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


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.