device featuring Sean Penn as the grown son never connects emotionally at all, and a climactic scene on a beach seems more ripped from the frames of Fellini than something truly otherwordly.

I also felt torn about the "creation of life" scenes, which struck me as an overly elliptical melding of the "Rite of Spring" sequence from Fantasia (which, like The Tree of Life, features dinosaurs), and the "Dawn of Man" scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey. I think Malick is trying to say something akin to what Casablanca called the problems of a few little people not amounting to a hill of beans in this crazy world.  But I'm not sure that having sections of the movie look like an elaborate National Geographic documentary is the best way to put that idea across.

At the same time, whether the screen is showing an exploding star or a child on a swing, the imagery is never less than breathtaking. Lensed by Emmanuel Lubezki, The Tree of Life is one of the most gorgeous films ever shot. Not just by Malick or in this decade, but in all the history of film. It's worth seeing for the visuals alone. And I will be seeing it again.

Perhaps I will take something different away from it on repeat viewings. For now, I would stop short of calling The Tree of Life a great film, but it is a great experience. When the film misses it frustrates. But when it succeeds, it soars.


Tuesday, June 07, 2011

REVIEW: X-Men First Class

X-Men First Class injects a very welcome shot of energy into an ailing franchise that, for awhile, seemed stuck in coach. The prequel truly lives up to its name.

After a strong first two films, the series slipped somewhat with a third movie that actually wasn't bad as many people claim it is, but was a marked step down from the Bryan Singer-directed pictures. Then, the series slipped even further with the mess that was Wolverine. You know your franchise is in trouble when not even Hugh Jackman's charisma can save it.

So it's understandable that the viewer might approach X-Men First Class with trepidation. But this is no Saved by the Bell with a big FX budget. This is terrific entertainment that  puts the series back on track by breathing new life in into it while still honoring what made  the classic series work, just like J.J. Abrams' Star Trek did.

At the heart of the franchise is the fascinating push/pull relationship between Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (Magneto), and X-Men First Class Knows this, focusing on the days when the men were allies, albeit uneasy ones. Both of them want the mutant clan to be accepted, but they each have very different philosophies behind attaining that goal, and the prequel smartly shows how each man formed his thinking.

It helps that two top-flight actors play the leads. Many reviewers have remarked that when Daniel Craig retires as James Bond, Michael Fassbender can take his place, and I wholeheartedly agree. The man has charisma and talent to spare. He holds the screen. filling in the lines that Ian McKellan had so skillfully drawn.  James McAvoy is just as good as the more empathetic Professor X. For that matter, McAvoy would make a pretty good Bond himself.

One of the best things about X-Men First Class is that the supporting cast is uniformly solid too. Befitting a movie about a team, the prequel  plays very well as an ensemble piece; everyone is good. But the best of the supporting players is Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone), whose talent matches her beauty. She makes the plight of the shape-shifter Mystique not just fascinating, but moving as well. Previously, Mystique was an intriguing bad-ass, now she's a fully realized character.

If I have any quibble with the movie, it's that some of the supporting players tend to blend into the background and become indistinct. I never quite got, for instance, why one girl decided she had to turn bad other than that she sneered a lot. But that flaw is endemic to almost any movie that juggles so many characters. January Jones excels at playing ice queens, making Emma Frost a great villain. And the happily ubiquitous Rose Bryne turns in yet another appealing performance as Moria MacTaggert, a CIA agent on the mutants' side. Between Insidious, Bridesmaids and now this, Byrne is having a hell of a year.

Just as Byrne belongs on the A-list, so does director Matthew Vaughn, whose previous movies include Layer Cake, Stardust and Kick-Ass. Each of those movies had great visual energy, but X-Men First Class is the one that proves Vaughn can be as skillful a storyteller as he is a visual stylist. Not only is his action clean and exciting, but it's rather canny too. Many scenes have playful rhythms evocative of the first half of the 60s, when this film is set. With two leads who could make a good 007, X-Men First Class feels like a James Bond movie with super powers.

But X-Men First Class makes a more important distinction than that. It's the best comic book movie since The Dark Knight - and  is very nearly its equal.


Thursday, June 02, 2011

In defense of the theatrical experience - I DO get it

One of my favorite movie critics, James Berardinelli, has written a column decrying the state of the theatrical moviegoing experience. It's no small wonder, he says, that people increasingly watch movies at home because the theaters have become a cesspool of talking/texting teens, lousy movies and lousier projection.

As he usually does, Berardinelli makes a lot of good points. But I'm going to stop singing his praises and start rebutting him. Because from where I sit in the movie theater, I smell a lot of BS in what he writes.

Such as:

Movie houses used to have three big factors in their favor: screen size, superior sound, and the "shared" experience of enjoying something with a couple hundred strangers. Over the years, screens have gotten smaller - fake IMAX screens, widely touted as state-of-the-art, are smaller than the "regular" screens in the old 2000-seat houses. At the same time, home theater screens have gotten much bigger. Now, it's not a question of seeing something on a 70-foot theater screen instead of an 18" TV. It's a choice between going out and seeing a movie on a 20-30 foot screen or staying home and seeing it at 5-10 feet. 
I don't know how big Berardinelli's TV is, but in my experience, even the smallest movie screen, in a theater akin to a broom closet,  is still bigger than your average flat-screen  HDTV. Luckily, broom closet theaters are not that numerous, especially not in the megaplex.

It's also true that today's IMAX doesn't measure up to yesterday's big movie house.  Even though it is 10 years gone, I still greatly miss the big Dayton Mall 1 screen that was at least 50 feet long and seated well over 1,000 people. But you know what? Theaters like that are fewer and farther between than a moment of quiet in a Michael Bay movie. I wish they were still around, but they're not. The IMAX screens in megaplexes certainly aren't as big as genuine IMAX, but they're still bigger than the other movie screens in the megaplex. You have to take what you're stuck with. And what we're stuck with isn't so bad, size-wise. As Sheryl Crow once sang, "It's not having what you want, it's wanting what you've got."

He continues:

When one considers that the brightness and color are typically better calibrated and regulated in a home setup than in a multiplex, it becomes difficult to champion the movie theater visual aspect. Likewise, home video sound systems have become so sophisticated that they typically equal, and sometimes exceed, their theatrical counterparts.

Sometimes, yes, but NOT usually. Not where I see movies. I have a 42-inch flat screen with a digital surround sound system, including a subwoofer. It looks and sounds pretty damn good.  But given the choice, if I could see the same movie at home or in a theater, and A/V quality is the only consideration, I'll still take the theater.

Berardinelli says:

So the only thing left in a theater's favor is the "shared experience." When one considers how rude and inconsiderate many patrons are, it's game, set, and match for staying home. And I haven't even discussed things like convenience and refreshment quality/price.

There is no question that moviegoers are much ruder than they used to be. They certainly have more toys with which to be rude. And the food prices make me wish there were a loan office next to the bags of popcorn and boxes of Dots. What they ask you to pay is outrageous.

So you know what? I don't pay it.

I know most people consider popcorn an essential part of the moviegoing experience. Not me. I'm there to see the movie, I ain't there to eat. That's what restaurants are for. Granted, I take movies more seriously than most people do.  But it amazes me how many people willingly fork over $10 or more for heated corn kernels with artificial butter-flavored grease. That's like saying "$10 for a $1 worth of popcorn? That's a lot, but I'll support your insane prices by forking over my hard-earned money."

Me? I forgo that whole thing. I refuse to support that kind of gouging. I see more than 100 movies a year in the theater. I can count on one hand the number of times I've gotten concessions at a major chain in the last 10 years. And I don't miss 'em one damn bit. I've been able to afford more movies that way.

As for the texters/talkers, yes, they can be awful. But I've rarely had a major problem with them, and there are two reasons for that.

First, the texters/talkers are most numerous during the evening shows. That's why I almost never go to evening shows, especially on the weekends. I typically go to early matinĂ©es, when the people who would text and talk are recovering from their hangovers.

Second, even if the texters and talkers ARE there, I can usually ignore them because of where I sit in the theater. In a theater with stadium seating, I usually sit about the fourth or fifth row back. That's a tip I picked up in film class: Sit close enough so that the screen comfortably occupies your entire frame of vision, and you can't easily see the side walls.  Not only does this make the movie more impactful, it makes it MUCH easier to ignore people who treat the theater as if it were their living room. Let the movie drown the idiots out.

Berardinelli also bemoans the prevalence of 3D, but I'm not going to argue with him there. The bloom is indeed off the rose. I'm not as anti-3D as, say, Roger Ebert, but I do lament the fact that the once special experience of 3D has become so commonplace - and so ordinary as a result. I'm curious to see how Scorsese handles it with Hugo Cabret. Other than that, I don't care. Perhaps 3D will fall off once Marty tries it, just like 3D fell off after Hitchcock tried it with Dial M for Murder.

But I think it's still far too early to dial E for the End of the movie theater. There's still a lot to be said for a good theatrical experience. Take The Hangover Part II, for instance. That movie isn't even that good,  but seeing it with a crowd of hundreds of laughing people made it a lot more fun than it would have been otherwise.

 If you can duplicate that experience at your house -  I want a house just like yours.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

REVIEW: The Hangover Part II

Sometimes a tree falling on your house makes things a whole lot funnier.

That may seem like a strange thing to write, and an even stranger way to begin a movie review. But hear me out.

Last week, a storm's straight line winds blew down a huge maple tree in my front yard. The tree crashed through my living room, making it not very liveable. The limbs also poked holes in my bedroom wall, so now I can see my living room from my bedroom.Not the kind of view I wanted. What makes it all the more frightening is, I was actually IN the house at the time, but luckily I was downstairs in my movie room, of all places. Click here to view the damage, if you're so inclined.

I spent most of last week in a daze, and I needed pretty much any excuse I could find to laugh. Perhaps that's why I liked The Hangover Part II more than other critics did.

To be sure, the sequel is not a particularly good movie. My fellow reviewers are not wrong when they say The Hangover Part II is essentially the first movie transplanted to Asia. It's uninspired and not nearly as surprising as the original  - but I laughed anyway. Granted, most of the laughs were mild chuckles as opposed to the full-on guffaws I gave the first movie, but I felt better after seeing the sequel than I did before seeing the sequel.

Part of the reason for that, besides relief from my tree trauma, was the cast. Mike Clark, the former USA Today critic, used to say that some movies are not very good, but are saved by sheer star power, and The Hangover Part II is a good example of what he was talking about.  These guys have great chemistry. Even though they're kind of going through the motions, they're still funny together.

The reason they all get wasted this time is even more far-fetched than a stick your dog brought back from Timbuktu. But Bradley Cooper is still funny as the handsome straight man and supposed brains of the operation, Zach Galifianakis is still a loose-cannon, man-child loon, and Ed Helms is the square who's wilder than he thinks he is.

Case in point: at one point, Helms sings a little song, just like he did in the first Hangover. That time, it came totally out of the blue, so it was one of the biggest laughs in the film. Ths time, it comes because the fimmakers said, "We've gotta have that bit where Ed sings" - so the moment doesn't carry the same jolt of surprise. In fact, it's downright lazy. But Helms pulls it off with such panache that I still smiled.

And that is The Hangover Part II  in  microcosm. On the one hand, this cast and crew are clever enough that  they can be funnier if they aren't just repeating themselves. But on the other hand, they're funny enough that the movie works. Undoubtedly, Part II's massive opening has Warner Bros. drooling over a Part III. If that gets the green light, I hope director Todd Phillips knows he can't get away with coasting a second time. And I'm not going to be as forgiving, because if another tree falls on my house, I won't be laughing.

But if he's as clever as this trailer, he might have something.