Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Hobbit

In The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the titular Hobbit, played by Martin Freeman, is invited to join an unusual quest to help a bunch of dwarves regain their home from the dragon that invaded it and drove them away decades ago.  Accompanied by the wizard Gandalf, they encounter friendly elves, not-so-friendly goblins, hungry trolls and plenty of in-fighting.  Based on the popular children's novel by J.R.R. Tolkien and brought to life by Tolkien fanatic Peter Jackson, An Unexpected Journey tells the first third of the Hobbit's story.

The problem is, there is absolutely no reason for The Hobbit to be three movies.  I write this as a person who is a big fan of Peter Jackson's extended editions of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and who tries to watch them about once a year.  That story may not have needed twelve hours to tell, but it rarely felt as though it was dragging or stretching out what didn't need to be stretched.

The Hobbit feels like that for most of the film.

Like many, the more successful he becomes, the more impervious Peter Jackson becomes to a judicious editor (see also, J.K. Rowling, Tom Clancy, others).  And a judicious editor would have helped The Hobbit immensely.

After all, the film has a lot going for it.  Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, the cautious but quietly brave protagonist.  Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis reprise their roles from The Lord of the Rings with aplomb.  The music and production values are simply lovely.  The story is an interesting one, full of twists and humor and action.

It's too bad everything feels so muddled and stretched out.  The film begins in flash-forward, with Ian Holm's Bilbo writing down his story for nephew Frodo, again played by Elijah Wood.  While I liked both of these actors quite a bit in Lord of the Rings, their parts were entirely unnecessary here.  This was a continuing trend throughout the film.  Two films with tighter editing and a few unnecessary pieces cut would have served this story quite well.  Three is doing it a disservice.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook

David O. Russell's new film, Silver Linings Playbook, is at times chaotic--but purposely  so.  The chaos helps the audience understand, on some level, the mindset of the main character and those who surround him.  Overlapping dialogue builds a sense of unease in an audience, and the more it builds, the harder it can be to watch.

When Pat (Bradley Cooper) is released from the mental hospital following a court-ordered eight month stint, he moves back in with his parents and stays fixated on his one major goal: get back in his estranged wife's good graces so they can be together again.  Those around him know it's not a very realistic goal, but Pat will not be persuaded.  He reconnects with some of the people from his old life, including his psychiatrist and a good friend's sister-in-law Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence)--herself a medicated, depressed young widow--trying to piece his life back together.  Tiffany and Pat share a connection most can't understand and some actively try to disrupt, but while their story doesn't hit the typical notes it seems to work well enough for them.

Unlike most romantic comedies (though there's much more to it than that label would suggest) Silver Linings Playbook feels honest and, for the most part, unforced.  These characters are messy, and not in cute or 'adorkable' ways.  Everyone has issues he or she is dealing with--or pointedly not dealing with--and those considered crazy by most may just be the ones most in touch with themselves.

That's not to say that those crazy people are all that put together, either.  Their problems don't have easy solutions, and while the film holds to that idea for the most part, it falters at its end.  The film ends on a winning, if somewhat false, note--one that seems to solve things and thus doesn't quite feel earned.

It doesn't fit quite as "comedy" or "drama," but does a great job mixing tones and averting typical expectations.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Skyfall

Patently ridiculous.  Completely unrealistic.  Bizarre and unsettling villains paired with gorgeous and exotic women.  Intense, absurd fight sequences.

Yes, that's right--James Bond is back, and just maybe better than ever.

Skyfall, arriving with the 50th anniversary of Bond on film, is a blast.  It's got all the great Bond moments: an action-packed opening sequence transitioning into a fever dream of a credits sequence, complete with a haunting Adele melody; beautiful and sexy women whose company Bond, well, enjoys; cleverly choreographed action and fight sequences; gorgeously shot exotic locales; and a suave, unflappable James Bond.

When some shadowy and powerful enemy (Javier Bardem) sets his sights on MI6--and particularly Judi Dench's M--an aging James Bond must, of course, come to the stylish and suave rescue.  Aided (and challenged) by new cast members Ralph Fiennes (as a bureaucrat with whom Bond butts heads), Ben Whishaw (a geek chic Q), and Naomie Harris (a head-strong, sexy field agent), Bond travels to far-flung locations to track down and take out this creepy threat.

Bardem does a nice job as a Bond villain--he's over-the-top, he's unsettling, he's driven, and he's clearly crazy.   He has ridiculous hair.  He spouts off long monologues about rats and flirts with/threatens Bond with ease.

The cinematography of this film is frankly stunning.  Back-lit fight scenes in Shanghai skyscrapers and captivatingly gorgeous shots along the Scottish moors in the film's climax enhance the movie's very cool, put-together feeling.  Director Sam Mendes got his money's worth out of the location shooting, to say the least.

Sure, there are plot inconsistencies and questionable character choices one could look toward.  Nothing about the film is particularly--or really, even remotely--realistic.  Lines are delivered and plot points thrown in merely for the sake of being "cool."

And if you, as a film viewer, take issue with any of those things, well, a James Bond movie is probably not right for you.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

Rise of the Guardians, based on a series of children's books by William Joyce, is a stylish piece of animation and good family holiday fare.  The guardians (Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman, and the Tooth Fairy) are benevolent forces of good, protecting children by encouraging wonder and joy.  When that wonder and joy are threatened by boogie man Pitch, the guardians are instructed by the omniscient Man in the Moon to bring a new member into their fold--mischievous sprite Jack Frost.

The film may be called Rise of the Guardians, but it's really Jack Frost's story.  Jack doesn't fit in with the rest of the guardians.  For one, no one really believes in Jack Frost.  Unlike the others, who gain their power through the belief of children, Jack's simply exist.  The children of the world don't see or hear him, but he makes sure they have plenty of fun nonetheless.  He's just not all that invested in being a guardian, per se.

He also might just have more in common with Pitch than he does with the Guardians.  This dichotomy leads to one of the most interesting themes in the film.  Despite the presence of Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the film makes a point of staying away from religion--maybe.  Jack begs for guidance and answers from the mysterious and pointedly distant Man in the Moon, while being courted and tempted by the very present Pitch. 

In addition to its more serious moments, the film provides plenty of comedy, especially from its supporting characters.  Each of the guardians have cute, funny henchmen--the elves and yetis for Santa Claus, the mini fairies for Tooth, large eggs for Bunny, and the beautifully animated dream creatures the Sandman creates.  The Sandman sequences are probably the most impressive animation in the film; their detail and movement are wonderful to watch.

The film's story is serviceable enough; engaging and entertaining for kids without talking down to them or the parents who take them.  The animation is stunning, the characters are intriguing, and the voice cast is game and energetic--and with all these elements in place, I can't help but feel like there is a better movie buried somewhere in there.  Rise of the Guardians is good, but not quite great.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Lincoln

There are not many filmmakers who could make an engaging, thought-provoking film about the passing of a piece of legislation 150 years ago.  Steven Spielberg is one of those few filmmakers.  Lincoln is a beautifully-shot, well-acted, and captivating movie.

Rather than a biopic, Lincoln spans only a few short months as the Civil War wanes. Lincoln and others strive to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery in the United States before the war is over and the amendment would seem less politically necessary.  The film assembles an all-star cast to fill even the smallest of roles, playing as a Who's Who with nineteenth-century facial hair.

I often find Daniel Day-Lewis's performances overwhelming, but his Lincoln was perfect.  Famed for the months of research and preparation he puts into every role, Day-Lewis embodies everything about his character, from his walk and voice to his quiet contemplation and flashes of emotion.  Tommy Lee Jones offers another strong performance as the abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens.  One of the film's best scenes come between these two, who want similar things but work toward their goals in very different ways.

It's reassuring, in a way, to realize that the House of Representatives has always been crazy.  The battles waged on the floor of Congress are filled with pithy insults and dramatic overtures.  Lincoln is a surprisingly funny movie.  It's easy to forget, in studying history, that people in the past could have great senses of humor as well.  Lincoln does well to include the humor, keeping the potential history lesson from feeling too dry or wooden. 

There are a few scenes that seem rather forced or even melodramatic--the opening scene among them--but for the most part the film balances these well.   Some will criticize this movie as "Oscar bait," but I for one would much rather watch Oscar bait than Box Office bait.  It may not be as sexy as James Bond or as showy as Twilight, but Lincoln hits its marks and does so with aplomb.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph is in contention for my favorite film of the year.  I enjoyed it from beginning to end and laughed so hard at some of the jokes that I'm going to have to see it again to catch up on the dialogue I missed in between.

John C. Reilly voices Ralph, the villain in the long-standing arcade video game Fix-It Felix Jr.   One the thirtieth anniversary of the game's premiere, Ralph's frustration with his game--always being the bad guy, his isolation from the other characters in his game, the assumption of the other games that he's got to be a villain--finally causes him to crack.  He goes "game jumping," invading other games in the arcade so he can experience something new.

One of the things that works so well for Wreck-It Ralph is the familiarity of the surroundings.  Normally, I find comedy that relies too much on references to be rather stale--the jokes may be funny, but they're ultimately hollow.  I don't find this to be the case with Wreck-It Ralph.  There were references aplenty--be they to other video games or candy and sweets-related puns in the game "Sugar Rush"--but these were often used to comment on the state of the characters or even the deeper themes of potential loss and the need for acceptance.  That is to say: many of these references were used for a point beyond just making an audience laugh because of their inclusion.  

Also, they were genuinely funny.

The clever, brightly-colored style of animation did a lot not only to build the video-games world but to make clever comments on the nature of video games.  From the minor characters only able to turn at right angles to the transition to an eight-bit style depending on one's location within the game to the arcade viewer box--giving characters a chance to see outside their own games, the style of the movie enhanced the story and characterization in the movie.  The other major animated film I saw this year, Brave, may overall be a prettier film--but I could never discount the animation in Wreck-It Ralph.

Overall, this is a great film.  It will play for just about any audience--though twenty- and thirty-somethings may get an extra boost recognizing games from their childhood--telling a truly heart-warming story with surprisingly high stakes.  This is one of the few films I've seen this year that I would honestly recommend to anyone.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Cloud Atlas

I don't know that I'm well-qualified to critique Cloud Atlas on its own merits.  The film is, after all, based on one of my favorite books--the novel of the same name by David Mitchell.  Because I've read the novel, I can't comment on how much sense the film makes; I can already fill in any possible gaps.  Like most, I'd considered the novel unfilmable--its nesting-doll storytelling technique, its vast and various characters spread far across time, even its length all seemed impossible to tackle on the screen.

So credit the Wachowski siblings and Tom Tykwer, who each directed various segments of the film, with stunning ambition.  Moviegoers' reactions to Wachowski projects (including The Matrix films, V for Vendetta, and Speed Racer) have not always been the kindest, but anyone can see they've got a flare for the visual and for non-traditional storytelling.

Cloud Atlas follows six protagonists from different times through their various stories.  Adam Ewing's sea-faring adventures in the 1840s, composer Robert Frobisher's musical collaboration in the 1930s, Luisa Rey's political intrigue of the 1970s, present day's Timothy Cavindish's misadventures with publishing and nursing homes, fabricant Sonmi-451's battles against a technologically superior but oppressive future, and Zachry's tribe loyalties 106 years "after the fall" do not seem to have much in common at first blush.  The film drops the novel's nesting-doll approach, instead jumping from one story to the next at the drop of a hat and pulling the themes and similarities between the stories to the surface, often using one character's voice-over to demonstrate what happens to another.

This may lead to some serious confusion for viewers, especially early on, but for an audience willing to go along with things for a while, the film ties its varying storylines together pretty effectively.

The film has already met with some controversy over its casting.  Each of the six segments use the same actors in new roles, meaning actors play across age, gender, and racial lines.  The result winds up feeling like a game of "Where's Waldo?" and winds up distracting at best, and offensive at worst.  Yellowface and Blackface have a pretty nasty history attached to them, and while the cross-casting fits nicely with the film's study of identity and is clearly not done to be purposely demeaning or offensive, it might still be enough to turn some audiences away. 

Cloud Atlas is, at times, kind of a mess.  It will probably prove polarizing; I imagine most will come away either loving or hating it.  Still, I'd rather seen an ambitious mess--or even an ambitious failure--than another mediocre, by-the-numbers sequel or remake.  Cloud Atlas isn't like any other movie out there these days--and I can't possibly find that to be a criticism.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Argo

Argo, Ben Affleck's third directorial outing, tells the true story of six Americans who escaped the American Embassy in Tehran just as it was being taken over by supporters of the Iranian Revolution.  The six avoided being taken hostage only to find they were just as trapped.  They could not safely leave Tehran, instead taking shelter for more than two months with the Canadian Ambassador.

Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative tasked with extracting the non-hostages and bringing them safely back to the United States.  After cycling through several bad ideas, he and others eventually decide the best bad idea they have is to create a fake cover as a movie crew, in Iran to do some location scouting.

Shot and edited to look like a thriller from the era, Argo works on just about every level.  The acting is realistic and emotional without being flashy, the production values evoke the time and place nicely, and the editing ratchets up the tension very effectively.

If I had one criticism of the film, it would be that the tension at the end seems too forced.  There are just a few too many coincidences, a few too many incidents of perfect timing.  This story is already tense and incredible enough on its own merits; to add too much makes it feel artificial.

Still, Argo's opening sequence is one of the year's best.  The visual and sound editing evoke chaos, terror, tension, and consequence in a truly effective manner.  Historically informed audiences will know, at least to a broad degree, where this film will go and what the consequences of larger action will be--which, if anything, make the story even more incredible.

I recommend the film to just about any adult audience, and I think it's one of the best films I've seen so far this year.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Seven Psychopaths

 Seven Psychopaths, the newest film from the must-be dark and twisted mind of writer-director Martin McDonagh, starts out with a bang.  A few of them, really.

This darkly comic, supremely violent, meta-film film stars Colin Farrell as Marty, a screenwriter struggling with ideas for his next screenplay, Seven Psychopaths.  His friend Billy, played nicely by the always underrated Sam Rockwell, suggests he look to real-life psychopaths to inspire him--a suggestion that proves more fruitful than he originally imagined. 

Billy, meanwhile, is getting over his head in his own "business" ventures.  He and his partner-in-crime, played by Christopher Walken, kidnap dogs and collect the eventual reward money.  When they kidnap the wrong shih tzu, they find criminal boss and violent psychopath (!) Woody Harrelson on their tails.

McDonagh, who previously worked with Farrell on In Bruges, is not afraid to play around with tone.  Some of the film's most grotesque violence also provides its biggest laughs, while the aftermath leads to some of its most heartfelt (and heart-wrenching) moments.  Farrell's in-film screenplay, meanwhile, allows the characters themselves to comment on what's going on around them--the tropes and expectations of film and storytelling.  It's remniscent of films like Adaptation and Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, admittedly two of my favorite films.  Unfortunately, it doesn't quite live up to those comparisons (nor to In Bruges, for that matter).

Movie-goers who are turned away by excessive violence (even when that violence is used for a point) should probably avoid Seven Psychopaths.  Ideally, its title and decidedly earned "R" rating will be enough to keep those viewers away already, but one never knows.

Similarly, if dark, meta, or dark-meta humor is not your thing, this film is not for you.  Seven Psychopaths doesn't pretend to be for everyone, but while it doesn't hit the heights of McDonagh's other film and theater work, it is uproariously funny and generally entertaining. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Master

The Master, directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, is a beautifully shot, well-acted film that doesn't quite come together as a satisfying whole.  Joaquin Phoenix stars as a troubled, alcoholic WWII veteran--established thoroughly in the first half-hour or so, and continually after that--who finds a path with Philip Seymour-Hoffman's Cause, a pseudo-religious set of beliefs that promise him direction and, well, cause.

The two meet rather by accident, but during their time together come to an understanding, as Phoenix becomes more and more integral not only to Seymour-Hoffman's cause but to his life.   The Cause, which is definitely nothing like Scientology at all, is written off by some as a cult, while others dedicate their lives to furthering its teachings.  When Phoenix first comes across it, he, like the audience, is unsure how to respond.  As he becomes closer to its leader, he becomes closer to its philosophy and beliefs.

The tender, complex relationship that forms between the two men is the real heart of the film.  Others don't understand.  They try to publically disgrace The Cause or put a wrench between Phoenix and Seymour-Hoffman, but while it's obvious that the former truly needs the latter, the latter's need turns out to be just as strong. 

The performances are uniformly excellent, creating complete (if bizarre) three-dimensional characters whose motivations, passions, and concerns all build naturally.

The more that I write about this film, the more I process it; the more I process it, the more I like it.  I am not sure what to make of the film's ending--in fact, of its whole last half-hour or so--but it is definitely a film that leaves the theater with you.  I can't help but feel that a lot of this film wound up on the cutting room floor.  It's not just that the trailer publicizes scenes that don't exist; it's more that the story seems so rich but so incomplete.

Ultimately, The Master is a film you're sure to remember--though you may love it, hate it, or just question it.  The film is unlikely to work for everyone, but for some it will likely have a huge impact.  Just like The Cause.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Trouble with the Curve

Trouble with the Curve is a boring movie.  Its plot is predictable, its characters are unrealistic and annoying, and its writing is frustrating.  It's certainly not horrible; it just isn't good, either.

Featuring Clint Eastwood as Clint Eastwood,--er, Gus--an aging baseball scout losing his vision and Amy Adams as his tightly-wound lawyer daughter, Curve seems like a direct response to last year's Moneyball.  2011's Oscar nominated baseball draft movie documented Billy Beane's use of sabermetrics and statistical, computer-driven approach to drafting players.  In Curve, the "likeable" characters write off this style while its villains thrive with it.  The audience, then, is supposed to come away with the idea that good, old-fashioned scouting is superior, but it just comes off as "Old guys don't like new stuff."  Which, I suppose, could be Clint Eastwood's whole mantra, given his most recent films.

Curve's characters are broadly drawn, though the under-utilized cast does what it can with the writing.  Few characters, besides Gus and daughter Mickey, are given much by way of "shades of grey."  The villains have no redeeming qualities; the supporting heroes are perfect and polite and understanding of everything.

The estranged relationship between father and daughter is the real heart of the film, however, and the writing does at least give its protagonists flaws and room to grow.  The problem is, neither character starts the film as particularly likeable, and while each gets better by the end of the film, I couldn't quite bring myself to be cheering for either one. 

This sounds like an entirely negative review, which isn't strictly fair.  The predictability may be right up some viewers' alleys, and there is certainly an audience for Eastwood's gruff old man schtick; I'm just not really a part of it.  There are better baseball films out there.  There are better father-daughter stories out there.  But it all honesty, there are worse films of each, too.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Looper

Things have a way of coming full circle.

As Rian Johnson's new film, Looper, begins, his protagonist fills in the basics: time travel has not yet been invented--but in thirty years, it will have been.  It is highly illegal and used by only the most powerful mobs.  Tracking and identification has advanced to a point that disposing of a body is all but impossible, so when the mob needs someone gone, they send that someone back in time where he is killed by a specialized assassin, who then disposes of the body and the problem.  These assassins are called "Loopers," since signing on to the job comes with a caveat--the last person they'll be killing for the mob is themselves, closing their "loop."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, an assassin whose loop is about to close--until something goes wrong.  Now, Joe has to track down his future self, played by Bruce Willis, in order to save not only himself but the future that now may or may not come to pass.

With very little exposition, Johnson creates a very complete world, planting small seeds early that lead to big payoffs later.  He also has a knack for the visual; one early scene features very little actual violence, but rather plays of the implied violence in a fully disconcerting way.  It's a scene bound to stick with a viewer days after the film is over.

Featuring a strong supporting cast in Emily Blunt as a fierce mother who will do anything to protect her son, Jeff Daniels as the world-weary Looper boss the future mob sends back to oversee everything, and Johnson regular Noah Segan as a screw-up hired gun, Looper pulls a series of strong performances that give the movie its heart.  Good sci-fi isn't about aliens or time travel or bizarre scientific advances--it's about the human emotion behind those things.

Looper is up there with my favorite films of the year.  It's intelligent, clever, well-acted and well-made.  It builds on its "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" premise and explores answers that may not be so cool after all.  It's a 2012 must-see.

Friday, September 28, 2012

The Words

"Pretentious," in my book, is not necessarily a negative adjective.  Sure, it gets thrown about in a mostly perjorative sense, but I don't think that's quite fair.  Popular art requires a level of arrogance--after all, those people creating the art must believe their opinions, views, and stories are worth hearing.  Otherwise, the art would never be made, or at least never be brought before a larger audience.  The pretentiousness that can accompany that attitude shouldn't be held against it; it's a natural side effect.

The problem arises, of course, when the art produced doesn't come near to matching the level of pretention that comes with it.

Exhibit A: The Words.  The film takes a matryoshka approach to storytelling: a story within a story within a story, with characters at each level commenting on the beauty of the story inside it.  One author (Dennis Quaid) is reading his new publication to a roomful of adoring fans.  His story is about a struggling author (Bradley Cooper) who finds, and ultimately decides to pass off as his own, a beautiful story about another struggling writer (Jeremy Irons).  And so on and so forth.

The most useless of these is the outermost shell.  The movie would have done well to leave behind the Dennis Quaid/Olivia Wilde portion of the film altogether in favor of fleshing out the inner rings a bit more.

It also would have done well to remember the old adage "Show, don't tell."  Perhaps because The Words is a story about, well, words, the filmmakers thought it would be better to use flat language to get its meaning, depth, and theme across.  It was wrong.  Voiceovers are a crutch.  Using characters to praise a work rather than showing that work to the audience and letting that audience make up their own minds is a crutch.  Telling the audience, flat out, what to feel about a character is a crutch.

The Words had potential, but got so swept up in its own self-importance that it never bothered to check if it was actually good.

It wasn't.

Friday, September 14, 2012

ParaNorman

ParaNorman, a stop-motion film about a kid named Norman who just happens to have paranormal powers (punny!), starts out well.  Its protagonist is likeable, if lonely, and its setting is filled with just enough character and history that it intrigues and captures the viewer.  It has a great lesson and some important themes.

And then it took those things and wrung out every ounce of subtext so it could hit the audience over the head with them, over-explaining every step along the way.  ParaNorman has a lot of promise at the begining and all but squanders it by the end.

Its characters, Norman excepted, are all broadly drawn, and while this isn't a make-or-break quality in a children's film, it can be a problem for the adult members of the audience.  When characters are only given one or two traits, they're not very interesting to watch.  Any shading given to the non-protagonist characters is minimal at best, and while broad stereotypes can help to build humor, they don't do much to add depth or meaning to the story.

It's too bad, really.  I wanted to like ParaNorman, and I certainly wouldn't say I came out of the theater hating it.  Mostly I just felt disappointed.  The film put some clever twists on old horror film tropes and did a nice job with the character of Norman himself.  Its opening (especially the sequence with Norman walking to school) was very effective, not to mention attractive.  Some shots look like the real world while others use the stop-motion to beautiful effect.  This is especially true in the climactic showdown at the end of the film.

ParaNorman is a mediocre film that could have been much better, and there is little more frustrating for me to watch than ambition and potential thwarted by mediocrity.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Premium Rush

How do you solve a problem of a potentially unlikeable, abrasive protagonist?  Make sure his antagonist is the worst kind of person he could possibly be.  Throw in another large, shady, unbeatable power--say, the Chinese government--and a few slick chase scenes and you've got yourself a movie.

Premium Rush doesn't carry much weight, but then again, it doesn't really need to.  When adrenaline junkie bicycle messenger Wilee, played by one of my personal favorites, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, picks up a MacGuffin that absolutely must be across town by a certain time and delivered only to a certain person, he doesn't see it as anything out of the ordinary.  That is, until he's chased down by a complete lunatic, played gleefully by Michael Shannon, who demands the package back.

Couple this with an NYPD that is bumbling at best and outright hostile at worst, along with a cause so noble it's unimpeachable, and our intrepid daredevil of a protagonist is all set to go, gaining the audience's sympathy and support along the way.  

Michael Shannon's over-the-top villain may rub some viewers the wrong way, but I found him hysterical.  He stole every scene he was in, and you never knew what he was going to do next, which is refreshing in an essentially predictable film.  His performance lets the audience know they don't have to take the film too seriously.  The film even lampshades its light take on things by a including real, outtake-style video of the result of Joseph Gordon-Levitt's injury-inducing accident on set during the credits.

Chase movies, by their nature, don't need much by way of plot or character development, and Premium Rush is light on both.  There are no great, deep character insights or compelling, deep questions for the audience to consider, and there don't really need to be.  It's a light, fun, funny thriller that delivers what it promises.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Total Recall

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Total Recall was that it had so much potential.  A talented but underused cast.  A sleek design that blends into monotone rather than popping memorably.  A mind-bending premise that's all but forgotten (though vaguely hinted at) by the end of the film.

Say what you will about the Arnold Schwarzenegger original: at least it had an identity.  The Colin Farrell remake lacks that almost entirely.  It's a safe, if dull, PG-13 action flick.

I know there are critics who don't exactly find Colin Farrell to be the most compelling actor out there.  I urge those critics to see In Bruges.  Personally, I would have preferred to see all of Total Recall from the perspective of Farrell's character.  Every moment out of his viewpoint was a confirmation that the film's action wasn't all in its protagonist's head--the most potentially compelling plot point of the movie.  I am not a fan of "It was all a dream!" twists, but when "What is real?  What is reality?" is designed to be the primary theme in your film, it isn't a twist so much as an absolutely necessary component.

The film does its chase and fight scenes a PG-13 action flick type of justice.  There is plenty of shooting, plenty of adrenaline, plenty of "cool" shots at the expense of realism.  The somewhat-nonsensical elevator chase was still a fun one.  It was fun to see two absolutely capable female action stars duke it out, even if their clothes were just a bit tighter than they needed to be.

Overall, the film was a passable, if disappointing, summer popcorn flick.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

It's unusual to find a move that is most engaging in its middle, with the beginning and ending dragging, but that's exactly the case with The Bourne Legacy.  Its mid-film action sequences--especially the shoot-out in the house--are the best parts of the film.  The sequence in the lab was one I found incredibly difficult to watch.  Though this could be in part to the recent mass shootings that have been making the news, it is also a credit to the director that it was, frankly, so frightening.

If only the final sequence could have lived up to the house sequence.  I am generally not critical of shaky-cam style film making; at times I find it very engaging and unlike many people I know, I rarely find it distracting.  In The Bourne Legacy, it was distracting.  The chase sequence was very hard to follow because the camera and editing choices moved everything so quickly that it didn't allow the audience to register the action.  I don't mind chaos in editing, but only if it's done for a reason--if the lead character is so disoriented that he or she can't figure out what's going on, it's a feasible choice for the editing to enhance that and leave the audience wondering, too.  This, however, wasn't the case with Bourne.  Instead, it just left the film feeling messy.

I will say, however, that I liked the casting quite a bit.  I have always enjoyed Rachel Weisz's performances, and unlike some action heroines, she plays a very convincing genius scientist.  Jeremy Renner was engaging even in scenes with no dialogue and no other actors.  Edward Norton was perhaps underused but infused his character with enough empathy that the audience could understand his motivations and justifications, even if we could not agree with them.

I have come to hold the Bourne movies to the standard of the best sequence out of the four movies--the tense, extended sequence with the reporter in the train station in The Bourne Ultimatum.  Sadly, nothing in Legacy came close.  It's a film of missed potential, though a good enough action movie for a summer afternoon.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Beasts of the Southern Wild

"I've got it under control" insists Wink, one of the characters of Beasts of the Southern Wild.  The clearer it became that this wasn't true, the more fervent his insistence became.  He could take on anything.  He could protect his daughter.  He could stay in his home, no matter what.  When a problem presented itself, he could fix it and make everything go back to the way it was. 

Or, he couldn't.

Affected most by Wink's need for control, of course, is his daughter Hushpuppy, the film's protagonist.  Hushpuppy stays by her father through thick and thin, even when she's clearly not sure about it.   Quvenzhan√© Wallis plays Hushpuppy with such a fierce focus that you think that even as a six-year-old she can take on the world if she has to.  She's a truly engaging character, making sense of the world around her as best she can through the lenses given her by the adults in her life.

The film has an ugly/beautiful aesthetic, focusing on not only the mundane but on the grotesque: bloated, bug-eaten animal corpses, squalid living conditions, plugged-into-a-wall hospital patients.  The filming style is unflinching, from both visually and emotionally complicated and even horrid scenarios and scenes.  Even for an at times fantastical film, everything is presented in a very matter-of-fact, this is how it is way. 

I've read some criticism that says the film glorifies poverty or demonizes government or charity control of situations, but I don't see that.  If the film glorifies anything, it's family and those people who come together after a terrible situation, any terrible situation, and stick together through it all.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Ruby Sparks

An introverted, sensitive young man who desperately needs to break out of his shell.  A "perfect," artistic, free-spirited young woman.  He's never met anyone like her, but in no time at all she's changed his life forever.  Words like quirky and indie are thrown around to describe the story.  Foreign (or at least, independent) music overscores a fun, flirty montage or two. 

What movie am I describing?  Take your pick--there are several from even the last decade or so that would fit.  It's practically formulaic.

The problem with the formula, of course, is spelled out nicely and early by a supporting character in the new film Ruby Sparks: girls like this don't exist.  Stories like this aren't real.  No perfect, flawed, free spirit is going to jump into our protagonist author's life and rescue him from his ennui.

So he'll just have to create her.

Enter Ruby Sparks, a silly, quirky name for the "perfect girl" character.  She pops out of the head of its protagonist Calvin (played nicely by Paul Dano) and later literally out of the pages of his novel.  One obviously has to have a bit of a willing suspension of disbelief, but the film makes a smart choice in deciding not to explain or even really analyze its magic.  Calvin has somehow willed this girl into existence, and that's all there is to it.  His brother is naturally skeptical but it doesn't take long for him to accept the circumstances either.  This works much better than bogging down the film with reasons why.

Up until this point, this review likely seems like a negative one.  Unrealistic characters, cliched plotlines, and silly names.  It's a credit to writer Zoe Kazan, who also stars as Ruby, that the film not only overcomes these would-be shortcomings, it uses them to great effect.  I am always partial to stories that acknowledge their tropes and re-used ideas, and even more so to those that deconstruct them altogether.  It's part of why I enjoyed this year's Cabin in the Woods so much. 

While I'm not sure how I feel about the final scene of the film, the ride up to it was enjoyable.  There are a few scenes--and a few lines in particular--that have a way of sticking with you.  Perhaps I fit nicely into the target audience, but I recommend the film.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

I almost don't know where to begin with The Dark Knight Rises.  Like many, I was blown away by The Dark Knight and especially by Heath Ledger's performance in it.  Sure, after a while there were holes to poke in the script and supposed political messages to interpret (more on that later) but my initial reaction was so strong that those things didn't matter immediately.

I'm not sure that I felt the same way about The Dark Knight Rises.  Perhaps it was the impossibly high expectations the film was surrounded with.  Perhaps it was the terrible current events that accompanied the premiere.  Perhaps I was just being contrarian and stubborn.  I just didn't quite have the same sense of excitement and awe with this film as I did with its predecessor.

That said, there is a lot working in its favor.  Its casting, for one, was just about spot-on.  I enjoyed the performances of all the new characters, though I'll be honest--most came from actors whose previous work I already enjoyed immensely.    The new characters fit into Nolan's Gotham nicely, filling out an already strong cast.

With Batman Begins, I was so excited to have a "realistic" take on a superhero story I'd known for so long.  Years later, however, I realized that realistic isn't what I want out of my superhero stories.  I like the humor and the outlandishness.  I like the superpowered heroes accomplishing superhuman feats.  For this reason, I really liked this year's earlier The Avengers.  I realized that I'm not looking for "realism" or some swipe at it in these types of stories.

That was for the best with The Dark Knight Rises.  As I said above, I found myself looking for flaws--but most of those I found could be written off if I was no longer looking for a realistic movie.  I am somewhat disappointed in the repetition of the villain's motive (and a rather silly motive it is, to be honest) but at least his manner of accomplishing it was more interesting.

The film definitely surprised me; though some of the twists were easier to see coming, the larger machinations of the plot were a mystery to me and I enjoyed them as they came up.  I wish Catwoman was more than just a plot device (though I quite enjoyed Anne Hathaway in the role) and that a bit more time was spent on developing relationships in general (and, I'll admit, a little less on the rather graphic violence) but overall the movie was a strong one.  

I've read some theories that The Dark Knight was designed to be a justification of George W. Bush's actions during his presidency.  I don't know that I buy into this, though the parallels are certainly present.  The overt political angle is harder to deny in The Dark Knight Rises, however.  I don't know how much current politics consciously played into the scripting and filming of this movie, but it was certainly subconsciously present with the Occupy Gotham mantra of its villains. To be honest, this rather dampened my enjoyment of the film.  I don't think it made the film weaker, by any means--I just think that I personally was less able to enjoy it than I would have been without the politics present.

Like every movie, there is an audience to which it will not appeal and, believe it or not, this is perfectly alright.  I'm always amazed at the vitriol people can spread simply because someone disagrees with his or her opinion on an artistic venture, but perhaps that's a subject for another day.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Big Miracle

I missed this whale of a movie (har har) the first time around, but our local theater plays a cheap kids/family movie each week, and a few weeks ago they played Big Miracle.  My mom, who also missed the movie the first time around, had wanted to see it, so we made a mother daughter day out of the thing.

I admit, I had some trepidation about the movie.  This was, primarily, because Drew Barrymore's character seemed so grating in the trailers.  As it went, her character was certainly on the irritating side but at least did have more depth (and, for that matter, more purposeful flaws) than the trailers let on.

I don't have much to say about how the movie was filmed.  The direction was fairly standard.  The cinematography wasn't distracting, but it wasn't particularly memorable either.  What did surprise (and frankly, impress) me was the writing and characterization.  I found it frankly refreshing that each character acted for his or her own benefit or agenda, rather than on the behalf of the whales.  That may sound cynical, but it certainly gave the (based on a true story) film a more realistic feel.  By the end of the movie, even characters who had antagonized each other terribly became genuine, if temporary, allies--and that much, even the cynic in me let me buy.

Regardless, the decision to make sure each character had his or her own set of motivations--and each character used them to get his or her way--kept the story from spiraling into the sappy, feel-good whale movie of the year it could have been.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man

It's been some time since I've seen this movie and much of it has already slipped away from me.  I know I won't be the first to say the movie was unnecessary, and even its great cast did not make it rise above that level.  The film had significant pacing issues, though I'll admit it's hard to find a superhero origin story film that doesn't.  That's one thing that made The Avengers click so nicely--we already knew most of the characters and where they came from.  The previous Avengers series films weren't required viewing in order to understand the film, but they did enhance the experience.

Spider-Man did not have that advantage, though it's been only ten years since that origin was told the last time.  I suppose nearly the same could be said of Christopher Nolan's Batman series, but at least his films had something new to say about the iconic superhero.  The Amazing Spider-Man feels like ground retrod with new actors and not much more.

Don't get me wrong, though, I liked those new actors.  Emma Stone has blossomed into one of my favorite young actresses in the last few years and Andrew Garfield is always likeable.  Other old standbys like Martin Sheen, Sally Field, and Rhys Ifans gave enjoyable, emotional performances as well.  The problem is, a good cast can only elevate a mediocre script so much--they did what they could, but what they could didn't end up being that much.  The Perfect Girlfriend was given no character development.  The Tortured Scientist walked predictable, well-worn ground.  The Police Chief went through the same old steps. 

I didn't really read comic books when I was a kid, but I did watch a lot of superhero cartoons.  I loved the X-Men, but when it came down to an individual hero, Spider-man was always my favorite.  He had really cool powers, but he was still very human.  I loved him for the same reason most kids loved him.  We weren't billionaires with a chip on our shoulders and an endless supply of toys.  We weren't near-invincible aliens who could do anything and everything.  We were kids who were out to have some fun in the world, and even if serious things came along with superpowers, we would have fun with them.  Sure, we'd do good things and save people, but we'd enjoy it, like Spider-man enjoyed it.

I'm sure this film will get its cast a sequel, and I don't mind that.  I really enjoyed this Spider-Man's new fighting/webbing/moving style and the sarcastic undercurrent to his snappy remarks.  I like Andrew Garfield in the role quite a bit.  I'm sure there is more to explore in his story, and I just hope they find a way to do it that doesn't feel so familiar.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Magic Mike

Early in the screening of Magic Mike that I attended a few weeks ago, I jokingly thought to myself "Well, now I finally understand the appeal of Channing Tatum."  It was, of course, during one of his on-stage performances--and it was, I'll have to admit, an impressive one.  Even to take the striptease aspect out of it, he is undoubtedly a talented dancer.

It was later in the film during a normal, non-stripping scene, that I realized I finally did understand the appeal.  His Mike was a personable, likeable, and above all real character whose arc was truly the heart of the film.   He is magnetic and elevates the performances of those around him.  He is finally someone that I "get" as an actor.  In fact, my highest praise for this film goes directly to Channing Tatum.

As one character's star rose and the other fell, I had to ask myself--which one was which?  The movie, taking place over the course of a summer, begins with one character's introduction to the world of male stripping and follows his rise in the business.  It has its nice parallel and bookends in a foil storyline.

In fact, that the film had such memorable characters and a notable storyline at all comes as something of a surprise.  Yes, the film is directed by Steven Soderbergh, who once again deconstructs and analyzes an interesting if somewhat illicit or underground business and the systems that make it work. 

I do wish some of the secondary characters had been more fleshed out.  That is a regrettable pun, granted, but an appropriate one.  Only two of the performers, along with their boss, really had any depth as characters.  Mike's girlfriend (or not?) could also have used some characterization; it would have given her ultimate storyline more depth and meaning.

As it was, it was a nicely-directed film with real characterization and depth and everything.  It was an interesting look at the job market and options in a down economy, too, but that is perhaps another discussion.  Overall, I recommend the film regardless of one's orientation or gender, though I'll certainly say that if one is uncomfortable with the very visible male form, one would probably do better to look elsewhere.  There is, undoubtedly, plenty of that.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Brave

Brave, Pixar's first female-focused film, feels sadly slight.  It's a nice, if simple, story of mother-daughter bonding filled with just enough danger and action and humor to keep its younger audiences engaged.  It features a few touching moments and, as always, Pixar really knows how to pull at heartstrings.  The stakes are high for the characters involved, but as a whole the film feels small and underdeveloped.  Compared to the father-son story of Finding Nemo, Brave just feels a bit empty.

That said, I'm glad I saw it, and I'm glad I saw it alongside my mother. 

The animation is simply gorgeous.  Every strand of protagonist Merida's hair moves on its own, creating a wild and effective look for the spirited girl.  The wisps who lead her to her fate dance about and the bears cut impressively scary figures.  Perhaps the prettiest scene in the whole film comes when Merida shoots at the archery contest.  The exquisite details in the arrow, the bow, even Merida's fingertips were a marvel to watch.

In fact, Merida herself is a winning protagonist--entirely recognizable as a clever, well-meaning but frustrated teenager in the middle of a spat with her mother.  The bond between the two characters is fantastic, giving the term "mother bear" a new meaning.  Merida's relationship with her father is a nice one as well, given the way they joke around with each other and the way he hesitates to give her boundaries or rules.  Naturally Mum comes off looking as the bad guy to Merida, though the audience knows she means well.  Merida's relationship with her little brothers is defined in a fun way as well, though they never speak a word through the whole movie.

It's really too bad the film doesn't live up to its Pixar predecessors.  Merida et al deserve more.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Prometheus

Going into the film Prometheus, I remembered a few things about the titular titan.  One, he gave fire to man at great cost to himself, getting himself chained to a rock and sentenced to an eagle-eaten liver a day.  I knew he had something to do with Pandora's story, though I couldn't remember exactly what it was.  I missed, of course, the biggest and most relevant part of his myth: he created man out of clay.  That was a pretty major one to miss, given the premise of the film.

Man's search for his creator is a common theme throughout history, though it's rarely as overt in modern stories as it is in Prometheus.  My favorite moment in the entire film came between a drunk, disappointed scientist and an android:

"We made you because we could."

"Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your Creator?"

The problem, for me, was that the rest of the film did not keep up with the standard set in that small exchange.  There were some interesting questions posed and some frightening moments and imagery (more on that later) but overall I felt rather disappointed by the film.

I am by no means an expert on the Alien movies.  I've seen the first and a good part of the second (though I don't think I've ever seen the whole thing), but if I've seen even a frame of Alien III or Alien: Resurrection (or Alien vs. Predator, for that matter) none of it has stuck with me.  As such, I can't really speak to this film as a prequel of sorts to those movies.

What I can do, however, is lament that every "twist" was telegraphed well in advance; there were no true surprises in store.  I know that a good storyteller needs to leave clues so an ending doesn't smack the audience as random or unearned, but those clues could do to be more subtle than the ones in Prometheus.

The film also fell into a trap that has always bothered me.  That is, when a character is revealed to have more sinister motives than previously expected and suddenly the way he acts around others is changed.  Prometheus is far more subtle than, say, the villain's sudden German accent after he's outed as a Nazi in The Rocketeer, but the shift was certainly present and it just didn't sit well with me.

Now, on to the scary moments and imagery I mentioned earlier.  The first Alien used a lot of rape and birth imagery to horrify its audiences, even if those audiences weren't quite aware of it as it was happening.  Prometheus follows that trend in no uncertain terms; in fact, one of the most unsettling (and effective) sequences in the entire film dealt with the latter in a fairly literal way.  It builds into the theme of the film quite well, really.  In Greek mythology, the new generation of deities always defeated and surpassed their parents.

As I write this, I think I'm talking myself into liking it more than I had originally done.  My initial criticisms still stand but I do have to give the film credit at least for the ideas it presents, even if it doesn't support them as well as I'd like.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

I don't know the last time I heard so many characters monologuing in such a short period of time.  I understand that exposition and backstory aren't the easiest thing to bring across on screen, but it seems like nearly every character got a chance to tell the important and relevant parts of their life to at least one other character with very little prompting and no hesitation.  "Show, don't tell" had very little place in this film.

The movie was longer than it needed to be, certainly, and rather on the predictable side.  Of course one of the characters was going to die--even the suddenly-all-knowing narration called it inevitable.  Of course that couple was going to get together.  Of course they all (or most) were going to decide to stay in the still open and triumphant hotel. 

I found the acting mostly charming and the characters mostly likeable, save for one completely thankless role.  The scenery was pretty, the imagery was obvious, the writing was somewhat lifeless.  Really, it's thanks to the actors that the film had what likeable moments it did have.  It meandered nearly as much as this blog post.

I can see this film appealing to a certain audience; there are not many films made directly for the retirement set and that's too bad, really.  What else is too bad is that this movie brought together such a fantastic cast and a cute name and premise and wound up being only mediocre.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Avengers

As we were leaving The Avengers--my second viewing in less than a week--my sister asked me a movie-related question.  I always love those.  She asked me which movie I thought was better--not which I liked more, not which I found more entertaining, which movie was better--The Avengers or The Hunger Games.  I answered the former with no hesitation whatsoever.

Don't get me wrong; I enjoyed The Hunger Games.  I thought it was a solid adaptation of an enjoyable, memorable book.  The Avengers eclipses it, though, in several ways, but the one that sticks out to me the most is its character beats.  The movie gives each of its characters a chance to breath, to grow, to respond--and I loved all of them.  I loved Phil Coulson and Pepper Potts as friends, even as Tony doesn't know his first name.  I love Steve Rogers always calling Maria and Natasha "ma'am" and the fact that he's religious.  I love Bruce Banner's insistence on calling The Hulk "The other guy," and his reactions to everyone's reactions to him.  I love Coulson as a Captain America fanboy.  I love Loki's moments of doubt, even fear.  I love Thor's faux-Shakespearean dialogue.  I love Tony Stark's sass.  I love everything about Black Widow and Hawkeye's relationship--their shared history, their comfort with each other, their teaming up.  This last set is probably my favorite small touch of the movie.  Putting these two, who frankly seem rather outranked by the rest of the Avengers, together and making them both SHIELD Agents first and Avengers almost by accident was a great stroke.  It incorporated both characters smoothly and effectively--not easy when one of them is an archer, for crying out loud.

Honestly, there was no part of this movie I didn't enjoy.  I thought the casting was fantastic (though I did feel that Robin Sparkles--er, Cobie Smulders's role was rather thankless).  I especially liked Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner. 

This is, frankly, an ideal summer movie.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Cabin In The Woods

One, I'll start out saying this is one of the best horror movies I've seen in years.  Two, I'll add that the less you know about it going in, the better.  Three, I'll temper that just a bit by saying that if you're expecting a typical slasher film, you might end up disappointed, and we wouldn't want that.

I won't spoil anything serious here, but I still have to say that I recommend against reading further if you haven't seen the movie and plan to.

As the crowd were leaving the theater--and the crowd was definitely sizable--we heard one man laugh sadly, saying this was the worst movie he'd ever paid money to see in theaters.  I didn't say anything to him, but had to laugh because the words about to come out of my own mouth were "That may be the best horror movie I've ever seen."  I'm not sure what caused disappointed patron to hate the movie so much.  Perhaps it defied his expectations.  Perhaps he was looking more for straight horror than horror-comedy.  Perhaps it got too weird for him.  Whatever it was, I'm both sorry and flabbergasted that he had such a bad experience.  I mean, the movie isn't for everyone--what movie is?--but to say it's the worst he's seen in theaters?  What could possibly have set him off like that?

I digress.  Unfortunately, unless I address some elements of the film head-on, it's rather hard not to digress.  I suppose I'll just have to touch lightly.  I love when genre films acknowledge the tropes and archetypes that form them.  I love even more when those tropes and archetypes are subverted.  Though I'm not a horror fan, this movie could have been made just for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed it and I recommend it especially to fans of horror, but also to fans of movies in general.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Mirror Mirror

I saw Mirror Mirror nearly a week ago, and the fact that it's taken me this long to say anything about it probably says quite a bit about the movie.  It was exactly what it looked like it would be in the previews--silly, fluffy, harmless.  The costumes were colorful and bizarre.  The performances were lighthearted and amiable.  The story was straightforward and low-stakes.   Really, I'm not sure there's much more to be said about Mirror Mirror. 

At some point before seeing the film, I remember learning that it was directed by Tarsem (or Tarsem Singh, depending where in the credits one looks), the mind behind one of the most fascinating moves I've seen in the last year, The Fall.  There are plenty of criticisms one can lob against The Fall, but one thing it can't be accused of is being generic.  For what it's worth, I liked the film quite a bit.

So when Tarsem's name came up in the credits, I realized I'd forgotten his role in the film altogether--and then immediately found myself unsurprised to see it there.  The film did have a certain visual flair.  However, I found myself more reminded of the decade-old miniseries The Tenth Kingdom than The Fall.  Granted, a lot of that came from the puppy-tinged relationship between the Prince and the Evil Queen.

One positive I will offer is this: I liked that many of the seven dwarves were established beyond just one character trait (Sleepy, Grumpy, etc.)  Granted, they weren't that much more defined, but any time you have that many characters sharing all their camera time it's hard to establish complete personalities.  They were even given a backstory, and an explanation for why they all came together.  It was a refreshing touch.

Overall, I'd rate the movie as harmless and fluffy.  I laughed a few times and promptly forgot about it.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games

Well, the first Movie Event of the year was The Hunger Games, and good for it.  I did the whole thing--bought advance tickets, got to the theater an hour early to wait in line, cried a bit.  Overall, I thought the movie was a fully faithful to the book and contained stirring, engaging performances.

The first thing I noticed as I waited in line was the span of ages.  Sure, roughly half of the audience was under the age of fourteen--and that's fine.  After all, the novel IS a young adult book.  Still, there were older couples, older teens, twenty somethings without kids--it was all in all a pretty diverse audience, age-wise.  The next thing I noticed was that even among the younger audiences, girls only outnumbered boys by a little.  To me, that's just fantastic.  The Hunger Games may not be for everyone but at least we don't have to hear complaints that it's just for girls.  A strong female protagonist naturally engages more girls than boys, while a strong male protagonist is more likely to appeal to both.  Maybe The Hunger Games is showing a turn of the tide.

On the other hand, maybe I'm giving it too much credit.  Perhaps we'll see.

As far as the film itself goes, what is there to say that hasn't been said already?  Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic.  The Capitol was callous and gorgeous.  I really enjoyed the added scenes--the small snippets we didn't get in the book.  Of all characters, Seneca Crane probably benefited the most by these additions.  President Snow will get his chance in future movies, as will Haymitch.  But between scenes with these two characters and the Gamemaking room, Seneca (and his beard) really comes into his own in a way he didn't in the books.  I also liked the addition of the District 11 scene.  Having the book from Katniss's perspective made the action more immediate, but the movie had a little room to breathe and took advantage of it.

As I said, there's little to more I can add to the discussion of The Hunger Games--so much has already been written.  But I must say, I'm on a winning streak for movies this year.  Even those which I liked a little less than others were still not bad.  Here's hoping it continues.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Coriolanus

Shakespeare is meant to be seen, not read.  This was more clear than ever to me with Coriolanus.  While I like to say I understand Shakespeare well when I read it, the action and visual with it just makes it so much better, so much clearer.

Overall, I recommend this movie.  There are moments about which I am unsure but as a whole, it's a compelling and pointedly well-acted movie.  I was universally impressed by the performances, with Vanessa Redgrave's standing out even above the rest.

I'm not familiar with the original play, beyond a few lines here and there, but still found the plot and motivations easy to follow.  If you are the kind of viewer who requires a purely good, easy to cheer for character, this may not be the film for you.  While every character had a logical motivation, it was hard to wish for one to succeed over the others.

The citizens of Rome are certainly not shown in a great light, but then, neither are the soldiers.  Every character wants what is best for him or herself under the guise of what is best for everyone--but not one character (save perhaps Brian Cox's Menenius) is able to consider what is truly best for all.  The citizens, demanding their share, cannot accept a leader who does not respect their needs.  Coriolanus thought the citizens well below him, which is not exactly an admirable trait in a leader.

This story is rich with political intrigue and questionable themes, but even then I can see why it's not one of Shakespeare's more well-known stories.  Some of its characters are rather shallowly drawn and not a single one is purely likeable.

I must question one decision.  Without spoiling a 400+ year-old story, I have to say that the last shot (not the last scene, but the final shot itself) was an odd choice.  The end was clear in the second-to-last shot, which was framed much more memorably and beautifully than the last.  And perhaps the choice to end with an awkward shot was meant to have a deeper meaning, but I still have to question it.  The pentultimate shot was, in my opinion, a much better ending.

Still, Fiennes' modern twist to an old Roman story grounds it in an interesting way, and as I said the performances are universally riveting.  It's not a movie for everyone, but it's certainly one that's well done.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Artist

This year's Best Picture winner was the silent film The Artist.  I haven't seen enough of the nominees this year to make a decision over whether or not it was the right choice, but I enjoyed it quite a bit.  It was clever and "artsy" without being too out of reach.  I can see why it will never be a blockbuster hit, and that's alright.  Not every movie should be a blockbuster.  How dull would that be?

My favorite parts where those where the film almost became self-aware; George's dreams about suddenly getting caught in a "talkie" and his fixation on the cop's moving lips come to mind.  I suppose "meta" could be the right term here.

I can't say the film was subtle, exactly--then again, what silent film is?  The opening lines of the movie included its silent star proclaiming that he'll never talk--words that become more and more significant as the film goes on.  He and his wife can't ever communicate.  His strongest relationship is with his dog, and even that never requires speaking.  His film audience loves him, and he never says a word to them.  Even the film posters ("The Thief of his Heart" and "Guardian Angel," for example) reflected what was going on on screen.  While the film never quite spells out the subtext, the subtext resonates pretty strongly throughout.

 Still, I recommend the film.  It was emotional and evocative, artistic without being overbearing, and featured a very strong lead performance from its Best Actor Jean Dujardin.  Thumbs up.

Chronicle

I saw this movie nearly a month ago, and it has taken me this long to write about it.  I actually enjoyed almost all of it.  I think that the end was a little too big, but I loved many elements of it.

First, I really enjoyed that it seemed like exactly what seventeen-year-old boys would do if they suddenly found themselves with superpowers.  They push themselves, they have fun, they don't bother to try too hard to figure out what was causing it. 

In every scene, the stakes rose higher and higher, so I suppose the ending was really inevitable.  I just found it...overblown, perhaps.  The only real issues I remember having, both in watching the movie and in thinking about it later, occurred within the last half-hour of the movie.  I don't wish to go into too much depth for the sake of anyone who hasn't seen the movie yet, but while the narrative doesn't fall apart, its tonal shifts are pretty serious.

On a more positive note, I really enjoyed the found-footage aspect of the film.  For one thing, it mostly made sense (though the addition of the video-blogger girl seems pretty forced).  For another, it allowed for some truly gorgeous camera angles, which is generally unusual in this style of filmmaking.  The floating camera work was intriguing and engaging and really well-rendered. 

Overall, I recommend the film.  I enjoyed it well enough to overcome the problems I have with it.  I found the performances engaging and the special effects enjoyable without being overwhelming.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Woman In Black

The other day, I went to see the Victorian horror flick "The Woman In Black."  While it was an effectively creepy story and setting, I found myself feeling ... underwhelmed.  I'm not sure what I was expecting--and I'm not sure why I was expecting anything more than a creepy, jump-filled haunted house story.  I certainly jumped plenty of times, whisper-hissing "shut up!" to my sister each time she laughed at me.  I lost count of how many times faces (or other startling images) appeared in previously empty spaces.  Still, those jumps didn't end up adding up to much.

I do think Daniel Radcliffe acquitted himself quite nicely.  His character's motivations were always clear and relatable, he interacted well with everyone with whom he shared the screen, and his scenes of growing fear and tension worked really, really well.  I admit, I was not all that impressed with his early career but I think he's grown a lot, and I wish him well.  I hope he's able to distinguish himself from Harry Potter.  This film is a good step.

Despite the strength of its lead's performance, however, the film was really quite slight.  The film began to explore some interesting ideas--particularly in its dealings with Mr. Daily, Mrs. Daily, and Arthur and how they each dealt with their grief in personal, tragic ways.  Mr. Daily rejecting the supernatural outright, insisting later that it helped him to believe his son was happy and safe in heaven.  Mrs. Daily clinging to her "twins," the tiny puppies she so clearly took in as surrogate children.  Arthur's growing interest in spiritualism and the occult as a way to stay connected to his late wife.  Each of these could have helped build more weight into the film, but each was only touched on.

Despite its lean middle, I was satisfied with the ending of the film.  It seemed to fit with what we know of all the characters.  I'm not one to spoil, but an ending that leaves a few questions unanswered is rarely a bad thing, especially in a horror movie.


As is my way, I spent part of the evening after watching the movie researching it.  I knew that it was based on a novel and that that novel had also been adapted to a play.  I discovered the differences between the movie and the book, especially in the way each ended, but haven't decided which I find more effective.  I read about the stage play--a two-man show with a minimalist set seemed to match the slight feel of the story, and everything I've read about the staging sounds delightfully creepy.

All in all, The Woman in Black left me with a few thoughts, but none greater than this: I would love to see (or even stage) that play.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Sherlock, "The Reichenbach Fall" (Series 2, Episode 3)

"I think that I may go so far as to say, Watson, that I have not lived wholly in vain," he remarked. "If my record were closed to-night I could still survey it with equanimity. The air of London is the sweeter for my presence."  (The Final Problem)

And so we close out the second series of Sherlock.  Sherlock's humanization has paid off in full, and he expresses it in the only way he truly knows how.  Clues and foreshadowing from all the way back to the pilot episode come crashing back to haunt our protagonist.  Already strained and troubled relationships grow even more complex.

Of course, I have a few questions, but the biggest one is this:  how on earth do you fake that?

As soon as the episode's title was released, it was clear where this was going.  Moriarty and Holmes would have a great fall and be presumed dead.  Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's neat way of tying up a series he had tired of writing long before.  Sherlock Holmes was too perfect, too popular, too well-loved--and ultimately, too boring to continue writing.  Why not kill him off, at that point?

Sherlock's writers took an interesting turn in that light.  He was too cold, too perfect, too popular--so they spent the series humanizing him.  First, he was outsmarted.  Next, he seemed to fall in love, or at least in what could vaguely be considered love.  In "Hounds" he experienced fear and worse than that, doubt.  And finally, make even the characters themselves turn on him--a spectre that has been hanging over the series since it began.  It's only when he's about to lose everything that Sherlock finally realizes he has no other choice: he would rather lose himself.

Unlike Doyle, who sent Holmes out in the most noble and honorable way he could--after all, what could be more noble than sacrificing yourself to take out a terrible villain who had terrorized people for years--Sherlock was deemed a fraud, his suicide a sign of his shame.  There is no doubt he made a terrible sacrifice; he lost not only his life but his life's work.  What's worse, no one could know why he'd done it.  He had to lie even to John in their final moments together and no one was left to tell the real story.

After all, there was no great villain left to take out.  I must admit, Moriarty's suicide shocked me, though it made a great deal of sense.  The man was a genius, but an unstable psychotic as well; he would do really anything to see his plan come to fruition.

And what a plan it was.  Without Sherlock's drug addiction serving as his kryptonite, his pride and yearning for cleverness was a nice surrogate.  I did find the idea of a code that could unlock any door outlandish, but certainly no more so than CIA-created fear gas.  I was in the same boat as Sherlock, and was just as fooled as he.  I kept waiting for him to gain the upper hand in the rooftop scene.  For him to outsmart Moriarty somehow, or have known something all along as he did with Irene Adler.  But no, there was no recoil, no recovery.  Even in his laughing moments, the victory was such a temporary one.  His intellect truly played against him for probably the first time in his life and did he ever pay for it.

Of course, maybe he did have the upper hand.  After all, he did appear not far from his own gravestone, leading up to a million "How did he do that?"s.  Perhaps our earlier emotional payoff with Molly was Sherlock finally using his friend in the mortuary to an even more distinct advantage.  Perhaps he'd planned the bicyclist's crash with John so the doctor could never get a clear enough view of his dead friend.  Perhaps Moriarty had found a way to disguise himself as Sherlock--remember the kidnapped girl's screams?  Perhaps Sherlock used that trick to his advantage somehow.

And perhaps it's none of these things at all.  I certainly never expected the tense standoff of "The Great Game" to end with Moriarty's awkward ringtone and his threats against Irene Adler.  Perhaps our payoff will come in a way we can never expect.  Let's all brace ourselves for 2014 when we find out.

Before I close, I want to take some time to praise the performances of Sherlock.  I read a few comments and reviews after the "Baskerville" episode complaining of the overacting on both Benedict Cumberbatch and Russel Tovey's parts, and I can see where both those criticisms come from.  For me, one needs to overplay a bit to really sell hysteria and paranoia, and the fact that both were balanced by Martin Freeman's underplay and restraint meant I had no problem with these performances at all.  In fact, I rather liked them, silly paranoia gas twist be damned.

This week, however, I don't see where any criticism could be lobbied at any of the actors.  They were uniformly excellent.  Even right in the opening scene, Martin Freeman captured the feelings of grief and loss and helplessness so perfectly that it would seem the episode could have nowhere to go but down.  Benedict Cumberbatch was (as always) in top form as he hid his sadness under a mask of urgency and intellect.  Their final scene together on the phone was really just brilliant, and heartbreaking.  And Andrew Scott, who some see as a weak link in the cast, truly showed his range when contrasting the psychotic Moriarty with the scared and intimidated Richard Brooks.  His performance as the latter was so convincing that I nearly believed him, if only for a split second.

I will have to rewatch the series as a whole again, now that all are available.  I'm sure I'll pick up themes and references I hadn't before, and I'll likely have a better sense of each episode's strengths and weaknesses.  Even before then, however, I must say I really hope we don't have to wait as long for Series 3 as we did for Series 2.  I don't know if I could take it.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Sherlock, "The Hounds of Baskerville" (Series 2, Episode 2)

"As you value your life or your reason keep away from the moor."  The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Another week, another episode of Sherlock based on a classic, well-read story.  As with all Sherlock episodes, the story took its foundations from the original Doyle and not only modernized but expanded it.

Guest star Russell Tovey's Ears played Henry Knight, the client of the week.  At first he comes across as paranoid and borderline terrified, trying to keep everything together while slowly unraveling--sounds about right for a man terrified by a giant, genetically-enhanced monster.

Russell Tovey's Ears was very well-cast, playing the part of a man slowly losing his mind without ever overplaying the role.  He was fully believable in a role that couldn't have been easy.

My favorite scenes, however, were Sherlock's.  His drug addiction is getting more explicit; as I said with "Belgravia," it's always been touched but never fully explained.  Now, he's even making references to a solution that's "seven percent stronger."  I wonder if they'll ever call it cocaine by name or continue to dance around the edges; it's always been my impression that Doyle gave Holmes a narcotic addiction to help keep him balanced but also to give him a weakness, and a reason to need and rely on a doctor friend.  This series does a good job of showing just why Sherlock does need Watson--and it's more than just drugs--but that added subtext helps flesh everything out even more.  After Sherlock's desperate search for the unnamed substance, there is an implication that all he was looking for was cigarettes, but given his manic desperation I think we all have to know that it's more than just that.

However, maybe Sherlock is trying to avoid some controversy by not naming anything explicitly.  The show certainly wasn't shy about its pre-watershed nudity last week, but perhaps that added to a drug-addicted protagonist might be just a little too much.  I'm not sure; I don't know what all expectations exist in the United Kingdom's television rules.

I've digressed; Sherlock's withdrawl--both from casework and from chemicals--only took the opening of the episode.  One keyword and he's off his need for a cigarette and calmed down quite considerably.

Until, of course, his experiences on the moor.  Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are extraordinarily well-cast, and the scene near the fire after the Hound incident is a perfect demonstration of why.  Even at his most manic, Cumberbatch exudes a desperate control over his portrayal; every tic and mannerism is perfect, both alienating and drawing in the audience at the same time.  Freeman, ever the straight man, allows just the right amount of hurt and bitterness to show through without overwhelming us with self-pity or discontent.  The chemistry between these actors is truly what makes the show, even with potentially silly plot-twists like a Scarecrow-esque villain using chemical warfare to create fearful delusions.

This revelation, played straight and with the highest stakes, almost bordered on silly.  However, given the clear paranoia we've seen creep into (and totally overtake) Knight's life, it's utterly believable that he wouldn't be able to take it anymore and given the fact that not all Sherlock guest stars make it through everything alright, the threat was very real.  Tovey's performance was engaging and completely believable; despite a possibly silly premise, it was not at all silly to believe that Knight would be driven to such desperation.

There is more to say about this episode, but I'll wrap up where it did, with another unexpected ending.  This one, however, was far more effective--if more confusing.  It certainly sets up for a doozy next week, with Moriarty returning in a big way--and just in time for the Reichenbach Fall.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Having never read the le Carr√© source novel or seen the BBC miniseries from the 1970s, I didn't know the story or what to expect.  I suppose I'm shocked neither by the critical acclaim it's been getting nor the negative reactions I've seen, especially from those who seem to have a different set of expectations for the movie.  It's not a film for everyone, and that's alright.  I wouldn't go so far as to use the word "convoluted," but it is undeniably dense, which at times works to its detriment.

I liked the film, overall.  I found the performances uniformly stellar and the direction tight and, at times, alienating.  I do not mean this as a criticism; rather, I think the style just reinforced how secret and secluded the lives of spies have to be.  We only got small windows into the lives of these characters--and sometimes, no window at all--keeping the story focused on their work, by turns both dry and dangerous.  It's a good way to keep a story focused; unfortunately, it keeps the characters from being well-developed.  I spent much of the film reminding myself which character was which, which names went where, and why this was all significant. 

I also felt that one of the prime suspects was underdeveloped, to the point where we knew it couldn't have been him simply because the impact would've provided no punch.   I do not believe that everything needs to be spelled out for an audience; in fact, I prefer when it isn't.  However, I do think there needs to be enough provided that we can not only tell characters apart but consider each a reasonable suspect, when it comes to mystery stories like this.

I feel like I've got more to say about this, but it's after one in the morning and it's escaping me just now.  I may come back and add to this later.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Sherlock, "A Scandal in Belgravia" (Series 2, Episode 1)

"To Sherlock Holmes, she is always the woman."  (A Scandal in Bohemia)

I haven't read every Sherlock Holmes story, and I've certainly not seen every iteration of the famous detective ever made.  I do think it's interesting, however, that so many filmed versions focus on recurring characters that don't have as much of a role in the original stories.  Moriarty isn't nearly the player most seem to think; if anything, he's actually a rather weak nemesis.  Irene Adler, to my memory, only actually appears in one story.

While "A Scandal in Bohemia" is surely a classic, and shows one of the few times that Sherlock Holmes is outsmarted by anyone, it doesn't do much with Irene beyond making her clever, and sentimental.  Updating her to a gay (?) dominatrix works with some of the original intent--Sherlock does take the foundational story of "Bohemia" as inspiration while expanding it significantly--but I'm not sure I ever read Irene as the arrogant woman portrayed this week.

I don't have a problem with this, though.  Overall, I think this was a very strong episode.  It didn't meet the same tension and shock that "The Great Game" provided, but it didn't always need to.  I enjoyed the Coventry twist and Mycroft's decisions to protect his brother.  I enjoyed seeing Sherlock thrown off his game, becoming even more inscrutable.  I loved Sherlock and John's dedication to Mrs. Hudson--even when, in Sherlock's case, he didn't demonstrate it the way "normal" people would.

I do find it fascinating that so many people are drawn to a man who seems, on the surface, to take no interest in individual people.  John, Mycroft, Lestrade, Molly (poor Molly), and Mrs Hudson all show the utmost dedication and loyalty to a man who, if they didn't know him any better, wouldn't ever seem to repay in kind.  Even Irene Adler, a self-proclaimed lesbian and dedicated con-woman, falls for him.

It isn't often that Sherlock seems human at all, but this episode builds on the end of "The Great Game" in a subtle but engaging way.  Moriarty's first exit from the pool at the end of that episode gave us a chance to view Sherlock Holmes as human, if only for a moment.  All the tension slowly leaks away as Sherlock gets the bomb off of Watson, then prattles on -- and who would ever expect Sherlock Holmes to prattle? -- about John's actions and how they were "good."  He was at a loss for words, a highly unusual state for a man who would "outlive God trying to have the last word."  Sherlock, for once, is not infallible.  Beyond that, he shows in his own way that he truly cares for John.

Moments like these are rare, and subtle, but absolutely worthwhile and well done.  Consider Sherlock's apology to Molly, the way he scolds Mycroft for telling off Mrs Hudson, the slump he seems to fall into over Irene's apparent death.  It is for moments like this that Sherlock's friends put up with his idiosyncrasies and rudeness.  It is for moments like this that the audience of the show can find a human moment beneath all the cleverness and wit.

If I had only one criticism of this episode, it would be the fact that some moments are over-explained.  Sherlock is frequently subtle; it would take a Doyle expert to pick up every small in-joke and canon reference.  Even the protagonist's drug addiction is only hinted at; a "danger night" after losing Irene was still only briefly touched.  However, there were a few moments that lost that subtle edge.  I'm thinking of Irene's explanation of the combination after we'd already seen Sherlock put in the numbers (32, 24, 34) and of course, the final scene.  I take the greatest issue with the latter.  Any show does its best by leaving the audience wanting more--and a little mystery certainly never hurt a mystery show.


ETA:  There are a few other thoughts I've had about this episode, but one I feel I need to mention right away is Mycroft's assistant Altheia (though I believe this is not her real name) and her apparent involvement with Irene.   Is this a personal connection--does Irene simply know what Althea likes?  Is she compromised altogether?  If she's working with Irene, does this mean she could be working with Moriarty as well?  What does Mycroft know of all this?