Thursday, December 13, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Probably the best compliment I can give Peter Jackson's first Hobbit movie is that I now understand the need for two movies. However, I remain unconvinced of the need for three.

My eyebrows raised when it was announced The Hobbit would be split in two, considering The Hobbit is shorter than any of the Lord of the Rings books, and each Rings book only got one movie. (Maybe one and a half if you count the extended editions.) Extending it into three movies makes it sound like the third movie ought to be subtitled, "Journey to the Center of the Wallet."

On the basis of this first movie, however, I will say the time was well spent, if somewhat overspent. Jackson crams so much detail into the story that at times he weighs it down, especially in the first hour. Most of the dwarves blended into each other, and I could have done without quite so many songs. And since we're taking all this time to drink in all this detail, why doesn't Jackson explain why Gandalf can only super-bomb a horde of ugly things only once?

It seems like Jackson and his co-writers Fran Walsh, Phillipa Boyens and Guillermo del Toro made the movie for Tolkein geeks like them - people who know can speak the languages and who know the thread counts of the costumes. If the rest of us got bored, we'd have to grin and bear it.

Fortunately, we don't have to bear it for too long. Once everyone leaves the shire, the movie picks up the pace, and Jackson's fluid camerawork is more exciting than ever. The viewpoint swoops and ducks to breathtaking effect, particularly in a battle between two giant stone mountains. Adding to the drama is the clever foreshadowing of the evil that will come into full flower later.

And even the quieter scenes become more effective in the second half. The game of riddles between Bilbo and Gollum plays wonderfully, alternating between laughs and chills. Gollum seems more alive and present than ever before. As excellent as the effects work was in the Rings movies, there still tended to be a slight remove between the digital creature and the real actors. Here, any blur between reality and fantasy vanishes into thin air.

Speaking of blur, or lack of same, I saw the movie in the much-discussed new format of 48 frames per second, double the normal rate. Theoretically, the idea is to improve the clarity of the images by eliminating motion blur, but sometimes it's clear to a fault. Indoor scenes, with less camera movement have that eerie "soap opera" effect where it looks too pristine to be true. In action scenes and long outdoor shots, however, the effect is indeed immersive. I would have to see the film in standard format to make a thorough comparison.

Luckily, the best parts of the film are good enough for a repeat viewing, especially in 3D. It's the best use of the format I've seen, along with Hugo and Avatar. Like Bilbo Baggins, I went in with fear, but came out glad that I went - even if I was a little worse for the wear.

 

GRADE: B+

 

Friday, November 16, 2012

REVIEW: Lincoln

Most people would rank Abraham Lincoln at or near the top of the roster of US Presidents. I would rank Steven Spielberg's Lincoln at or near the top of the roster of this year's movies.

And yet, it may not be quite the film people are expecting. It is not a Civil War epic. The ads prominently feature battle scenes, but those scenes are contained within the first five minutes of the film. If you want battles, watch Glory.

Nor is the movie truly a Lincoln biopic, despite its title. It does not follow the journey of the man from humble Illinois lawyer to mythical president. That story has been ably told before, via Abe Lincoln in Illinois and John Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln. The new movie focuses solely on the last few months of the president's life, and, more importantly, his battle to pass the 13th amendment that will abolish slavery.

And yet, Lincoln himself is very much front and center, because that particular battle embodies the man and his legacy. By focusing on this sliver of the man's life, Tony Kushner's screenplay illuminates Lincoln as he has never been before.

This is due in no small part to the masterful portrayal by Daniel Day-Lewis, who is now the definitive cinematic Lincoln. The actor is famous for burying himself in his roles, but he has never done so with greater impact than he has here. Daniel Plainview (There Will Be Blood) did not make me forget Bill the Butcher (Gangs of New York). Bill the Butcher did not make me forget Christy Brown (My Left Foot). But Abraham Lincoln very much made me forget Daniel Plainview, Bill the Butcher and Christy Brown. The actor reveals the president to be a Rubik's Cube of a man, a puzzle that is fascinating no matter what side he displays.

But Day-Lewis is not the only one who disappears into the film. So does Steven Spielberg. Lincoln is unlike any film the director has made before. He delved into this same time period in the underrated Amistad, but that film had visual sweep. Even Schindler's List, which was considered a major departure for Spielberg, had bravura sequences.

Spielberg keeps showy visuals and camera movements to a bare minimum. More than anything else, his new film is a chamber piece. It's essentially two hours-plus of people talking. But that talk crackles with energy and gamesmanship. The film means to make us a witness to history, and it's a riveting master class.

Spielberg is not typically thought of as an actor's director, but he has assembled a brilliant cast with a multitude of well-known names: David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jackie Earle Haley and Hal Holbrook, to name just a few. Chief among the supporting players is Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist Congressman Thadeus Stevens. He passionately believes in outlawing slavery but has to swallow hard when he must compromise his principles and not do it in quite the way he wants. That issue is more than a little timely when partisan gridlock is the order of the day.

The film doesn't conquer all its own problems. I found the material involving Mary Lincoln (Sally Field) a distraction, as was the overextended ending. Spielberg has problems sticking his landings. It's no spoiler to say the film ends with Lincoln's assassination, but showing it is unnecessary. What's more important is what historian Shelby Foote meant when he said that "everything Lincoln did was calculated for effect."

That effect resonates even more thanks to this film.

GRADE: A





Wednesday, November 07, 2012

REVIEW: Skyfall

How great is Skyfall?

At the packed screening I saw, the movie got applause no less than three times.

In one astonishing long, unbroken shot, Javier Bardem takes the mantel of best Bond villain of all time, and never lets go.

It's the best-looking Bond movie bar none, brilliantly shot by the great Roger Deakins, who lenses most of the Coen brothers' movies.

The action scenes are fantastic, with Stuart Baird's punchy editing obliterating the memory of the confused blur that was Quantum of Solace.

Daniel Craig proves that the older and more rugged you get as Bond, the better.

The excellent screenplay by Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan, delves into Bond's early years in a way no other Bond film has.

The movie blends new technology with good old-fashioned ruthlessness, deconstructing the Bond mythos much the same way Christopher Nolan did in his Batman movies.

It's a bit light on Bond girls, and I missed that element, but only one Bond girl really matters here is Judi Dench's M. Enough said.

Q is back, played with just the the right touch of brashness by Ben Wishaw.

Another Bond favorite is back too. Again, enough said.

In 1999, director Sam Mendes made a film called American Beauty that so entranced me, I turned right around to see it again the same weekend.

In 2012, director Sam Mendes made a film that so thrilled me, I was disappointed I couldn't see it again immediately, since I saw it early.

How great is Skyfall?

It's one of the very best films of the the year.

GRADE: A+

 

Friday, November 02, 2012

REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph



INSERT COINS

_ ONE READER  _ TWO READERS

GO!

Don't look now, but Disney just beat Pixar at its own game.

Wreck-it Ralph not only is terrific fun, it's the best movie made by Walt Disney Feature Animation since its glory days in the 90s. Heartfelt, visually dazzling and wonderfully clever, the movie tops such recent Disney efforts as Tangled and Pixar's Brave - both films I very much enjoyed -  but with reservations. Reservations are absent this time.

That's largely because, in a way, Disney has truly begun to assimilate Pixar and its storytelling techniques. All of Disney's feature films since Meet the Robinsons have been overseen to some degree by Pixar guru John Lasseter. But this is the first time Disney has truly mastered the mix of humor and heart that makes Pixar so potent. I expected to have fun, but not this much fun.

Like the Toy Story films, Wreck it Ralph takes kind of a behind-the-scenes look at a very familiar world. This time, it's the world of 80s/90s video games. Many people have said the game in the movie, Fix-It Felix, resembles Donkey Kong, and it does, but it most reminded me of another 80s game called Crazy Climber, the first game I can recall that talked. Your climber character said "Ouch" when people dropped things on its head, and then screamed "Oh nooooooo!" when you finally fell off.

I digress, but this movie was a nostalgic blast that constantly reminded me of games of yore. But even better, that conceit isn't just a gimmick. It's a doorway to a well-thought-out story where Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) tires of being a villain and jumps to other games to be more heroic. One of the other games is called Sugar Rush, which is like Candy Lane gone delectably berserk. There, Ralph meets the impetuous but endearing Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) who enlists Ralph's help to race in a go-kart game.

Wreck-It-Ralph blends the best of its Disney and Pixar fathers. Ralph's quest to be loved is not unlike the "I Want" quest of Disney princesses. And the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope is like a slightly more mature take on Sully and Boo in Monsters Inc. And just as Pixar made Larry the Cable Guy endearing, Wreck It Ralph pulls a similar miracle here with Sarah Silverman, who normally annoys me, but utterly won me over here.  For the first I laughed at loud at Oreos, and more than once, I had to adjust my 3D glasses because I had something wet in my eye.

So yes, it's emotional and flashy, in all the best ways. All the gameplay will appeal to boys, but Vanellope is a much stronger character than the ads let on, so girls will love it too.

Most movies based on video games falter because it's like watching someone else play. This one scores because it lets us all in - even a guy like me, who has  never owned a video game console. Not even an Atari 2600.

GRADE: A

REVIEW OVER

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

MoviePass: The theatrical Netflix

Yes, I know, this place is awfully musty and dusty lately, but I did that on purpose to get into the spirit of Halloween.

Ok, I really didn't. I haven't been posting here much lately, because my newspaper job takes up much of my writing energy. However, Sir Critic will become more active again soon, partly because of a program called MoviePass.

Netflix has discs and their red envelopes; MoviePass has their red credit card and theatrical movies. For a set amount every month, you can see as many as one movie per day in a theater. You "check in" to a theater, like you do on FourSquare or Facebook, and that activates your card. You then buy your ticket with the card, just like you would a regular credit card.

This is a godsend for movie nuts like me who still like to see movies in a theater. The fee varies by market; for this Southwest Ohio resident, it's about $30 a month. There are a number of caveats though. I see at least 100 movies in the theater for a year, so it's more than easy for me to justify the monthly fee.

You have to have a smartphone to make it work. The iPhone uses the MoviePass app, all other phones use a mobile website. If your phone is dumb, you're out of luck. All the more reason to join the 21st century.

The program touts itself as "unlimited," but it actually has distinct limits. You can only see one movie per day. Though I often pull double or triple features, I can live with this. It just means I spread my moviegoing out a little more, instead of lumping most of it into the weekend. You also can also see each title only once, and that's a bit of a bummer, since I like to revisit my favorites or figure out opaque movies like The Master. But again, I can live with it, since I'm lucky enough to attend preview screenings.

MoviePass is not accepted at any and every theater. Rave dominates the Dayton market, and they're not in the program. Regal Cinemas are, however. One of those is very close to me, and a new one is being built south of town, to be located at Austin Landings. The two art houses here, Neon and Little Art, are also in the program.

MoviePass will only pay for one ticket per show, so if you have a friend, that friend pays unless you're feeling generous. If you have a date, I suggest using MoviePass for your date, then paying for the other ticket. That also means MoviePass is not ideal for couples with kids, although I think there is such a thing as a joint account.

And here's the biggest caveat of all: Since MoviePass is so new, bugs tend to run through the system. Te very first time I tried to use it, the kiosk wouldn't take my card. The second time I tried, the site wouldn't check me in at the theater. And on another occasion, their site didnt list all the titles playing in a theater. Fortunately, MoviePass does have attentive customer service. They worked with me and resolved my problems amicably. If worse comes to worse, and you have to use a regular credit card to pay for your ticket, MoviePass will refund you the cost of said ticket.

So do I recommend MoviePass? It's great for movie buffs like me; for the more casual moviegoer it may be less handy. Check it out and decide for yourself.

Since I've spent this entire post not actually reviewing any movies, I'll give you a preview of coming attractions, dates subject to change.

 

FRIDAY: Wreck it Ralph, Disney's latest.

THIS WEEKEND: Flight, Robert Zemeckis' welcome return to live action.

NEXT WEEK: Skyfall, the movie of 2012 I am most looking forward to seeing.

NOVEMBER 16: Steven Spielberg's Lincoln.

Honest.

 

Friday, October 12, 2012

REVIEW: Argo

Argo lies beautifully while telling the truth. That's what makes it the best film of the year thus far.

Usually, when a movie declares that it's "based on a true story," it already feels patently false. That phrase is usually code for, "We based the idea on reality, but then made the rest of it up." Argo is based on the declassified true story of a CIA agent, Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) who concocted a harebrained scheme to free six Americans from Iran during the 1979-1981 hostage crisis. He actually told the Iranians they were a Canadian filmmaking crew scouting locations for a cheeseball sci-fi movie. I defy even the most imaginative novel writer to hatch such a plot.

Working from a great screenplay by Chris Terrio, Ben Affleck cements his status as a great actor-director. Showing great promise with his debut, Gone Baby Gone, then skillfully refining his craft with The Town, Affleck progresses to his most impressive feat of all: making a crackling thriller-comedy.

Yes, comedy. Of course, there's nothing funny at all about the Iranian hostage crisis. But there is something morbidly amusing about how this rescue unfolded. Consider that one of the operatives was makeup man John Chambers, who won an Oscar for Planet of the Apes. He's played by the always terrific John Goodman, who cracks that the target audience of a movie is "people with eyes." Matching Goodman zinger for zinger is Alan Arkin as producer Lester Siegel, who boasts that he knows Warren Beatty because he "took a leak next to him at the Golden Globes."

Juxtaposing these wiseacres with a perilous life or death rescue mission could have derailed the movie, but Affleck masterfully balances the tones. Not only does he shoot logistically complex sequences with painstaking historical detail, but he knows just when to release the tension with a well-timed joke. And in so doing, Affleck gets inside the wonder of movies as a whole. He shows how the movies are so captivating, the allure of even a fake one is enough to deter hostile Iranian guards. I daresay the mix of suspense and humor is on the level of Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove. I can only applaud a movie that throws in a reference to Muppets Statler and Waldorf.

Comparing Affleck to Kubrick is high praise indeed, but that's just how impressive Affleck's skills have become. I've already seen the movie twice, projected digitally both times. Yet Affleck fills the opening titles with the kind of speckles you'd see on a movie print from the 70s. Those don't appear in digital projection unless you put them there. So even the technical BS is a marvel. Maybe Argo fudges a few details to pump up the drama, but when the very subject of a movie is the art of lying, such deceit is commendable.



GRADE: A+



Friday, October 05, 2012

REVIEW: Frankenweenie

Going into Tim Burton's Frankenweenie scared me - and not for the right reasons.

Burton has been in a slump of late. Alice in Wonderland was hugely popular, but I couldn't see why. I thought it was cluttered whimsy that tried too hard to make sense of nonsense. HIs last film, Dark Shadows, was even worse, representing the nadir of his career. He hadn't made an A-range film since Sleepy Hollow. And his last foray into animation, Corpse Bride, was underwhelming too.

Still, I took solace in the fact that instead of grafting his twisted sensibility onto someone else's idea, Burton adapted himself. Frankenweenie began life as an animated short that got Burton, a onetime Disney animator, Hollywood attention. Now he's expanded it into a feature - and thankfully, it's kind of a return to form.

I'd stop well short of calling it a great movie. As is so often the case, Burton excels at creating worlds but stumbles creating fully realized characters. The lead character, a young Victor Frankenstein, is sweet but dull, at least for a kid who reanimates his own dog. And the other kids aren't terribly interesting either. The most fun character is the spooky science teacher, wonderfully voiced by Martin Landau, whom Burton directed to an Oscar for playing Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood.

Since the kids are rather plain, it took me a while to develop rooting interest in the story. Then, thankfully, things get really wacky when the other kids try to replicate Burton's experiment, with wonderfully bizarre results. I don't want to give away too many visuals, but I'll give you this clue - the nastiest Sea Monkeys you've ever seen.

It also helps that this material is obviously close to Burton's heart, making the emotional pull stronger as the movie goes along. And I can't help but enjoy a stop-motion animated film in black and white. Frakenweenie isn't the great movie it could have been, but it at least gives me hope that Burton's career is alive ... It's alive, it's ALIVE!

 

GRADE: B

 

PS: The 3D here is decent, but inessential. You won't miss anything if you see it flat.

 

Thursday, October 04, 2012

REVIEW: Pitch Perfect

They say that the quickest way to a man's heart is through his stomach. Not me. The way to this man's heart is through his ears. If a talented actress can also sing, any crush I already have only intensifies. I already had a crush on Anna Kendrick. Turns out she sings quite well. Ergo, Pitch Perfect was fun for my ears.

Yet, returning to some semblance of level-headedness that I abandoned in my lead paragraph, I must confess that Kendrick and the other actresses aside, Pitch Perfect isn't as fun as it could have been.

The movie, directed by Jason Moore of Avenue Q fame, has some of the same scrappy, perverse charm that stage musical did. It just doesn't have quite enough of it. What might have been Glee with teeth is more akin to Revenge of the Nerds with acapella and projectile vomit.

You heard me. Projectile vomit. This movie not only has several puking scenes, but the plot hinges around a bitchy leader of an acapella group (Anna Camp). She so dramatically loses her lunch, even Linda Blair would flinch. On top of that, most of the men in this movie are about as thrilling as a bottle of Kaopectate.

The gross-out jokes and for that matter, the dullard males are quite unnecessary because the girls truly carry this show - and their vocals and comic chops had me smiling broadly. As she did in Up in the Air, Kendrick plays an outwardly aloof girl who eventually softens and becomes more charming than she thought possible. This time out, though, she has a sassier side who sings a sharp version of "Cups" by Lulu and the Lampshades.

Rebel Wilson (Bridesmiads) has been touted as the movie's scene stealer, and indeed she robs them left and right. But I also liked the comic spark of Brittany Snow (Hairspray) playing Chloe, the perky singer who finds a heretofore undiscovered low register. Then there's the terminally undervalued Elizabeth Banks, one of the movie's producers, playing a singing competition commentator alongside John Michael Higgins. Clearly, these two made their lines up as they went along, and they seem to have more fun than anyone.

I wish I liked Pitch Perfect more than I did, but the movie sings more often than it croaks. Now excuse me while I download Anna's songs from the soundtrack.

 

GRADE: B

 

Monday, October 01, 2012

Combo (Sorta) Review: Looper/The Master

One thing I like about being the master of my own blog is that I can take my time with reviews if I need to. And last week, I saw two films that simply couldn't be reviewed right off the bat: Rian Johnson's Looper and Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master.

I very much admired both, but I couldn't quite wrap my viewing arms around either one, partly because both films play with time. Looper does so by dint of being a time travel thriller, while The Master's deliberate pacing made me feel like I was watching it in a state of suspended animation. Time doesn't tick by in either one of these films so much as swirl around you.

These two films wouldn't seem to have much in common, but they share one conundrum: How do you evaluate films in which the lead characters are, not to put too fine a point on it, pricks? Do you have to like films where you don't like the people? Can you?

The short answer is, sure you can. Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull centers around a particularly savage prick named Jake La Motta, and that's the one of the best films ever made. The key is either to lock into a secondary character, or to at least find the central figure a fascinating train wreck. Looper takes the former route; The Master the latter.

Since Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis play the same aloof, unpleasant character, it's like having two strikes rolled into one. But there are mitigating factors: the sheer charisma of both, and the emotional draw of the character played by Emily Blunt.

Levitt/Willis is not a model citizen, but it's fun and really spellbinding to watch the two of them play the same characters at different ages in the same space. But it's Blunt who really provides the emotional center of gravity in the movie as the forlorn, mysterious woman Gordon-Levitt stumbles across. She has already gone on record to say Looper is the best movie she's ever been in. I would also argue it's her best performance.

That I've spent this much time discussing the characters in a Rian Johnson film is telling. The rub against Johnson has been that he's more clever than assured as a storyteller, but Looper finally finds Johnson connecting on both visual and emotional levels. Johnson has a vivid imagination that doesn't make the future look like a variation on Back to the Future or Blade Runner - it feels lived in, even while it's turning the world upside down. The film can't escape a certain aloof quality, and Bruce Willis made a better time travel movie with 12 Monkeys, but Looper is so dizzying that I didn't always know which way was up - and that's all to the good.

I also often didn't know which way was up in The Master, and there, the disorientation is more troubling. People have complained, not unreasonably, that the lead character played by Joaquin Phoenix, is too opaque and the storytelling too elliptical. It is indeed difficult to draw a bead on a character who may be beyond redemption.

And yet, that may be precisely the point.

The Master is a journey into the soul of someone who seems to have lost his soul. Phoenix's Freddie Quell, a vet struggling after World War II - is certainly not unemotional - he's prone to violent outbursts. But he is also surely a man without a center of gravity, and so it might be fitting that the movie seems aimless and distant. So is Freddie.

But he's not the only lost soul here. I would also argue that Philip Seymour Hoffman's Lancaster Dodd is too, in his own way - and that's why Freddie fascinates him. Sure, Dodd is more certain of himself and what he knows - or thinks he knows - but he's also prone to outbursts whenever anyone challenges his outlandish faith. And what does it say about a man who radiates magnetism on the one hand, yet allows himself to be emasculated by his stern wife, played by Amy Adams?

This much is not in dispute: the acting is fiercely good. Hoffman is eerie yet assured, while Phoenix radiates a magnetic vibe of anxiety, of sheer intensity, that rivals that of Daniel Day-Lewis. Adams proves once Again that she's not all sweetness and light. We saw her play tough in The Fighter, here, she gets to play chilling.

Those who dismiss The Master are, I fear, being too facile. This is not a film that can be absorbed in one sitting. By the same token, It may not be a masterpiece either - it takes too many detours and leaves them dangling for that. I can't grade it right now - but I also can't shake it. That means something.

Looper: A-

The Master: Incomplete (good thing I'm not on Metacritic)

 

 

Friday, September 21, 2012

REVIEW: Trouble with the Curve

The title of Trouble with the Curve turns out to be quite appropriate for this movie. Its story certainly doesn't throw any curve balls. It's about as predictable as Lucy Van Pelt missing the fly ball in the outfield.

But in fact, I just threw a curve ball. My lead paragraph may make it sound like I didn't enjoy the movie. In fact, a very much did, because it has such an appealing cast.

Sure, regular readers of my reviews might say. You say that just because Amy Adams is in it. True enough, I do. And she's delightful as always. But she's not the only one who makes the movie fun to watch. The rest of the actors do too - so much so that it gives the lie to the idea that movie stars don't have much pull anymore. They certainly do. Perhaps they don't influence the opening weekend grosses as much as they did, but they go a long way towards making OK stories into better than OK movies.

Trouble with the Curve is notable as being the first movie starring Clint Eastwood that Eastwood didn't also direct, since 1993's In the Line of Fire. Instead, Robert Lorenz, Eastwood's producing partner takes the reigns, working with many members of Eastwood's behind the camera crew. He does a solid, if unremarkable job. He's certainly not much able to elevate the story, which might have ended up as a direct-to-disc title without its A-list cast. But what Lorenz does do well is showcase the actors a their best.

No matter where one stands on Eastwood's RNC performance, Trouble with the Curve is a bracing reminder of just how well he holds the movie screen. At first, he seems to be playing a slightly less surly version of his Gran Torino character, but this performance is more complex than that. Eastwood conveys the shifting moods of his character gracefully, with the sure hand of the old pro he is.

Justin Timberlake, playing a foil for Eastwood and a love interest for Adams proves again that he himself has screen charm to spare. His character seems grafted onto the picture to give it a romance it doesn't truly need, but his strong chemistry with Adams outshines the clich├ęs.

Were this movie playing 70 years ago, Turner Classic Movies would be selling it today as part of their Archive Collection, meaning it's one of those movies that isn't much in and of itself, but you sure like to see the stars do their stuff. And I pitch that as a compliment.

GRADE: B+

 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Thoughs on Side by Side and film vs. digital



I watched Side by Side with very mixed feelings - not because the movie falls short, but because it captures a moment in time better than any documentary about movies that I have seen.

Side by Side showcases the debate between the merits of digital filmmaking versus analog filmmaking. More and more these days, films are neither made nor shown via actual film.

While I'm not sure that digital cameras have outpaced film cameras in moviemaking, digital is surely catching up. Three movies made predominantly or entirely with digital cameras, Slumdog Millionaire, Avatar and Hugo, have won cinematography Oscars. And digital projection has clearly taken over the movie theater too. Almost every theater in the Dayton area shows movies via digital projectors.

Side by Side allows some of our most prominent moviemakers to extol the virtues or decry the drawbacks of digital filmmaking. George Lucas and James Cameron are nothing less than evangelists for all things digital. Converts include such directors as David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) Steven Soderbergh (Magic Mike)  and Danny Boyle (Slumdog).

Meanwhile, firmly on the pro-film side are Christopher Nolan (the Dark Knight trilogy) and his DP Wally Pfister, who insist that film offers the superior picture. Nolan went so far as to point out in the credits of The Dark Knight Rises, that it was "shot, edited and finished on film."

While Side by Side gives good weight to the analog angle, it's worth noting that there aren't more pro-film advocates like Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson, who shot his latest movie, The Master, in 70 millimeter. That's a format very few theaters can even project anymore.

That's telling. And I don't think it's because all these directors believe film is better looking than digital. For many of them, it's more convenient. I noticed that most people on the pro-digital side weren't talking about the quality of the image. They were talking about technological innovations. Boyle talks about being able to get certain kinds of shots with small digital cameras. Soderbergh talks about he he didn't have to lug heavy cameras around mountains when shooting Che. Fincher loves not having to wait for dailies to see how his movie looks. And really, who's more of a visual fetishist than David Fincher?

Here's where my own viewpoint comes creeping in, and it surprises me. I love my gadgets. I love digital. Rather than carry bagloads of CDs around, I have my iPod touch. Instead of heavy books I have a light Kindle. And digital projection is fantastic. No more beat-up prints or film melting. Mo more witless teenagers looking at me funny when I tell them they've got the wrong lens on the projector.

And yet, I still find myself drawn to real film. Here's a major case in point: The Artist, my favorite film of last year. Each time I saw it, it was digitally projected. It looked beautiful, but at the same time, it felt ... "wrong," considering it evoked Hollywood's golden age. I got a similar feeling going to the classic film series in Dayton and Columbus - there was a certain comfort in knowing I was watching film of the old stuff.

So leave it to Martin Scorsese, my favorite director, to reflect my own split-down-the-middle feelings. Scorsese used digital beautifully in Hugo and yet expresses a reticence to leave film behind.

And I don't think it will be left behind - not entirely, anyway. There is absolutely no doubt digital will  dominate. But remember how in the 80s people went on and on about CDs and how vinyl would go away? Well, vinyl did go away for awhile, but these days it's making a comeback as kind of a premium audio format. I think something similar may happen with film - it will become something of a "boutique" item - abandoned by many but cherished by few. (The documentary makes a very good point that in the end, film is still the most reliable way to store films.)

Whatever medium is chosen, as Scorsese himself says, "The issue is, it's different. How is it different and how do you use it to tell a story? It's up to the filmmaker."

Side by Side is available, fittingly enough, in video on demand

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

REVIEW: The Bourne Legacy

Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton,

Director: Tony Gilroy

Writers: Tony and Dan Gilroy

When I saw it: August 15, 2011

Where I saw it: Rave Cinemas at The Greene

Why I saw it: It's a Bourne movie. Duh.

When Universal announced plans to make a Bourne movie without Matt Damon, many people cried foul. But the problem with the underwhelming Bourne Legacy isn't that Damon is missing - it's that precious directors Doug Liman (Identity) and Paul Greengrass (Supremacy, Ultimatum)

On the surface, handing the reigns to Tony Gilroy made sense. He had a had in writing all the previous Bourne movies. He's shown himself a very capable director, with his excellent first film, Michael Clayton scoring Oscar nominations, and a win for Tilda Swinton. My only concern was that Gilroy wasn't proven as an action director.

But Gilroy stages the action very well, especially the climactic motorcycle chase. Unfortunately, there's too little action and too many plot threads, turning the first half in particular into a muddled mess. Gilroy's Achilles heel as a writer-director is that he's too fascinated with making his stories into puzzles. There are so many subplots, diversions and reversals that they obfuscate and diminish the story. That flaw kept Duplicity from being as good as it could have been, and it kept the Bourne Legacy from being as good as it should have been.

This is not to say that The Bourne Legacy is a bad movie, but I can only give it the slimmest recommendation. What keeps it afloat are the action scenes, and the performances by Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz and Edward Norton. All of them hold the screen extremely well, and when the relationship between Renner and Weisz finally comes to the fore, the movie finally comes alive.

At the same time, I wished that the movie were as good as that trio. I'd like to see them in another Bourne movie - hopefully with a director who is more disciplined.

GRADE: B-

Cinematographer: Robert Elswit, who is especially skilled with action, having shot Tomorrow Never Dies, Salt and Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol

Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1

Runtime: 135 minutes

MPAA: PG-13

 

Wednesday, August 08, 2012

REVIEW: Hope Springs



Cast: Meryl Streep, Tommy Lee Jones, Steve Carell
Writer: Vanessa Taylor
Director: David Frankel (The Devil Wears Prada)
When I saw it: Aug. 7, 2012
Where I saw it: Rave Dayton South
Why I saw it: Love the two leads.

Quick. Think about two people older than 60 having sex.

What was your reaction? To giggle? To grimace? To understand? Or to know?

Whatever your reaction might have been, Hope Springs just might  surprise you. It certainly did me. It pulls off something even more trickier than a Christopher Nolan plot: It talks a lot about sex with people who have a lot of birthdays - and takes it absolutely seriously.

The trailer for this movie make it look like a breezy, light romantic comedy. It doesn't exactly lie - the movie is often light and breezy. But just as often, it's dramatic, moving and even revelatory.

When most movies feature older people in a sexy context, it's usually for cheap laughs, whether it's the horny grandmother in Runaway Bride or the sight of Terry Bradshaw's bare ass in the aptly named Failure to Launch. But Hope Springs is a refreshingly different animal.

Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones star as a couple nearing retirement age. There's nothing really wrong with their marriage. They don't fight, they're not harboring deep, dark secrets, and they're well-adjusted to being empty-nesters.

And yet, at the same time, everything is wrong with their marriage, because whether they're willing to admit it or not, Jones and Streep are miserable. One day, Streep finds a book about how to put "that spark" back in your marriage, and she resolves to take the author's therapy, much to Jones' dismay.

It all sounds like the setup for easy, predictable laughs - oh, look, the old couple is embarrassed to talk ab out sex. Ha-ha. But as the movie goes on, it only becomes more serious - and more impactful.

This is due in no small part to the stellar cast. It's no surprise that Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep can act the hell out of a scene. What is something of a surprise is to watch them do it without their usual affectations. For once, Street isn't putting on an accent, prosthetics, or a giant attitude. Jones doesn't try to get laughs just by being deadpan. Both of them are playing utterly normal people - and that only makes their performances more engaging. The same, too, must be said for Steve Carell, who has a knack for playing button-downed, stressed out geeks. Here, he plays the role of the doctor absolutely straight - and is wonderfully empathetic as a result.

I was only sorry to see Elisabeth Shue playing such a tiny, inconsequential part as a barmaid. Considering her stature, it was disappointing to see her in what amounted to a walk-on role with only about four lines. I can only guess that her role must have been downsized in the editing room. Considering how well the movie turned out, I wanted to see more of her.

It's also gratifying to see the screenplay not resort to all the old cliches. There's not a tearful confession about some heretofore untold sins of the past. There's no scene with the grown-up kid being the wise old sage. This is a movie about two people trying to learn to love one another again and finding out that's easier said than done.

One could argue the movie ends a little too neatly, but regardless, this is a sleeper that's bound to wake more than a few couples up. In an age where sex talk is reduced to sniggering over 50 Shades of Grey, it's nice to see instead men and women of many more shades.

GRADE: A-

Cinematographer: Florian Ballhaus, son of Michael Ballhaus, whose credits include Goodfellas and The Departed
Aspect ratio: 2.35: 1
Runtime: 100 minutes
MPAA:  PG-13, which is a little surprising considering the sex talk is rather frank.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

REVIEW: The Dark Knight Rises

I know it's not nearly as dramatic a title, but for all intents and purposes, Christopher Nolan's third and final Batman movie really ought to be called "Batman Comes Full Circle."

I saw the new film as part of an IMAX marathon, and that was the ideal way to do so. This movie doesn't so much continue the story of the second movie, The Dark Knight, as it does continue the story started in Batman Begins. I won't talk much about the plot, except to say that our brooding hero finds he must go back to his roots to defeat his new enemy - whether he wants to or not.

The movie doesn't quite equal the second film, which was really a crime story in which the hero happens to wear a cape and a cowl. The Dark Knight Rises plumbs more fantastical depths, and is arguably the most comic-book like of the trilogy. Everything here is played on a grand scale, with much of Gotham City (now a cross between New York and Pittsburgh) being physically destroyed. And there's a host of new characters too; the movie makes for a mini-reunion of the cast of Inception, with the addition of Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy and Joseph Gordon-Levitt.


Occasionally, the sheer size of everything bogs the picture down just a little. Clocking in at nearly three hours, The Dark Knight Rises could stand some tightening. I could have stood less of the antagonistic police officer played by Matthew Modine, and the romance between Bruce Wayne and Cotillard's character feels forced.

That said, the strengths of the picture mitigate its flaws. It may not have the galvanizing force of a single performance like Heath Ledger's, but more so than any of the previous movies, The Dark Knight Rises gains strength from the ensemble. Bale gets to plumb new emotional depths; this is his best performance in the trilogy. Hardy's physical transformation is formidable, and Michael Caine is actually heartbreaking. So, too, in a different style, is Anne Hathaway, who steals scenes almost as easily as her character steals jewels.

Another star is Nolan's IMAX cameras. Whereas about a third of The Dark Knight was shot in the large film format, about half of this movie is. It's especially effective in the aerial scenes; one shot in the airplane heist at the beginning made me say "Oh holy shit" - out loud.

But even that pales in comparison to the adrenaline rush that is the last 45 minutes. The third act is nothing short of breathtaking, not only visually but viscerally. The final shot reminded me of Inception. I won't say how. There is no spinning top on screen, but my heard certainly was spinning too - and, like the top, I could barely keep my balance.

GRADE: A

Friday, July 20, 2012

After Aurora, TDKR hits even harder

I fully expected to feel rattled today. But I thought Batman and company would do the rattling - not James Holmes.

Very early Friday morning, I was driving home from Columbus where I saw an IMAX screening of The Dark Knight Rises. Then I noticed my iPhone started to flash with news alerts at about 3:30 a.m. "What could be setting off news alerts at this hour?" I wondered.

When I stopped to grab something to eat, I very quickly found out. More than a dozen people had been shot dead, and dozens more wounded, at a screening of the movie I had just seen - a movie with apocalyptic images that were still tumbling in my mind. Soon, images of another kind of apoplyptic scenee flashed across my mind's eye - and what scared me was they weren't entirely different from what I had seen onscreen.

"What has become of us?" I wondered. And that's the question we really should be asking ourselves. I have strong feelings on gun control, but I won't go into that here. Perhaps more gun laws would have helped those people in Aurora. Perhaps they would not have. But now we'll never know.

What we might be able to find out, however, is exactly why our society has become so frighteningly aggressive and divisive. And one place to look for some insight is on the movie screen, where The Dark Knight Rises is  playing.

That may sound facile, but I don't mean to suggest that The Dark Knight Rises answers all the questions flying through our heads. No movie could. But I find it ironic that some people have suggested suspending screenings the new Batman movie, at least for a little while, either to prevent copycat crimes or as a gesture of support for the victims.

Both concerns are legitimate, but both are misplaced. The people who are suffering in Aurora will still be suffering, whether Warner Bros. pulls the movie from theaters or not. The president has ordered flags to fly at half staff for a few days - that's a very visible show of support for the victims and their loved ones - far more visible than suspending the movie, however, temporarily, would be. And as we have seen all too often, legislation or other forms of control can do little to suppress determined madness.

One reason this tragedy resonates so strongly is its very setting. Many of us go to the movies to get away from reality for a couple of hours. Then, suddenly, here comes James Holmes and his reality crashing into the theater and leaving behind pools of blood. So much for entertainment.

And yet the movie can still do some good. The Batman movies directed and co-written by Christopher Nolan, have always been more than "just fun." They're meditations on what drives people's souls to become corrupt. The new movie, in particular, takes a good hard look at what drives society to do terrible things on a grand scale. And The Dark Knight Rises also provides some insight into how we can counter that.

Maybe we can't put on a cape and a cowl and jet around in a plane outfitted with machine guns. But we might be able to see how best to get back up when we fall.

I'm not going to tell what I think the movie says about our society. Everyone will have their own interpretation. But The Dark Knight Rises isn't only for those who "just want to be entertained!"  It's fine for a movie to be fun. Bit the best movies do more than that. They often hold up a mirror to who we are - and maybe after we look at the screen, we should consider that mirror, while we also think of all those who are hurting.

Up until July 21, The Dark Knight Rises was the most anticipated film of the year. Now, it is arguably the most important.





Friday, July 06, 2012

Franchise Flashback: Alien-Prometheus



This post inaugurates a new feature in which I will look back at previous movies in a franchise as the occasion warrants. With Prometheus still fresh in memory, I thought it would be fun to look back at the Alien films.

Alien (1979): Well, what else is there to say, really? I honestly can't think of another truly shocking scare that, since 1979, has entered the zeitgeist the way the chest-burster scene has. Regarding the special edition, I find it and the theatrical cut about a wash. The demise of the Dallas scene is a fascinating addition, but it's not absolutely essential. GRADE: A+

Aliens (1986): Still my favorite of the series, simply because I like action films better than horror films, and that's what the difference is in the first two films when you get down to it. The special edition is the superior cut; Cameron cut back too far when he deleted the references to Ripley's daughter, which gives her scenes with Newt more pathos. However, I would have still left the initial look at LV-426 on the cutting room floor - it diminishes the introduction of Newt. Either way, this still gets my vote as James Cameron's best film. GRADE: A+

Alien 3: Yeah, the third film is overly murky and logic gaps abound. You really expect us to believe the Alien queen laid an egg during the brief time it was on the Sulaco? Whatever. All that said, I find the film underrated, in both its theatrical cut and its more fleshed-out expanded edition. Neither version is what David Fincher really wanted, but it's a fascinating glimpse of the director forming his style, and the ending packs a wallop. GRADE: B+

Alien Resurrection: On sheer visual style alone, I have to recommend the movie. It's full of many imaginative visual quirks that are obviously from Jean-Pierre Jeunat. the director of Delicatessan and The City of Lost Children and, later, Amelie. I also admire Sigourney Weaver's half-human/half-alien performance. But the scares are more based on gross-out than suspense, and the ending (one of many scripted) does not work at all. GRADE: B-

Prometheus: Still my choice for the best film of this year. Read my full review here.





Tuesday, July 03, 2012

REVIEW: The Amazing Spider-Man

J. Jonah Jameson was right. That wall crawler is a thief after all.

At least, The Amazing Spider-Man is. This uninspired movie has robbed a once-stellar franchise of its goodwill. This is the biggest disappointment of the year.

Like many people, I was puzzled by Sony's decision to restart the franchise. After all, the first Spider-Man movie is only 10 years old, and doesn't everyone already know the origin? Sure, the marketing folks may say this new movie is "the untold story," but it's bait without the switch. This movie doesn't rebuild a franchise from the ground up, the way Batman Begins did. It merely slaps on a new coat of paint. There's not much imagination in this reimagining.

I wanted to give the new movie a chance. I loved the previous film by director Marc Webb, 500 Days of Summer. But showing visual flair in an indie romantic comedy is a far cry from directing a tentpole action movie. Webb pulls off a few decent action moments, but the director is clearly out of his depth, right down to the use of 3D. Even though The Amazing Spider-Man was shot in 3D, Webb barely makes use of it outside of the action scenes. I took my glasses off a few times and found the picture to be hardly blurred at all. And even in the action scenes, the editing is too choppy. Shots in 3D movies need to be allowed to linger for the effect to register. Even Michael Bay got this right in the third Transformers movie. Webb doesn't.

An even bigger problem is the slapdash script, credited to James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), Alvin Sargent (Spider-Man 2) and Steve Kloves (most of the Harry Potter films). All three writers have done much better work. Here, the screenplay huffs and puffs, trying to add layers to Peter Parker's backstory that add up to nothing, and futzing the logic with Spidey's powers, just so we can get cheap gags like computer keys coming off in his hands. The villain the Lizard (Rhys Ifans) is all unrealized potential, with half-baked attempts to make him both bad and good.

The saving grace of the film is most of the cast, especially the two leads. Andrew Garfield plays Peter Parker more as sullen outcast than geeky nerd, but the chip on his shoulder gives the role gravitas. Emma Stone is typically delightful as his paramour Gwen Stacy. I liked the two of them so much, I would rather have seen Webb direct them in a romantic comedy.

But affecting as they are, even Garfield and Stone never manage an iconic moment like Maguire and Dunst's upside-down kiss. Say what you will about the mess that was Spider-Man 3, its emotional core still came througth. I'd much rather watch it again than a perfunctory movie like The Amazing Spider-Man. Never mind what the studio says, this isn't so much a reboot as it is a refinancing of Sony Pictures' coffers.

GRADE: C

 

Friday, June 29, 2012

REVIEW: Magic Mike

Sometimes you can tell a lot about what a crowd thinks of a movie by how they don't react. Such is the case with Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike.

I saw the film at a screening where the gender ratio in the audience must have been at least seven girls for every boy. (Eat your heart out, Jan and Dean). Not at all surprising, considering this was a movie about male strippers. And sure enough, when the movie started, the vibe in the theater became less movie and more rock concert. Girls hooted and hollered with wild abandon as Matthew McConaughey strutted his stuff. I didn't turn to look and see if anyone was holding up dollar bills, but I wouldn't have been surprised.

But then I noticed something. As the movie went on, the girls got quieter. Oh sure, they cheered again when it was time to peel off fabric, but the cheering became less boisterous as the movie went on. I like to think that was because the ladies were getting into the story. Or maybe they were bored. In any event, the hook of this movie is supposedly that it turns an old cliche on its head - let's see the guys exploited for a change. But it is worth noting that Magic Mike was written and directed by men. So whom exactly is the joke on?

This movie felt rather like a low-key version of Boogie Nights, only with fewer characters and without Paul Thomas Anderson's visual acrobatics. Both films are about the seamy side of a prurient industry, which turns out to be not as sexy as advertised. Soderbergh directs most of the movie in the fly-on-the-wall style of his experimental movies like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience, with bits of the Oceans movies thrown in during the stripping. One of Soderbergh's cheekier jokes is that the one glimpse we get of the male anatomy is decidedly non-sexual.

The story is so low key it's a bit too slow to take off at first, but once it does, it's compelling. Reid Carolin's screenplay takes showbiz movie tropes (brash new guy upends old pro) and gives them a gritty, lived-in feeling.

What truly puts the movie across, however, are the performances. Alex Pettyfer is solid as the reckless new pro, and Channing Tatum again proves there's more to him than beefcake. This isn't even the first time the actor played role reversal - he got his butt kicked by a girl earlier this year in Haywire, also directed by Soderbergh. The actor is nothing if not a trooper. And there are some nice female turns as well, from Olivia Munn as one of Tatum's recurring flings, and especially from the appealing Cody Horn, who plays the new guy's more sensible sister.

And then there's McConaughey as the cocky MC of the male revue. The actor has made himself the butt of many a joke for being a little too slick and casual, but his star power here is undeniable. He owns the camera and anyone he looks at, male or female. For contrast, check out his very different performance in Richard Linklater's docu-comedy Bernie. The man has range, and I'd actually argue his Magic Mike performance is Oscar-worthy. Seriously.

Females expecting nothing more than Showboys might be put off, but there's a real movie underneath all those rippling pectorals. And it's a very good one.

 

GRADE: B+

 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Nora Ephron, 1941-2012



One of the many sharp and funny things Nora Ephron once said is "I always read the last page of a book first, so that if I die before I finish, I'll know how it turned out."

That saying turned poignant when Ephron passed away on Tuesday, but it was also fitting for her career. The last page of her film book was Julie & Julia (my review)  a delightfully entertaining showcase for two of our brightest actresses, Meryl Streep and Amy Adams. But it was also a marvel of an adaptation with Ephron cannily stitching together the books by the titular characters. Sure, one could argue that the Julia parts or more interesting than the Juliee parts, but if the movie were only about Julia, it would not have been as interesting, I don't think. If you want to show someone what made Ephron Ephron, start at her final film.

But that's just one example of how smart and savvy her writing was. Her best work is still the screenplay for Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally ... - which is infinitely more savvy than any of that Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus stuff. I love how Ephron made the man the hopeless romantic in the end:

I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. 

Heck, Ephron even had the class to admit that the most famous line in the script - I'll have what she's having" - was actually Billy Crystal's idea.

I was also fond of Ephron's You've Got Mail, her remake of The Shop Around the Corner/In the Good Old Summertime. Sure, it's saccharine and predictable and it's now as quaint as AOL has become, but that's part of its charm. I can't claim it's as good as the two earlier films, but it fares pretty well in comparison, which is more than can be said of many a remake.

Maybe it's that I'm a romantic myself. Or maybe it was that Ephron gave "chick flicks" a good name. One of my colleagues once complained to me, "You never like any of my girly movies!" I can't remember what I said at the time, but now I would say, "I would if Nora Ephron made more of them."

Sunday, June 24, 2012

My new ranking of Pixar films



Now that Brave is out, and now that I've seen the movie a second time, I present my new ranking of Pixar movies.

Please bear in mind, this is all relative. Pixar has made so many great pictures that even the ones in the bottom third are still great fun. In my opinion, Pixar still hasn't made a bad movie - no, not even Cars 2.

1) Toy Story 2: Among computer animated films, the emotional pinnacle is still "When She Loved Me." Pure and simple.

2) Wall-E: I vividly remember seeing this movie for the first time and calling up at least three friends telling them to go see it immediately. Besides, how many sci-fi movies have the guts to open with a tune from Hello Dolly?

3) Up: Movies aren't supposed to make you cry within the first 10 minutes, dammit.

4) Toy Story 3: Whereas Up was Pixar's best beginning, this movie had the best ending.

5) The Incredibles: Still my favorite superhero movie of any kind, live action or otherwise. Yes, it's even better than The Avengers.

6) Monsters Inc.: The Chaplin-esque final shot is eloquently perfect.

7) Toy Story: I see this one often listed as Pixar's best. It's not, wonderful as it is. It is indisputably a landmark film, but both sequels are superior. How many other film series can say that?

8) Ratatouille: No, that final statement about critics didn't resonate with me at all. Nopity, nopity noooo. (sarcasm)

9) Finding Nemo: A lot of people would name this as their favorite non-Toy Story Pixar movie. I didn't fall as much in love with it as everyone else, but it was certainly Pixar's most beautiful movie - until very recently, anyway.

10) A Bug's Life: This one tends to be forgotten among Pixar's output, and wrongly so. It's not transcendent, certainy, but it's wonderfully entertaining in the way it juggles multiple characters, Seven Samurai-style.

11) Cars: For the first time I got the feeling that Pixar let other considerations (like selling soundtracks) get in the way of the story, but its lamentation of a bygone era (Route 66, etc.) is still deeply affecting, especially for someone like me who revered the Beatles when his peers were listening to Ratt.

12) Brave: I saw the movie a second time, and while it played better for me than it did the first time, I still felt jarred by the shifts in tone, which might be attributable to the fact that directors changed midstream. All that said, I think a lot of critics missed the boat by undervaluing this one. I agree with this astute observation: " If you're expecting something as deep as the first ten minutes of "Up" or the last ten minutes of "Toy Story 3," you're not going to get it. "Brave" isn't aiming for the same emotional targets; its focus is more childlike, as opposed to profound and slightly wistful. If you try to compare "Brave" to the collective weight of something it's not, rather than judging it on its own terms, you're going to be disappointed."

13) Cars 2: I will grant you that Pixar was coasting with this one, but I will not grant you that it's a misfire. It was still a very fun coast. This longtime James Bond fan loved all the homages to spy movies, and even though I am not a car aficionado, I still loved the idea that lemons were the villains. This movie was NOT itself a lemon.



Thursday, June 21, 2012

REVIEW: Brave

Pixar reaches yet another milestone with its 13th feature: Brave is the studio's sneakiest movie.

The American trailers for Brave have only shown us about one-third of the story. Almost nothing from the movie's second half is shown, when the plot takes a very sharp left turn. Pixar's first fairy tale starts out a bit like Aladdin (disaffected princess bristles at being forced to marry), then becomes rather like The Little Mermaid (distraught princess unwisely turns to magic). This second, more mystical arc is the focus of Brave's Japanese trailer, which looks like a completely different movie. One could be forgiven for thinking that Brave might be a little schizoid.

 

But then comes the most dramatic, surprising turn of all. It completely threw me, and I was unprepared for it. I will not reveal what happens, but I will say that after the turn, Brave becomes very much like another Disney animated film - but not one of the princess movies. And about the plot, I will say nothing else.

Let me be very clear: I like Brave very much indeed. The second half worked for me after that left turn, once I realized where the story was going. I'm just not 100 percent convinced the movie took the right path to get there.

I spent so much of the second half trying to push "reset" in my head that when the big emotional climax came, I wasn't holding back sobs like I usually am at a Pixar movie. I merely got a little misty-eyed. And for an emotional pushover like me, that lack of a visceral reaction was striking. I felt like maybe Pixar pulled the rug out because it could - not because it should.

Much has been made of the fact that this is the stuido's first fairy tale, and the first with a female protagonist. And both are very welcome, refreshing changes. However, the second half of the movie is more typical of Pixar, in that it deals with themes of parental or paternal attachment, like Monster's Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and Up did. Not for nothing is Princess Merida the rare royal child who has two living parents.

Those parental themes are a double-edged sword, or maybe in this case a double-tipped arrow. The parents may make Brave more "typical" and less unique of Pixar - but it also gives their fairy tale a unique emotional strength at which the studio excels. The characters are all wonderfully drawn, in more ways than one, and the voice work is wonderful. It may shock some people to discover that the voice of Merida is Kelly Macdonald, known to most audiences as Josh Brolin's wife in No Country for Old Men - but it was the Coens film where the Scottish actress was not using her natural voice. Emma Thompson and Billy Conolly are also outstanding as Merida's mother and father.

And if for no other reason, Brave must be seen on a big screen in a movie theater, because this is the most gorgeous computer-animated film ever made, without question. Its widescreen lansdscapes are so lush and detailed, I often forgot the backgrounds were drawn in the computer too. And when I remembered that they were, I could only marvel at the achievement. Those backgrounds also stand out in Pixar's first truly immersive use of 3D.

Since last year's Cars 2 made it OK for critics to dislike a Pixar film, I fear that some reviewers are being a little too critical of the follow-up. True, I harbor a few reservations about Brave, whereas I usually love Pixar films unabashedly. But I still lived more than happily ever after in the end.



GRADE: A-

 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Adam Sandler vs. Adam Sandler movies

I've often said to myself, "I don't like Adam Sandler." Heck, I've often said it out loud, in so many words.

Thing is, it's not really true. I don't hate Adam Sandler himself. I hate Adam Sandler movies. And there's a big difference.

I actually think Sandler is a very talented guy. He's even made me laugh a few times. But you see, I'm one of those egghead critics who typically only likes Sandler when he gets ambitious and goes outside his comfort zone, making movies such as Punch-Drunk Love, Spanglish and Funny People. But those aren't Adam Sandler movies. They're Paul Thomas Anderson, James L. Brooks and Judd Apatow movies, respectively. Those are movies that star Adam Sandler.

On the other hand, "Adam Sandler movies" are movies produced and/or written by him, like Billy Madison, Happy Gilmore, The Waterboy and Click. Most of these movies operate on the assumption that their audience has the intellect and taste of a 13-year-old, and they still think armpit farts are funny. Problem is, a lot of these people are older than 13. Physically, anyway. And these movies usually make armpits full of money. I even kinda liked a couple, including 50 First Dates and Anger Management, though I was probably laughing mainly at Jack Nicholson's slumming in the latter.

For a good long while, it seemed like this duality was fine. Sandler would crank out his dum-dum Happy Madison comedies, and then, every once in a while he would stretch and try something different. Unfortunately, when he has done so, he has A) turned off his mainstream fans and B) caught the auteurs on a strange day. Spanglish was an uneven effort from Brooks. Punch-Drunk Love was terminally weird even to non-Sandler devotees who saw it, and it's actually kind of avant-garde, even for Paul Thomas Anderson. And Sandler caught Apatow in an unusually somber mood when he decided to write a script about a comedian who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Heck, Apatow even got Janusz Kaminski to shoot Funny People. That's a long way from Schindler's List.

I liked all three of those movies, but all of them underwhelmed at the box office. And so Sandler kept going back to the dum-dum well, cranking out the likes of I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry and the paradoxically titled Grown-Ups. As Charlton Heston once said, the problem with film as as art is that it's a business. The problem with films as a business is that it's an art form. Adam Sandler may embody that dilemma better than any other star.

But now, the rot seems to be setting in with the dum-dum comedies. Even his fans hated his last movie, Jack and Jill, which won the dubious honor of sweeping the Golden Razzies. His latest movie, That's My Boy, was a dud on its opening weekend.

So are fans getting tired of the Sandler shtick? It's hard to say. One could argue That's My Boy tanked because of the lingering stench of Jack and Jill, and that the R-rating kept undiscriminating teenagers out. But then again, Sandler's fans seem to be a forgiving lot. I remember how ater a screening of Little Nicky, someone thought it wasn't much good and said, "His movies are usually so well-written." That I remember that quote so well is remarkable, because I didnt hear it myself; a colleague repeated it to me.

So what's an unhappy Madison to do? Here's my advice. Since audiences seem to be tiring of the typical Sandler fare, he should not write his own scripts, and he should stay the hell away from Dennis Dugan. Make a comedy that's not trying too hard to be sober. I'm thinking of movies like The Wedding Crashers or Horrible Bosses - something funny but not crass, and most importantly, a comedy that laughs with people, not at them, like too many of his movies do. if Sandler does that, he may survive the sequel to Grown-Ups and actually become an adult himself.

Friday, June 15, 2012

REVIEW: Rock of Ages

I had worried that Rock of Ages would remind me of my high school years, in that I would be watching people I really like singing a lot of music I really hate. Read: Hair metal can suck it.

That said, the problem with Rock of Ages is not that it celebrates hair metal. Despite what the ads may tell you, this movie isn't really hair-metal centric. If, for instance, "We Built This City" is hair metal, then I'm Grace Slick. The soundtrack is more a grab bag of an "I Love the 80s" Internet radio station. Some of the music is good, some of it isn't. I'll take "Pour Some Sugar on Me," but I don't have much patience for people who labor under the delusion that "Every Rose has its Thorn" is a great song.

But I didn't dislike Rock of Ages because it fondly recalls a decade as vacuous as Paris Hilton. I disliked Rock of Ages because I really don't care for Ken and Barbie dolls. And that's what the two lead characters of this movie are.

I don't mean to disparage Julianne Hough. She may be playing a plastic character, but at least she has a winning screen presence. That's the opposite of the dullard male lead played by the charisma-free Diego Bonita. When I can't care about the main couple, I can't get into the movie.

It's a shame,because most of the actors are actually quite good and throw themselves into the movie with gusto. Alec Baldwin and Russel Brand play off each other well as a club owner and his flunkie, with Brand being especially funny because he ad-libs left and right. Catherine Zeta-Jones has a nothing part as a PMRC-type zealot, but she at least puts her songs across with verve. Malin Akerman is sexy/funny, bearing more than a passing resemblance to MTV's Nina Blackwood. And Tom Cruise again travels the Tropic Thunder path of a zany supporting part. Director Adam Shankman told Cruise to play up everyone's worst perception of - Tom Cruise. And he delivers.

But that was one of the few smart moves Shankman made. He directs the movie with the color-coding of an exploding candy store and the attention span of a gnat. There may be a lot of big hair in this movie, but I missed the fleeter footing of Shankman's Hairspray. And the screenplay, based on the stage musical, is as flat as a stage.

Some audience members at my screening seemed to be surprised they were watching a full-on musical and not a concert movie. But even people who are not averse to musicals may be disappointed that the title song is thrown away, and that the movie doesn't take full advantage of the fact that the lead character's name is Sherrie.

After all, what can you say when a movie's climactic number, "Don't Stop Believin'" was performed with more panache by the cast of Glee?

GRADE: C

 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

REVIEW: Prometheus

Yes, it's a prequel to Alien. And no, that's not a spoiler. But Ridley Scott's long-awaited return to the franchise is something much more important: it's the second great film of the year (after The Avengers).

There has been a lot of confusing double-talk about whether this film was a prequel to Scott's 1979 classic. All one has to do is look at the producing credits that show David Giler and Walter Hill's names. They had a hand in producing the first three Alien movies, so that's a giveaway right there.

But while Prometheus both follows in and anticipates the footsteps of Alien, it accomplishes something that's been a hallmark of this series: It isn't quite like any of the other films.

Although this is the first time in this series that a director has repeated, Prometheus is a very different animal from Alien. That was a horror film; Prometheus is not. It's telling that one of the very first images of the film is a DNA stand mutating.

This movie has some scary moments, to be sure, but it's also not mainly an action film like Aliens or a philosophical prison drama like Alien 3, or the strange art house creature feature of Alien: Resurrection. Prometheus is the most pure sci-fi film of the lot, because it dares to ponder not only why we're here, but how we got here. That may disapoint viewers looking looking only for action and horror. The movie throws in some slimy little buggers besides, but it's got a lot more on its plate, and that's all to the good.

It's no surprise that the film looks great. That's true of every Ridley Scott film, including the bad ones, and his use of 3D is a wondrous must-see. But it's most invigorating to see the director truly swing for the fences when he has recently turned out such forgettable fare as Body of Lies and most recently, Robin Hood. This is the first film of the Alien franchise, and Scott's first film since Blade Runner, that truly inspired a sense of wonder in me. A sense of awe, even.

The film is certainly not the equal of Alien or Blade Runner. Prometheus bites off a little more than it should chew, featuring too many characters that makes the focus diffuse at times. Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce aren't used especially well, but that's mitigated by fierce work from Noomi Rapace, and a spellbinding performance by Michael Fassbender as the requisite robot. The model for his performance is inspired. I don't want to give it away, but I'll tell you this - it isn't Ian Holm or Lance Henriksen.

Endless arguements have sprung up about how well the film's logic holds up - or doesn't. But it's important to remember that most sci-fi films worth their salt ask more question than they answer. In an age when Hollywood usually wants to wow only our eyes, it's refreshing to see a movie like Prometheus that wows the mind as well.

GRADE: A

 

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman/Mirror Mirror

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest one of all?

At the risk of sounding redundant, I vote for Mirror Mirror. And that surprises me.

Months ago, when the trailers for Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman played endlessly in theaters, the former looked like pretty but pointless kiddie junk, replete with bad puns like "Snow Way." The latter looked like an exciting take on the fairy tale, filled with action and drama. Charlize Theron looked deliciously nasty as an evil queen, while Julia Roberts seemed to be mostly mugging.

Now that I've seen both movies, the opposite has panned out. The Lily Collins/Julia Roberts version roundly trounces the Kristen Stewart/Charlize Theron version. Mirror mirror indeed.

How did this happen? Mirror Mirror knew exactly what it was - a silly, peppy kid-friendly version of the classic fairy tale. Snow White and the Huntsman, on the other hand, is a turgid, unfocused mess that wants to be the Lord of the Rings version of Snow White, but fails to live up to either of its antecedents.

Mirror Mirror is far from a great movie. It's slight and innocuous, but it at least boasts moments of real visual imagination courtesy of director Tarsem Singh (The Cell), who has fun with swirling camera movements and inventive visual gags like the seven dwarfs using stilts to rob and fight people. And the writers had the good sense to jettison some of the lame jokes in the trailers.

But Snow White and the Huntsman is a physically ugly film, replete with gray skies, globs of mud and battle scenes that barely make sense. First time director Rupert Sanders pulls off a handful of interesting effects, but his storytelling is terrible. The romance, supposedly one of the key components of the film, is a complete bust, with the title characters having no chemistry whatsoever.

The two Snow White actresses acquit themselves fairly well. Collins isn't terribly distinct, but she's energetic and plays along with the laughs quite nicely. The awful movie surrounding Stewart leaves her somewhat at sea, but she at least makes a solid effort to carry the film.

Theron, on the other hand, tries TOO hard to carry the film. Sure, the evil queen is supposed to chew the scenery, but Theron devours it like the Tasmanian Devil, to stifling effect. She plays almost every scene with the volume turned up to 11, barking like a very pretty mad dog. She's worse than evil - she's annoying.

The trailers for Mirror Mirror made Roberts seem like she was out of her depth, but she gamely rolls with the whimsical tone of the film and is clearly having fun. It's hard to buy her as truly evil, but she does manage to be engagingly nasty.

It's not like turning Snow White into an adventure heroine is a bad idea - Ginnifer Goodwin manages to be both fair and ferocious in the ABC series Once Upon a Time. That series can spin yarns with the skill of Rumplestiltskin. It beasts either of the features. If you only have time for one movie, look into Mirror Mirror. Snow White and the Huntsman is a rotten, poisonous apple.

 

MIRROR MIRROR: B

SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN: D