Tuesday, July 26, 2011

REVIEW: Captain America

The old Marvel cartoons used to sing "When Captain America throws his mighty shield" followed by a big CLANG!

If this new movie had a theme song, it would sing "When Captain America throws his mighty shield" followed by a soft *clink*.

Notice that's *clink* and not CLUNK. Captain America is not a bad movie. It's actually fairly entertaining, but the ads seemed to promise more than fair entertainment, and the movie didn't deliver that. I expected better of director Joe Johnston.

Johnston doesn't have many truly great films under his belt, but he has turned out a lot of good, solid entrainment like Jurassic Park III, which actually bested the Steven Spielberg's sequel. And having helmed another period superhero movie, The Rocketeer, Johnson seemed the ideal choice for Captain America.

Unfortunately, the movie never takes off like it should. It actually starts fairly well, drawing a compelling portrait of the scrawny Steve Rogers, who seems willing to take on any challenge despite his lack of stature. During Army training, when he leaps on top of a grenade to shield it from his fellow troops, the moment is touching. Ya gotta admire the kid's pluck.

But then, the kid gets a dose of what amounts to concentrated steroids and turns into a muscle-bound jock. And after he does that, he's just not as interesting. The first sequence where he discovers his abilities is thrilling, but the movie settles down after that, becoming ordinary when it should be extraordinary.

Part of the problem is Chris Evans. He can be an engaging actor, but he's too vanilla for this part  - too much of an everyman, even after he gets his muscles. The movie might have been more interesting had Evans showed a little discomfort in his new skin, but Evans doesn't dig deep enough.

The villain and the heroine too, are underwhelming. Hugo Weaving shows initial promise as the Red Skull but eventually just becomes another megalomaniac who wants to rule the world. As the love interest, Hayley Atwell never becomes more than fetching arm candy. Betty Grable, she ain't.

The action sequences get the job done, but not with much flair. What can one say when the best scene after Captain America's arrival  is a Busby Berkeley style dance number, with a song by Alan Menken and David Zippel, the songwriters of Disney's Hercules?

It doesn't help at all that X-Men First Class already did the period superhero thing earlier this summer and did it with much more verve than Captain America. Cap's OK, and fun performances by character actors like Tommy Lee Jones and Stanley Tucci keep him going. But when Cap doesn't even stack up to Thor, something's missing.


Wednesday, July 20, 2011

REVIEW: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Wow. A Woody Allen movie and a Harry Potter movie ranks as the two best films of 2011. Now that's magic.

The saga of "the boy"who lived" comes to a thrilling, and yes, spellbinding conclusion with this highly emotional action epic - with the emphasis on the word action.

More than any other Harry Potter film, this final entry is an action film above all else. Breathlessly paced, the picture is the shortest of the Potter films, at about two hours and 10 minutes - but it seems to zip by in far less time than that. Steven Spielberg expressed interest in directing the series before ultimately deciding against it, but to the extent that the Potter films are Spielbergian, this one is Harry's Raiders of the Lost Ark - only with one very large snake instead of thousands of smaller ones. Voldemort never seems more dangerous than he does here, not just because he's scary, but because he's vulnerable - and as Harry points out, that only makes him more menacing.

It seems pointless to recap the story, since even those who haven't read the books know this is about the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, and the search for the horcruxes that hold pieces of the Dark Lords' soul. But it must be said that the movie executes the story extremely well, with only a couple of minor snags.

Director David Yates, who has ended up helming half of the movies, has grown impressively as a director. His first entry, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, felt rushed and uncertain, and was the weakest film of the lot. Now, however, Yates' control has vastly improved. His command of the big action set pieces is sturdy and confident, but he never lets the bombast overwhelm the emotions of the characters. In fact, the action and the emotion are often overhwelming in the best way - the way that lives you quite grasping what you saw, but knowing you still liked it. The final fate of Snape (Alan Rickman) is especially riveting.

The Potter plots have always packed with detail that can be hard to grasp if you haven't read the books. I have read every book except Deathly Hallows, and in most cases, I saw the movies before I read the books since movies are my beloved medium. I acknowledge that approach has its drawbacks, although not for the reason one might think.

Some people who don't follow the books complain that the movies, including this one, have confused them. The Potter movies have never confused me, but sometimes they do have trouble striking a balance between pleasing the die-hards and educating the more casual fan. For instance, when one character dies, Harry mentions  that characters' son, but we've barely glimpsed this son, if indeed we've ever seen him at all. So the emotional impact of that scene is muted. I was also disappointed that Ginny Weasley (Bonnie Wright) got short shrift in this film. The series had been building up the romance between her and Harry nicely, and then practically dropped it the Deathly Hallows movies.

Still, these are minor quibbles in the grand scheme of things. The original Deathly Hallows ads promised that this would be "the movie event of a generation." And for once, I'm hard pressed to argue with the hyperbole. When the tears come at the end, the movie - and indeed this whole franchise-  has more than earned them. Remarkably, each movie in this series has never been less than very good - and this one is great.


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

One last Harry Potter roundup ...

Harry Potter's cinematic journey ends for me tomorrow when I see Deathly Hallows Parts 1 AND 2 at a drive-in with my brother and sister. I have neither the time nor QUITE the nuttiness to watch all seven movies beforehand, but I can recap my takes on them. In doing so,  I can only marvel at how remarkably consistent the series has been. Some are better than others, of course. Incredibly, not only are  misfires absent, but the lesat of the films is still very good. Magic indeed.

Harry Potter and  the Sorcerer’s Stone
This was my introduction to the Potter world, because I hadn’t read the books at the time, and I was quite enthralled. The pacing is a bit sleepy at times, but that’s a result of having to spend so much time on exposition. (Too bad about the dodgy Quidditch effects, though.) Too many people like to crack on director Chris Columbus for not being a visionary artiste. However, he deserves a great deal of credit for establishing the template for the series, and especially for his role in finding Radcliffe, Watson and Grint.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
This tends to be the film I remember the least well, maybe because the thrill of discovery was gone for me. I read the book before seeing the film, and the film follows the novel so slavishly, there was no sense of surprise. On the plus side, it’s much better paced than the first film. Kenneth Branagh is a hoot as the stuck-up but hapless Professor Lockhart. GRADE: B+

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Potter fans like to complain about this one because it dared to muss their beloved text, but I think that’s exactly why this is the best film of the series by far: It lives and breathes on own without being shackled to the words of J.K. Rowling (who, it must be said, had no problem with the changes). Everything, from the direction to the performances to the digital effects, is greatly improved. The time travel scenes at the end of the movie, which double back on themselves, are outstanding, thanks to director Alfonso Cuaron’s clever eye. GRADE: A

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
The series gets its first British director, Mike Newell, and having someone who knows what a British school is like goes a long way toward making the film feel authentic. Contains some breathtaking scenes, like the opening World Cup of Quidditch, and the truly terrifying climax with He Who Shall Not Be Named. Debits: The pace goes slack in a few places, and some characters, like Rita Skeeter, feel like window dressing. GRADE: A-

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
When the film works, it works very well, particularly during the action scenes, and whenever the deliciously nasty Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) is onscreen, but on the whole, the movie tries to cram too much into too little time. This is what happens when the longest book becomes the shortest film. GRADE: B+

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Has many great moments and is the best-looking of the Potter films. Overall, it’s my second favorite of the series; my only quibble is that the final act seems a little rushed and lacks punch. GRADE: A-

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I
Perhaps inevitably, it’s a little slow to get going, since the story is being spread across two movies. It gradually picks up steam, however, and the visualization of the deathly hallows, with the animated shadow puppets, is one of the best moments of the series. GRADE: A-

(FAVORABLE!) REVIEW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Memo to: Michael Bay, film director

From: Eric Robinette, who now needs corrective oral surgery to reattach his jaw

RE: Transformers: Dark of the Moon


I kid, I kid - well, sorta. Mike, I've been making fun of you for about 10 years now, mercilessly slamming you, sometimes with wild abandon. And I have to admit, it's been rather fun. You usually make it so damn EASY with your lack of storytelling skills, your unwillingness to stage an action scene with any kind of cohesion,  and a sense of humor that would make anyone above the age of 12 roll their eyes out of their heads.

But, unlike some of my fellow critics who fall victim to groupthink, I'm willing to give you credit when it's due. And with your third Transformers movie, it's due for the first time in a very long while.  I actually liked this one. Sometimes I really liked it.

It feels very odd to defend you, but in a way, it's time for us critics to face facts. To criticize you for not being a storyteller is to criticize the moon for being round. That's just the way you are. You're not a narrative filmmaker. You never have been and you probably never will be. Your one halfway decent film before this one, The Rock, succeeded more because of a good cast than a good script.

You exist first and foremost to mount spectacle, and your ability to do that is the yardstick by which you deserve to be measured. And on that scale, you succeeded quite well in Dark of the Moon.  You may not be a narrative filmmaker, but this movie works because you became a three-dimensional filmmaker.

For this third film in the robotic series, you very wisely decided to shoot it in 3D, using the same camera systems that James Cameron developed for Avatar. As a result, the 3D in this movie actually pulled me into the film instead of feeling like a fancy effect for show.

Much more importantly, the 3D forced you to cut differently than you typically do. Most of the time, you seem to edit your films by loading them into the computer, allowing for edits of no more than two seconds, and then hitting the "RANDOM" button. In other words, you threw everything you had up on the screen and saw what stuck. Not much did.

When you shoot in 3D, you have to let the images hold for a certain amount of time, or else the 3D effect doesn't register. For the same reason, you can't whip the camera around too much. So in this film, your action scenes aren't the usual blizzard of flash cuts and whip pans. I could actually tell who was chasing whom, and which robot was ripping another robot's eyes out.

Like Cameron before you, you realized that sequences shot high in the air, with the camera tilting downward, are big money shots in 3D. That scene where you had troopers dive out of planes in wingsuits, swooping around Chicago, absolutely blew my mind. In a good way, for once. I was even impressed that you didn't get carried away with the "comin' atcha" effects.

You also assembeled a surprisingly good cast. In the "adult" roles, you have not one, not two, but three veterans of Coen Brothers movies: John Turturro, John Malkovich, and Frances McDormand, all having a high old time slumming it for you. I imagine Joel and Ethan must be giggling their butts off. I even enjoyed the new girl, Rosie Huntington Whiteley. I'd stop well short of calling her a real actress, but at least she can deliver lines passably and doesn't have a stuck-up sneer twisting her face like that girl you fired.

But don't let all this praise get to your head, Mike. The movie doesn't always work. At two and a half hours, it's too long by at least 30 minutes. I suppose you were responding to complaints that the putrid second movie had too little personality in it, but you really ought to stop wasting your time with pathos. You're not very good at it. When you attempt it, all that "emotion" seems silly and hollow. When the most touching relationship is between a boy and his car, it seems silly to aim for more than that.

If anything, you're even worse with comedy. Whether you direct the fourth Transformers or not, ditch Shia's parents. Nobody cares about them, and they're not funny. I've heard 10-year-olds crack more sophsiticated sex jokes.

I was about ready to give the movie a fairly high grade, but even the action climax wears out its welcome. Most of the destruction of Chicago is stunning, especially when Shockwave winds through a building like a giant mechanical millipede. But as usual, you don't know when to quit, letting the last act drag past the high point.

Still, I guess it wouldn't be you if there wasn't some amount of excess, would it? I'm just grateful I came out feeling happy. As delightful as it is to slam you, I would always rather enjoy myself. And I did this time.  You made a movie at which I had fun. Thank you and congratulations. Would it be too much to ask to keep it up?


Monday, July 11, 2011

The 2011 movie halftime report: We'll always have Paris

Earlier this year, the motion picture Academy announced yet another Best Picture rule change. Now, the nominees are no longer fixed at 5 or even 10. The nominees will now number at least five, and as many as 10, but will most often end up somewhere in between. 

For awhile there, I thought my 10 Best List for 2011, would be something like that. If I made the cutoff grade at least an A-, I figured I would end up with at least 5 or not more than 10. After looking through my roster, I came up with exactly 10, released in the Dayton area before the end of June.  For better or worse, I'm generous that way. 

Midnight in Paris: You may notice I haven't written about this movie yet. There's a reason for that. Woody Allen's latest is one of those movies where the less  you know about it going in, the more you will enjoy it. So I won't expound on that, except to say that the movie is utterly wonderful and left me with a big smile on my face both times I've seen it ... so far. Anybody wanna take me to Paris?

Super 8: The best popcorn entertainment of the year, this throwback to early Spielberg, written and directed by J.J. Abrams and produced by Spielberg, it's like a reminder of a time when movies weren't bent on selling anything other than themselves. Pure joy.

Blue Valentine: This movie, on the other hand, is pure trauma, as Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams all too vividly portray a once-loving couple who have gone way past the breaking point. Shattering, but impossible to shake. 

Jane Eyre: One of today's best young actresses, Mia Wisikowska, shines once again in the title role of this new Bronte adaptation, which might even be a little better than the 1944 picture with Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. And here is picture one that shows this to be the year of Michael Fassbender.

The Cave of Forgotten Dreams: Just when 3D had about worn out its welcome, along comes Werner Herzog, of all people, to put it to practical use, exploring the earliest known cave with paintings. It's never less than fascinating and wondrous all at once,  and the 3D does what 3D ought to do - make you feel like you're there. 

X-Men First Class: And here's part two of the year of Michael Fassbender, who excellently plays Magneto in this prequel that cures the ailing franchise. The whole cast is dynamite, and so are the action scenes. 

Rango: After getting lost in the tumult of the Pirates of the Carribean franchise, Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp reminded me of why I so admire them both - for their persistent willingness to be bizarre and endearing at the same time. Some people were put off by the quirky style, but that's what made the film a cut above all the other animation out there.

Cars 2: Dear fellow critics: Eat my dust!

Bridesmaids: Always a groomsman, never a groom. You don't have to be a chick to find this hysterical.

Paul: Hm. Maybe this should also be the year of tributes to Steven Spielberg. I laughed a lot at this grossly underrated comedy. 

The A for Effort award goes to: Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life. No film released this year - hell no film released in at LEAST the past five years - has been as ambitious as this one. And yet ambition doesn't always equal success. Parts of this movie are magisterial, other parts are remote and confounding. I know that ranking this below Cars 2 will be enough to have people revoke my film buff card, but I only saw this once, and every film buff knows it takes more than one viewing to process this. Or maybe I just really hate trees after one fell through my house. Either, way, check back at the end of the year. Maybe The Tree of Life will grow on me. (rim shot) 

Friday, July 08, 2011

Thoughts in shuffle mode - Stewart, Cooper, Powell, GIlliam ...

Well, geez - I almost missed my mark to keep up blog posting at least twice a week. I better get in my licks now before Middletown's hot air balloon festival subsumes my existence.

The other day I mentioned seeing Born to Dance with Jimmy Stewart. Most people know this as the movie in which Jimmy Stewart sings! (That sentence demanded an exclamation point.)

It's a charming little programmer. Not a "great" movie by any means, but Jimmy is charmingly awkward. And I would like to have $1 for every time Eleanor taps, please.

I also watched Wings last week. No, even though this is me writing, I'm not talking about that band Paul McCartney was in after the Beatles. I'm talking about the very first movie to win the Best Picture Oscar. It doesn't have much of a reputation - many consider it clunky and creaky. It IS dated and overlong, to be sure, but I was surprised at how much I liked it. Sure, Sunrise from the same year was the better choice, but Wings has a lot to recommend it. William Wellman is the director, so it looks great - and the aerial photography is astounding. The performances are solid, and it's easy to see why Clara Bow was an "it" girl.  It's also a kick to see Gary Cooper in a very early (and very short) role. He had magnetism even then.

I've also been reading the book The Battle of Brazil, about the making of Terry Gilliam's Brazil, and it made me order a new copy of that film. I have the old deluxe Criterion laserdisc set, but alack, those don't play too well on hi-def TVs - so I ordered a used copy of the Criterion DVD set. More on that later.

I knew the story about the wrangling and mangling around the film, but the book is an illuminating read nonetheless. I particularly loved this quote from Gilliam, talking about studio suits

"You listen to these people, and you just have to shake your head. They are so goddamned sure they know what they're talking about, and all they are ever doing is guessing. They invent their own research, then depend on it as if it were science. They have no respect for the intelligence of their audience. Then when they succeed, they break their ass trying to tell you how brilliant they were in doing it."

Seems like little has changed in 30 years ,,,

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Focusing features - back to the diary

Some time back on this blog I had decided to adopt more of a diary-like format to get me to write in it more often.

As too often happens with me, the best laid plans fell flat. Granted, I've been through a lot of trauma this year, including having a tree fall through my house, but I hate that I haven't written here very much and that my audience has dwindled as a result. 

So I'm going to try again to re-spark this. Can't make any promises it'll stick. I guess I'd like to try to post at least twice a week. I seem to work better if I set myself goals and deadlines.

Haven't seen anything new theatrically since I saw Cars 2, and the rest of the current crop doesn't impress me. I do not voluntarily give Michael Bay my money, so I'm skipping Transformers Trois. The reviews for Tom Hanks' Larry Crowne make it look eminently skippable. The jury's still out on Horrible Bosses, and I need to see Zookeeper like I need to be stampeded by an elephant. 

So that leaves me to discuss the classics. The summer classic movie series has started around here. Saw Hitchcock's Frenzy last week. and I still think that's Hitch's best picture of his troubled post-Birds period. Some may argue that it's hard to get into because the "wrong man" (Jon Finch) is a particular prick, but I think that makes the picture novel and daring. Sadly, Athena Massey, who played Finch's sort-of love interest, only died this past weekend.

Fun trivia: the editor of the movie, John Jympson, and the cinematographer, Gil Taylor, performed the same duties on A Hard Day's Night. This is what you notice when you're a credits geek like me. 

This past weekend I saw West Side Story. Still a great picture, and Natalie Wood is still miscast, but the fact that Natalie doesn't look the least bit Hispanic isn't what bothers me. It's the same problem I have with My Fair Lady - the face and the voice simply don't match. 

Of course, the same voice in both cases is the ubiquitous Marni Nixon, who also dubbed Deborah Kerr in The King and I, and sang the high, operatic notes of "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. (Marilyn handled the rest.) 

Marni was the epitome of  a session musician - the player who is technically proficient but has very little personality. And a friend of mine made a very good point. Why is it that females so commonly get dubbed, yet it doesn't happen as often with men? 

Case in point: Jimmy Stewart warbled his way through a movie I watched this weekend, Born to Dance. Jimmy readily admitted he didn't have a very good singing voice, yet according to Robert Osborne of TCM, the MGM brass thought that a "professional" voice would have sounded phony. 

Oh really? Well, that didn't stop them from dubbing Ava Gardner in the 1950s Show Boat, even though she had a perfectly capable singing voice, as That's Entertainment 3 revealed. For that matter, Audrey Hepburn sang pretty well in Funny Face, although I understand she didn't have the operatic tone needed to pull off the Lerner and Lowe numbers of My Fair Lady. 

Still. with all this replacement going on, why was Brando permitted to sing as flat as a board in the film version of Guys and Dolls? And why in God's name did they let Lee Marvin grunt his way through Paint Your Wagon? Hell, at least Clint Eastwood could carry a tune, which is more than can be said for Pierce Brosnan in Mamma Mia.

These are rhetorical questions, of course, but I think we know the answer...