Monday, December 31, 2012

Double Oh... 2: From Russia With Love

[Over the next few weeks I'll be jotting down some thoughts on Bond, James Bond as I run through the series in order, barring the campy 60's version of Casino Royale.  I haven't decided yet whether the Thunderball reprise, Never Say Never Again, will make it in. ]


From Russia With Love Preamble: As with all the Connery films, I haven't seen From Russia... before.  Compared to Dr. No, which features many iconic scenes and introduces many Bondian elements, From Russia... seems a lot less prominent in the Bond lore and pop culture at large.

Villain(s): Carrying over from Dr. No, S.P.E.C.T.R.E. rears its head again, this time "S.P.E.C.T.R.E. Island" the headquarters and training grounds for the nefarious organizations' agents (The training camp is delightfully ridiculous, but the weak are weeded out apparently by training with live ammunition.)
We're introduced to Blofeld for the first time (as "Number 1") and he has a great introduction as he ponders his Siamese fighting fish in a non-SPCA approved sequence.  Blofeld is only shown from behind his chair, so mostly he's just arms, within which his trademark Persian cat sits (and I fully get the Inspector Gadget/Dr. Claw reference now).  He serves a minor purpose here (to show that Bond's not anywhere near dealing with the top) but an effective intro.
Kronsteen is a chess master who S.P.E.C.T.R.E. pulls into to orchestrate a plan to obtain the Maguffin.  Kronsteen may be a tactical wizard but you can't manipulating chess pieces isn't the same as manipulating individuals with free will.  His failure is no surprise.
Klebb is a stern Russian defect, integral to Kronsteen's plans.  She's a patented Russian taskmaster, though her role is basically reduced to recruiting Donald "Red" Grant, the henchman who does all the legwork.  Grant performs a lot of great behind the scenes work to keep Kronsteen's plan alive, but doesn't prove all that intimidating once James encounters him face-to-face.

Bond Girl(s):
Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi) is unconvincing in whatever duplicity-turned-sincerity she's supposed to have.  Her cover is that she's fallen in love with Bond after reading his dossier, only to really fall in love with him.  Bianchi doesn't sell it very well.  She has nice fluttering eyes though.
Sylvia Trench (Eunice  Gayson), from the opening sequence of Dr. No, is back proving that Bond does have a few regulars he cavorts with.  IMDB tells me she doesn't appear again, which is too bad.  It seemed to be a fun running gag and a minor imposition on the overall story.  She's certainly more appealing than Moneypenny.

Theme/Credits: no song over the titles, just straight John Barry score.  The visuals are of a belly dancer (alluding to the Gypsy sequence mid-way through the film) with multicolored titles projected on her.
The "From Russia With Love" theme plays over the lingering closing frames.  It's an outdated-even-for-the-60's croon from Matt Munro  Dull.



Bond: This outing finds Bond primarily libido and vengeance driven, though the latter definitely surpasses the former.  Bond is not exceptionally calculating in this one, but he is somewhat intuitive.  He never seems ahead of the curve, cluing into the plans of others, but he's pretty good at catching up.  Connery's turn is harder to read this time around, keeping Bond emotionally guarded most of the time.

Movie: Th film takes its time with its asides (it's nearly 20 min before Bond first shows) early on, and once the plot kicks in, it's the silliest pretense to kick off a Bond adventure (Romanova, a Russian translator having fallen in love with Bond's photo/profile wishes to defect... it's kind of stalkerish).   Far more intrigue and spy shenanigans occur in From Russia... than in Dr. No, and tossed into the mix are also some gypsy girl fights and escalating blood feuds.  The first two acts move at a great clip consuming a brisk first hour, but the third act on the train drags and drags.  I was hoping for a classic roof-top Bond fight on the train, but the cabin fight was a cracking substitute, once it finally occurred. There seemed to be resistance to writing too much character/relationship drama for Bond back in the day, so with all the lulls and gaps in the third act,  there's little but cold silence filling in the voids as Bond and Romanova pad out the screen time.

Q gadgets: apparently all fiels agents now receive a trick briefcase with secret ammunition, collapsable gun, hidden knife, gas canister, etc as standard issue.  Naturally, every aspect of the case's tricks come into play.


Classification (out of 01.0): 00.7

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Double-Oh...1: Dr. No

Over the next few weeks I'll be jotting down some thoughts on Bond, James Bond as I run through the series in order, barring the campy 60's version of Casino Royale.  I haven't decided yet whether the Thunderball reprise, Never Say Never Again, will make it in.

Dr. No Preamble:  I've never watched Dr. No before, nor to my recollection have I watched any of the Connery Bond.  As a child of the 80's I mainly grew up with Roger Moore's Bond (most of which I haven't viewed since, at least, the early 90's).  I'm a Bond fan, just not a very good one.  I love the idea of Bond and the structure of Bond films, so going into Dr. No I'm tremendously curious.

Villain(s): Dr No is the bad guy of the piece, introduced early in the second act as a mysterious disembodied voice.  He's finally introduced mid-way through the third act, a German-chinese uber-genius, with robotic, rock crushing hands.  It's evident he's in want of friends/admirers and is keen on having Bond as an accomplice (hence why he doesn't just kill him).  Dr. No is an intriguing but ultimately unexplored villain, which diminishes his threat level.  He does go down rather easy.
His lair is an expansive atomic facility full of alternately sparse and posh sets.  It's a glorious 60's-style design providing a lot of visual pop, it's just a shame it took so long to get to them. The dragon (a fire spewing tank the henchmen patrol the island in) is laughably ridiculous, but his hazard suited henchmen are classic.
It's quite evident at the end, when everyone's evacuating the lair that, man, a lot of people work for Dr. No, if'n they're not all employees of SPECTRE.

Bond Girl(s): Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson): Bond meets playing baccarat in his introductory scene.  She's exceptionally forward, proving irresistable to Bond.  (Bond is much better looking though).
Ms. Taro (Zena Marshall): what we call "poseur Asian", a common role in the 60's.  Ms. Taro is not too bright and a terrible liar.  Bond, the cad, chews her up and spits her out.
Honey Rider (Ursula Andress) - tough, cunning but childlike, experienced, smart but uneducated, pretty but unfortunately useless in the grander scheme.  She's sadly only there to look pretty.

Theme/Credits: pop, flash animated letters surrounded by silhouetted gogo girls while the Bond theme plays.  It transitions to a bongo rhythm then to calypso rendition of Three Blind Mice which leads into the opening sequence. Under The Mango Tree is prominently featured throughout the film.  All uninspiring (though I do like the font work in the titles).



Bond: Connery cuts an immaculately shaped figure, particularly in his introductory tux, dashingly well-coiffed and groomed. He flirts with gratuitous ease and has little conscience when it comes to using women.  He's equally willing to shoot an unarmed man ("it's a Smith and Wesson, and you've used your six" (double tap)) and likes to toy with his "victims".

Movie: It's a bit slow to start and features the typical pacing/awkward fight sequencing/clunky editing/ham-fisted over-gesticulating acting you find in '60's action movies.. It's more investigative than action-oriented which isn't necessarily bad, just not very much balance with the two.  The investigative side is a nice build-up to the Sci-fi aspects feature in Dr. No's lair on Crab Key. but the payoff just isn't there.  The confrontation between Bond and No lacks any real gravity.  The film's apex is unthrilling and it's conclusion is quite abrupt

Q gadgets:  Q delivers Bond his signature Walter ppk 9mm

Classification (out of 01.0): 00.6

Catching Up: Action-SF-Superhero-netflixtravaganza

Cold Souls - 2009, Sophie Barthes - netflix
The Expendables - 2010, Sylvester Stallone - netflix
In Time - 2011, Andrew Niccol - netflix
Love - 2011, William Eubank - netflix
Green Hornet - 2011, Michel Gondry - netflix
Chronicle - 2012, Josh Trank - netflix


There was a time, a time before children (circa 2009) that I would have seen all of these films in the theatre (with the exception of Love. of which I was previously unaware).  Given that this is a time after children, and video stores are non-existent and "digital" rentals can be ridiculously priced (seven dollars?!), plus the ceaseless amount of material to watch on netflix (or youtube, if you're not so concerned with video quality) I elected to wait (plus, I already was questioning the overall quality of these films based on trailers and reviews.

Of this disparate lot, Cold Souls is, theoretically at least, the most artsy-minded.  Paul Giamatti stars as himself, struggling with playing the titular part in Chechov's "Uncle Vanya" on stage.  The dark introspection of the play is taking a toll on his own psyche, and he's encouraged by his manager to go to a "soul storage" facility to help ease the burden.  Giamatti's struggle on stage and experimentation with soul storage is intercut with that of the Russian black-market soul extraction and exportation, primarily focussed on Nina (Dina Korzun), a soul smuggler.  When Nina's boss asks for a the soul of an American actor to implant in his struggling actress wife, Giamatti's winds up being the only option.

The film is a curious comedy-drama hybrid, but never quite commits to either.  There's a heavily comedic aspect to the concept that is constantly diluted by the existential drama, so it never is a funny as it should be.  At the same time the exploration of what it means to have a soul, be it your own, or someone else's is also never treated with enough seriousness or committed interest to actually be meaningful.  The film maintains it's "neither here nor there" tone consistently throughout, where it would have been better off vacillating between the two.  It's not a terrible picture, but it has a great concept and story that doesn't live up to its potential.

Equally not living up to its potential, Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables, a gathering of aging (and aged) action heroes that should have been glorious in its goofiness.  Instead it's marred by a terrible script, awful direction and an utterly painful stab a characterization.  The action is generally nonsensical, the motivations of the characters are non-existent, and the attempt at pithy dialogue are continuously painful.  It's hard to believe, judging from this picture, that Stallone was an Oscar nominated writer and actor, particularly the latter.  Stallone's delivery verges on incomprehensible through the entirety of the picture, and the vanity involved in the entire project (his camera stays leering on his then-64-year-old physique far too often, showing far too much of his hybrid rubbery/leathery skin) is kind of repulsive.  This should have been so simple, a gleefully ridiculous spectacle impossible to mess up and yet it's an atrocious picture with little to redeem it.

In Time contains a Sci-Fi conceit I'm rather enamored with, and attempts to explore the socio-political impact of that idea, failing miserably.  About 150 years in future, all humans are implanted with a clock shortly after they're born that activates when they turn 25, giving them one further year to live, but also stopping the aging process.  Time has become currency, so people must earn extra time as well as spend it to survive.  Writer/Director Andrew Niccol wrote and directed one of my favourite explorations of a dystopian future, Gattaca, so it's remarkable how off-the-rails In Time gets.

Niccol attempts to explore the idea of class warfare, how the 1% who have centuries oppress the rest of the population by controlling costs and supporting an infrastructure, including a police system that naturally skews to benefits the wealthy.  Unfortunately, the characters, and the scenarios the film takes them through, betray the insight of the concepts, by thrusting them too quickly into corny drama, hackneyed romance, implausible action, and an ill-advised "Bonny and Clyde" routine which manages to oversimplify a resolution to the meatiest aspect of the story.  There's a good story buried in here somewhere, and had Niccol treated it with the same seriousness of Gattaca instead of trying to devise an action blockbuster around an exploration of the divide between rich and poor, he would definitely have had a science fiction classic.  Instead, In Time is memorable only in its lost opportunity and misuse of terrific concepts.

Love is a fairly narrow, well travelled concept, that of the lone man aboard a space ship/station losing touch with his sanity the more time passes.  Owing a hefty debt of gratitude to similar-minded genre films like Solaris, Moon, Silent Running and, most directly, 2001, Love places its singular protagonist, Captain Lee Miller (Gunner Wright) alone aboard the ISS on a temporary monitoring mission that winds up being far less temporary when all the lights on the Earth below go out.  Something bad has happened and cut off from pretty much all communication over a lengthy span, Capt. Miller, like any man, begins to fall apart.

The concept of Love, however, as you might guess by its title, is more esoteric.  Capt. Miller begins to hallucinate interactions with people he only knows from remnant photographs, helping him explore his cerebral status.  Meanwhile a puzzling group of talking head inserts, musing on the human condition, find their way between scenes, which bear fruit only once the grander 2001-ex-machina presents itself.

The project of prog rock "supergroup" Angels and Airwaves, the film is low budget but what is accomplished on that budget is quite visually spectacular.  The set design and visual effects are quite appealing, and director Eubank makes to most of what he has.  There are niggling details here and there (the space suit definitely doesn't stand up to any scrutiny), but understanding the scale of the film gives them a bit of a pass.  The soundtrack by Angels and Airwaves is quite in sync with the emotional measures of the film, and represents one of its most potent aspects.  I have to wonder though if the film is companion to the two A&A albums or vice-versa.   Actor Gunner Wright is a phenomenal lead, with an understated presence capable of both confidence and vulnerability.  The film itself is definitely not for everyone, it's a mood piece, which, even at 84 minutes feels half an hour overlong, but if you can settle into its quiet rhythm it proves moderately rewarding.  Given the admirable display they put on here, hopefully we can see Eubank and Wright in larger scale projects in the future.



The Green Hornet was a film that could have used a bit of low-budget ingenuity.  This was a film that was going to get made regardless of who was involved, and the roster of talent that came and went on the project was a long one.  That it had the singular vision and the consistent tone it did, thanks to the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and director-for-hire Michel Gondry is quite phenomenal, as I would have expected studio interference to be high (and maybe it was, hard to say).  However, despite the consistency, the tone/vision wound up being misguided and struggled to justify itself.  Plus I think Kick-Ass pretty much beat it to the punch.

Rogen and Goldberg's take, as might be expected, leans to the comedic side of things, skewering the masked vigilante genre, but, oddly, not lampooning it.  It doesn't push the genre to any sort of comedic extremes, really, but rather tries to make the idea of a well-meaning yet completely over-privileged, under-trained socialite a joke all it's own.  Equally, having the sidekick, Kato, be the brains, the muscle, the tactician, the weapon-smith, etc, was also part of the joke.  Both tired quickly, particularly frustrating was Rogen as Britt Reid/The Green Hornet sporting barely any character grown and just as frequently regressing whenever growth seemed imminent.  Jay Chou as Kato was quite charismatic, and enjoyable to watch, but seemed constantly marginalized and under-served... I know that was partly the point but it was no less aggravating.

Christoph Waltz in the role of the bad guy -- Chudnofsky, a Russian mob leader facing a crisis in his ability to intimidate -- was about the only aspect of the script that clicked thoroughly.  He nails every scene, particularly the opening sequence, a face off against rival James Franco which set the tone for the movie, but also hit its high mark early.  Cameron Diaz as a quasi/anti-love interest proved a surprisingly satisfying element to the story, but her character wasn't handled with much respect overall.  Gondry, an incredibly visual and inventive director, is restrained here, and I had hopes that he would be allowed to cut loose, but with only the creative flourish of the fight sequence and a few minor touches here and there, he merely did what needed to be done.  I wanted to like The Green Hornet.  Being a fan of Superbad and Gondry I wanted it to be a misunderstood work, madcap, like a 2 hour version of an Adult Swim program.  It's not.  It's not terrible, but it doesn't do what it sets out to accomplish, not well anyway.

Chronicle is a different kind of super-hero story that achieves its storytelling objectives, creating a "what if" type of "Outer Limits"-style power fantasy of three teens gaining telekinetic powers, and how each of them deals with it.  Of the three, Steve is the high school class president, football champ and all-around most popular guy, another, Matt, is a fairly average, happy-go-lucky kind of dude, and the third, Andrew, Matt's cousin, an stereotypical loner/outcast, whose mother is dying and father beats him, who feels like he doesn't belong and can't get anyone to notice him (not realizing that it's his attitude, insecurities and the hostility driving others away).

Using the "found footage" style of filmmaking, with Andrew behind the camera (at first, then using his powers to put himself into focus), the film documents the boys' discovery of, well, something strange that imbues them with their ability and their resulting experimentation with them.  As the continuously flex their "TK" muscles their abilities and capabilities grow, but Andrew, with the least fulfilling life, spends the most time focusing on it, thus becoming the most powerful.   Applying the adage "power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely", Andrew, ever the loner, the outcast, places himself outside and above humanity, becoming the inevitable villain of the piece, at which point the others must become the heroes.

It's largely an engaging film, exploring its conceit in a methodical manner that unfortunately telegraphs its trajectory almost from the start.  From the start this film aims for something other than "the birth of a hero" cliche, which is the typical route for the nerd/outcast who discovers he has superpowers (see, again, Kick-Ass, or Spider-Man or countless others), but at the same time the tone of the film from the onset shows that nothing good is going to come from Andrew obtaining any sort of strength and it really doesn't provide any hope that he will or even imply that he can.  Steve's ridiculous plan for making Andrew popular (the turning point of the film, kickstarting the third act) is utter cornball and betrays the "natural" aesthetic the film was going for in favor of 80's high-school comedy-style highjinks.  It's a bad idea in the story and a bad idea for the story.  The third act escalates from Andrew's triumph-to-embarassment-to-overreaction swiftly and becomes a respectable but all-too-often hammy throw-down.  The "found footage" conceit begins to tire halfway through and becomes a distracting presence by the third act.  It's a mostly successful, if ultimately unfulfilling experience.



Monday, December 17, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: The Bourne Legacy

2012, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity) -- download

I was mentioning in the last post about the idea of an unnecessary remake / reboot / sequel / prequel, essentially an unnecessary followup movie. A few sequels is expected, building on the popularity of the first and expanding into a franchise.  The proper sequels take what was popular in the first movie and run with it but if they are to be respected, must expand on the story and contain much originality.  We expect a couple of more Avengers movies but if they are always going to start with the gang squabbling but who are united by an army invading Earth / America / Our Dimension then I think they will get boring quickly.  I did not expect The Bourne Legacy to be in the unnecessary category, but really expected it to be a tacked on continuation of the Jason Bourne story but with another operative. What we got was pretty much a recreation of the first movie and the creation of a new series, a reboot if you will.

Gilroy directed Michael Clayton which, while I have not seen again, I remember thinking was an incredibly well put together movie from a smart script to thoughtful directing.  It looked like a good movie and smelled like a good movie.  Gilroy was also the screen writer for all the Bourne movies and while not perfect, suffering from some expected sequelitis, they were pretty good expansions of the story as a whole.  Which is why this one just bothered me.  I expected more.

The idea is pretty intriguing.  While the last movie is taking place, another shadow agency within the US intelligence service (at least one of these guys must have known of Spooky Mulder) is reacting to how the public and the government will deal with the followup of Blackbriar and Treadstone.  So, simply, they decide to shut down their own project.  Yes, that means there were three successor black op projects run through the movies.  And by shutting down, we really mean killing everyone involved from the operatives themselves to the scientists working on the project.  Two survive, one operative and one scientist and together they fight crime... I mean, they fight against their own government as she tries to kill them.  It would have been an acceptable stand alone movie in the same universe as Bourne but not, it had to end (SPOILER yeah) with the formulaic "let's go hide somewhere until the second movie brings back the action."  Bleah.

Bonus Paragraph about the poster -- ONE WHAT ?!?!  We know there was more than one Treadstone agent, as they tried to kill Bourne.  We know there was more than one program as the whole third movie was based on it.  So, ONE WHAT?

Friday, December 14, 2012

Catching Up: The Blockbusters

Not better known as Alien 5, the recent Ridley Scott flick Prometheus (2012 Ridley Scott [uh.. d'uh?]), is kinda sorta maybe a prequel to the Alien franchise.  If I do recall correctly, it started out as a state of denial from Ridley, a "nope not a prequel, nope it ain't" before things started becoming clearer it was. What I am not sure was whether he bent to the pressure of the windy studio producers or it was his plan all along and just didn't want to have all the marketing focused on it being the latest Alien movie.

It would have done better as an independent movie, removed from the franchise entirely.  It most definitely is a prequel but it tries so hard to fit everything into what a sequel-prequel expects and even tosses in easter egg references to other movies in the franchise, just for the fun of it.  Conspiracy voice says, "The Producers demanded it !!"  So, being a prequel we must have eggs (new shiny black metal ones), face huggers (or even arm hugging penis/vagina monsters), a chest burster (or abdomen abortion), quickly growing monsters and a friendly milk blooded robot. I honestly would have preferred them excised from the production and focused on the separate plot --- the Engineers.  Even just that very faint tie to the original, in giving some explanation to the space jockey, would have been fine by me.

The movie is about a race of beings that seeded earth with their own DNA, participating in the uplift of mankind from apes to homo sapien.  A pair of scientists in a near future (but before Alien) have been exploring this concept for a long time and have finally found the puzzle piece they needed -- the map back to the likely home of these Engineers.  And thus the Weylund Corporation outfits a team and a spaceship to travel to this planet and find these Engineers.

As is expected of a movie seen months ago, as this whole "catching up" thread is dealing with, I am left with the vague memories left to a guy who has too much useless work info in his head to hang onto the important stuff, like the movies he sees and claims to review.  What remains was a sense of enjoyment but overall disappointment, better yet... lack of enthusiasm.  It looks great, has great tension and acting but that is the least I should expect from a  Ridley Scott movie.  What I want is memorable story and characters!

What I got was a muddled adventure with tenuous ties to the universe it claims to be part of and plot holes that just seem oblivious to the plot.  Why would a geologist with mapping bots get lost?  The biologist is afraid of dead bodies (and just about everything else) but sticks his hand out to an alien snake.  We all know what snakes do.  Always run perpendicular to a falling spaceship; you cannot outrun it.  And nobody does anything logically though I would assumed the entire crew was hired to be logical and useful considering the trillion dollar budget in the whole mission.  These are not kids thinking exploring the basement is a good idea; these are scientists and skilled starship crew. Next time Weylund should just send all robots.

So, from an unnecessary prequel we get an unnecessary reboot -- The Amazing Spider-Man (2012, Marc Webb).  I get it, the Batman reboot movies were brilliant and did a wonderful thing raising the character out the technicolor muck he had been left in.  But the Spiderman movies were still pretty recent and while the third was pretty terrible (emo Parker) I think a reboot was not needed, let alone a reboot that basically recreates all the primary elements of the first movie -- the by the numbers origin.

But still, it looked and ran well.  Seriously, it looks so good.  Spidey swings marvellously from building to skyscraper to subway bridges to skyscraper cranes in a heart pounding and stomach churning (ok, maybe just me) manner.  Though I could have done without the sequence that rips off the video game Mirror's Edge.  The choice of the Lizard as the villain in this one was great, but once again, they seem to be basing the backward reflection for the Spider-Man character to the cartoon, not the actual comics. Oh well, at least it wasn't Mephisto Mysterio and his fishbowl helmet.  Gwen Stacy instead of Mary Jane was different (different good not different bad) and I liked the immature feel that Andrew Garfield instilled in teenage Peter Parker, more a Ultimate Spider-Man than amazing, despite the movie title.

But at the end of the day, or the movie, I was still left wondering why.  Are we now making movies for a generation that hasn't seen anything made older than 7.5 years ago?  Is the Internet generation so addicted to the next next next thing that they cannot find a download of an old movie?  Or even worse, will not ever do by choice? It wasn't even as if they wanted to tie Spider-Man into the Avengers franchise, which will never happen due to competing studios.  So, a good movie ruined (for me) by meh.

Speaking of remembering and unnecessary reboots or recreations, why was Total Recall (2012, Len Wiseman) done? More importantly why was a remake of an Arnie movie only barely based on a PK Dick story even less based on the original story? No Mars, just a lame tunnel dug through the centre of the Earth to Chin... I mean Australia. And if the kids are that fuzzy on the older Spider-Man movies how the fuck could they even know an older Total Recall was made starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in his pre-Governor role?

But I saw it didn't I ?  Both.  And in the theatre.  But I must confess I had ulterior motives.  It was because Kate Beckinsale and Jessica Biel were in it.  Well, yes, but really it was because I was almost in it.  Last year for my birthday I took a few days off and spent time on the set as an extra.  But of course, I was cut.  Still, I absolutely love seeing a movie that I have seen from the inside.  I knew exactly what the grotty, rainy streets of the Colony smelled liked not just looked like.

The movie itself is a by the books action flick in classic neo-scifi feel, sort of like I, Robot or Minority Report.   While not good movies in the least, I like the scifi settings they portray and can enjoy them solely for that.  This one has flying cars, robot cops, hand-phones and vid screens galore.  The action is over the top and non-sensical but really, I didn't care.  I had a good time and the girls were pretty.

Referencing Will Smith and Tom Cruise (see referenced movies above) is it odd that they are both in post-apocalypse Earth with spaceship flying humans living off Earth movies, this year?

Aaaand speaking of over-the-top and non-sensical, we have the only download of the bunch -- Battleship (2012, Peter Berg).  Seriously?  Not a remake, not a reboot but a honest to goodness movie based on a classic boardgame.  Yes, that one.  But not the classic one you grew up with (OK, maybe your parents grew up with) but a version few played that had aliens in it !  At least, that is what I kept on telling myself.  You see, this one has aliens invading Hawaii (Pearl Harbour wasn't enough?) and encasing the islands in a force field which ... forces the battleships (on maneuvers) to fight a losing battle with the aliens.

This reminded me a lot of another alien movie,  in fact the one that started this whole blog of Battle: LA.  If you squint real hard at the aliens you can almost assume that while they were building force fields in Hawaii they were invading the LA coast.  But unlike the former which had a gritty war movie feel, Battleship was more a rah-rah Transformers kind of movie.  Big explosions, massive patriotism and more nonsense than you can fit in a battleship.  And not once, not a single time did Liam Neeson utter, "You sunk my battleship!!"  Insert pouty emoticon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Catching Up: Guys Getting Older

I don't see as many dramas as I used to. There was a stage in my movie viewing life, when I was pretty deep in the perceived snob era, where I saw little else worth viewing but for dramas and foreign flicks.  Oh, I was still a closeted genre watcher but there was so very very little that I could say was good.  Now I rather find myself white washing everything with the not-so-good brush or more accurately, not that impressive to me, whether drama or comedy or action or foreign or thriller.

But there are movies that I know I want to see.  I wanted to see The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne) in the theatre but it escaped me.  It sat on my HDD for ages before I spontaneously put it on one evening.  That may not sound like much but you don't see what it takes for me to put on anything other than toss-away genre and action flicks these days.  When I could be watching movies I actually want to see, I always end up re-watching Netflix Nick Cage movies (Next) or one of my disaster movies (2012).

I like when Clooney does a flick where he is not the Sexiest Man of the Year.  Here he is the dad of two, wearing his grey hair and his flip flops and not a really decent outfit in his closet.  This is not dapper Las Vegas Clooney or even clean and even hitman Clooney.  This is why I like the man; that he is not afraid to play a very deflated version of himself.

It is a light movie but not a light subject.  His wife has been injured and lies in a coma when he finds out she has been in an affair with a local real estate celebrity.  Well, if having your face on a bus poster makes you a celebrity.  Clooney's Matt King is a bit of a celebrity himself, if you consider descended from Hawaiian royalty as celebrity status. He and his family own a massive amount of untouched land and live off trust money, though none as carefully as Matt.  Most just want Matt to finish a big land deal and give them their share of the money.

So, Matt is left dealing with his wife's impending death, his children's reactions to it all and his squabbling family afairs.  Life is not easy even when you are living in paradise.  The movie sweet and touching and generally enjoyable and I got to experience something I enjoy about movies set in paradises -- what it looks like in an average life, instead of all beaches and resort life. Clooney is allowed a sobre role where he is a father and simple man experiencing hard circumstances with dignity despite slapping flip flops.

Michael Caine has been a guy getting older for quite some time of my movie watching life.  I never really got to experience him as the young, vibrant guy of the 60s and 70s.  But Harry Brown (2009, Daniel Barber) is one where he is not a guy getting older, but an old guy.  An ex-military man living in the project towers of London, a widower and living a quiet life of not much more than his old friends (those who are left) and a local pub.  This is the part of getting old that is never glamorous; when everyone else has moved on and you are just biding your time.

Bided time is interrupted by the violent death of his one last pub mate at the hands of hoodie wearing thugs who terrorize the whole project unchecked.  Harry tries to absorb it, let it pass but enough is enough and he resurrects his past skills, to play vigilante.  That is when we see it is not age that slows people down but how society treats you.  If you are thought of as useless then you end up playing useless.  Scary that what makes Harry useful are the local actually, truly wastes of life that plague his community. We are not expected to have sympathy for those he kills but we are left a bit unnerved by how good he is at it. Makes you wonder what Taken 5 will be like when Liam Neeson carries his particular set of skills to the pensioner home.

And then we actually went to see a sweet movie about real people getting old.  The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011, John Madden) is a British comedy about a number of aging brits who end up together in a hotel in India.  No, not a nice resort where the experience the beauty and exotic nature that India has to offer to people brought up on A Passage to India but a small run down hotel re-opened by the owner as a ... well, a pensioner home.  For one reason or another each of our seniors are forced into this cost effective choice that leaves much to be desired.

Each and every one of the "seniors" being played in this movie are not people I ever perceived as old.  Oh I know they are all aging actors but I never saw them play roles where their age impacts the character.  Maggie Smith was in Harry Potter and Dame Judy Dench has been M for a while.  Bil Nighy was an aging rockstar in Love Actually and Penelope Wilton was Harriet Jones in Doctor Who.  And Tom Wilkinson seems to be always playing mature politicians or bureaucratic roles.  But none of these people are what I would call old and feeble.

Dev Patel brings them together in something they never really expected.  His never ending enthusiasm bolstered by deception and sometimes downright delusion keeps everybody on course, but for a few disheartened, to realize a next stage in their lives.  Some find love, some find purpose and others find closure.  Each plays a character who considers themselves as aged but they all end up living more of a life than I probably am at 45.  Perception is the rule.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A Couple of Clooney's

The Descendants (2011, Alexander Payne) -- netflix
The American (2010, Anton Corbijn) -- netflix

You have to give credit where credit is due.  After a stint on The Facts of Life in the '80's and a stint on Roseanne in the flip of the decade, for some time George Clooney was not even a has-been, but more of a never-was.  Then ER hit, and he became "hunky" TV doctor George Clooney, the guy who every dude was sick of hearing the girls and women around them talking about.  Quentin Tarantino, an unabashed pop-culture nut, loved ER and wanted to turn that good guy image on its head by casting him as the ass-kicking, bank robbing, vampire fighting Seth Gecko in From Dusk Til Dawn.  It was an auspicious start to his big-screen career, one that was almost derailed by the expected romantic comedies (One Fine Day) and mid-budget action mediocrities (The Peacemaker) and franchise tent-pole taking-ups (Batman and Robin).

But then, it would seem, Clooney took full control of his career, deciding that he wouldn't work on projects for purely his own bankroll, but rather for directors that interest him, and on projects that stand-out.   He spent the bulk of the late 90's and aughts with Steven Soderbergh, Robert Rodriguez and the Coen Bros., but also stints with David O. Russell, Terence Malick, and Wolfgang Petersen.  It was natural that Clooney would come out of that impressive directorial roster with some damn fine films of his own.

In more recent years, Clooney's status as an A-list star has never faltered, in spite of the fact that he hasn't been part of a commercial blockbuster since the depreciating returns that were the Oceans movies.  He's an innately charismatic personality, an impressively versatile actor and continually interesting in the choices he makes.

The Descendants, an adaptation of the Kaui Hart Hemmings bestseller, seems almost a safe bet, by Clooney's standards, but it's a full-on showcase of the man at his finest. For all his handsomeness, Clooney isn't a slave to an ego, and this film -- about a Hawaiian lawyer facing his comatose wife's infidelity, his troubled children, and a massive real estate deal in which he is the sole trustee of a large chunk of unspoiled land -- finds him in terribly unflattering printed shirts and unglamorous lighting emphasizing his grey hair and wrinkles.  For a man with no children, he certainly proves believable as a father.

The Oscar-winning movie, for it's rather stern subject matter, these very heavy elements weighing on this patriarch, finds a much gentler tone, which doesn't mean that director Payne nor his cast abandon the raw emotional aspect, but it finds more wonder and curiosity rather than fastidious drama in these characters and situations.  Clooney is the figurehead for this balanced approach, providing a handful of memorable scenes in which his affinity for physical comedy shines, but is restrained in such a way as to not jar the even-handedness of the presentation.  Clooney's memorable running-in-flip-flops sequence was probably the key to understanding the film's approach to the story, followed by a brilliant encounter with his comatose wife's best friend whom he prods for details of her affair.

Family dramas have a tendency to skew into over-wrought and over-acted territory, mining far too much drama out of unresolved tension.  On the flipside, the trend has taken them to "quirky" extremes, where the characters play much more broadly, filled with often implausible eccentricity.  Each can have their own rewards, but the derivatives seem endless and frequently tiresome.  The Descendants surprisingly eschews these tropes and in doing so achieves a naturalness that is welcoming and resonant.

If I were to look for an opposing picture to highlight Clooney's range, The American couldn't be a better choice.  In it Clooney plays a mercenary of sorts, a former military man and assassin who seems ready for retirement but can't seem to find peace.  The film opens with Clooney and a lady friend in a remote Nordic cabin, obviously a quiet, semi-permanent retreat, until Swedish gunmen take aim.  Escaping and calling his handler, he's sent to an Italian villa where he forms an uneasy friendship with the town's priest and an unexpected romance with a prostitute.

Clooney's completely restrained in the role, a cold-blooded killer, but not fearless and more anxious than he cares to let on.  Never once does Clooney smile, for true pleasure seems a luxury he's unable to afford himself, and equally he's a man of few words, lest he reveal too much to be used against him.

He's assigned a job from his handler, to build a gun for an assassin, and the film lovingly lingers on the labors of doing so.  It's not quite gun porn, because it has too much respect for the craftsmanship, but it's as interested in the meticulous details of the building of the weapon as it is in exploring its character.

It's a methodical -- some might say overlong -- production, one that doesn't abandon the tropes of the "mercenary" genre.  It makes a film like Ronan look like Crank 2: High Voltage in comparison.  Yet for all it's retreading of familiar moments and the fact that the same story could very well be condensed into a 20-minute short, Corbijn provides a distinct rhythm that keeps it from sinking into complete tedium.  This is a part of the influx of Nordic filmmaking into the Hollywood system (see also the Millennium Trilogy, Nicolas Winding-Refn and Tomas Alfredson of late), the antidote to the "MTV Generation" of directors that has exacerbated into Paul Greengrass and Neveldine/Taylor chaos.

Where Clooney is integral to the success of The Descendants, I feel like many different actors could have filled the role of The American, and yet, Clooney provides a vulnerability and shaken confidence that mixes with a sense of experience and wisdom that few others in his age range (say an Alec Baldwin or Tom Cruise) could sensibly provide, so committed they are to holding onto lost youth.  Clooney, on the other hand, is aging gracefully like few others in his profession choose to do.  It's just a small part of what continues to make him so interesting, and make even his more challenging endeavors (like the American, or Solaris) worth seeking out.

We Agree: Cloud Atlas

I am the guy who loves all three Matrix movies, veritably diving into the depths of the multi-level story of realities.  Thus, I knew I was going to love this movie. Here we have a story layered through time, where the histories and destiny of many people are connected via their actions to points in time, some directly some only tenuously.  That we are all connected together, if not always in this life time, is something I can subscribe to more easily than a deity.

Cloud Atlas gives us a number of primary characters in six story-lines scattered throughout time. At the beginning, of the timeline not the storytelling of the movie, we have:

  • The 1850s where a lawyer is on the business of his father-in-law in the south seas, where he takes ill and is tended to by a clownish doctor and an escaped slave, on the ship returning to San Francisco.
  • The 30s where a young gay composer seeks out the tutelage of an aging maestro where he is to create his masterpiece.
  • The 70s where a vibrant reporter investigates unseemly happenings at a power plant and meets a man who instantly falls in love with her.
  • Now, where a failing publisher gets tossed into an old age home by his scheming brother and plots to break out.
  • the 2100s in Korea where slaved retail clones learn about freedom and the truth of their existence.
  • The post-apocalypse future where a primitive man and a more advanced survivor work together to save both their peoples.
The stories are not told with obvious threads for the theme is more quantum than it is linear.  We are connected to each other, not through repeating lives nor reincarnation  but through distinctions that emanate throughout time both forward and back.  It is very complicated science but it is also so very beautiful and it makes you very very aware of what you do now.  I don't think the story tellers, the Wachowskis, Tykwer (who i have been calling Twyker for more than a decade) and the original author Mitchel don't need you to understand every connection or see the exactitude of the movie plot, but to catch the strains of truth in what they are saying --- that we are connected.  Like the strains of he Cloud Atlas Sextet that plays throughout the movie, when we catch the music we may not know why it rings true but it does.

I agree with Kent in his saying that it was a necessary story telling element to have the same actors playing characters (of both genders sometimes) in all the time lines, to give us a visual cue to connect with, but that it was sometimes very distracting.  For me, it was Hugh Grant, who looked out of place in his makeup, especially when he was playing with his nose.  But there were only so many mature primary roles so I am not surprised A-list actors played some support.

I am still startled when I learn the movie was over two hours as I sat, while not entirely enthralled, for I will admit to some boredom with some of the stories, I was at least attentive for every minute.  The threads weave and bob throughout moving us back and forward in time, in plot and occasionally dropping a connection for us to see and understand.  It tells something as to how good the Wachowskis are as craftspeople that they could do this so precisely with the amount of time used.  

This movie will not be for every one.  Some tales will resonate with you more than others.  Me, you know I loved the post-apocalypse one the most with the south seas story not connecting as much.  You may be offended by people wearing "yellow face" or makeup to change their gender but I don't think there was a way to accomplish the story without the sweeping makeup gestures they made.  It may confuse you but try not to explain it so much.  Get swept up, make the connections you do and enjoy it for what it was.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cloud Atlas

2012, Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski -- in theatre


Cloud Atlas is a big, bold experiment in cinematic storytelling, not completely without precedent, but truly unequaled in scope.  Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia comes to mind, a broad film of disparate characters and situations tied together through both an emotional connectivity and a thread of loose personal association.  Where Magnolia's characters were all part of the same community, in a manner of speaking, Cloud Atlas explodes the connection across centuries, further distancing one character from another.

Anderson's film is a challenging work, one that viewers have either connected with or been left cold by.  This radical endeavor from a trio of filmmakers who have built careers on trying something different, will do much the same, although at once be more commercially appealing and less critically endearing.

My immediate reaction, upon the start of the credits scroll, was "That would make a great book."  Yes, I was well aware it was an adaptation, having heard more than a few times of David Mitchell's so-called unfilmable story in relation to this project.  While the Wachowski siblings and Tykwer produced a valiant adaptation, it's maybe sixty percent a good movie, and I'm not certain there's a whole lot else the trio could have done to make it much better.  A little, perhaps, but not a lot.

The writer-directors started with a novel that's, in a sense, an anthology, comprised of six stories, each treading different genre waters, from Victorian-era drama, to a high-seas adventure, to a 70's detective drama, a modern-day retirement home farce, and a pair of futuristic set-pieces allowing for action and theological/sociological pondering.  Simply weaving these disparate source elements should prove challenging enough, but the filmmakers do so rather brilliantly.  The key facet of any success the film might have is its masterful editing. Timing the rhythms of the story, hitting upon those synchronous moments is, at first, overwhelming in the opening minutes of the film, but very quickly reveals itself as integral to the storytelling.  Jumping between the eras of the picture is disorienting but proves ultimately rewarding even by the half-way point of its 172 minute run-time.

As long as it may seem from the outside, it's rarely, if ever, boring, even in its unsuccessful moments.  That it managed to effectively condense it all down to under a 3 hour runtime is itself an impressive feat.  To bridge these stories together, Cloud Atlas informally plays with the idea of lineage, thus using the same actors throughout the eras, though most only play a role in two or three of them.  It's both a necessary shorthand, and one of its weakest and most distracting facets, particularly because in doing so the Wachowskis and Tykwer utilize an inordinate amount of makeup effects, to retain the character of an actor or actress but then change their ethnicity or gender in its most extreme cases.  The make-up team is remarkably successful about half the time, but in the times it fails, it's has the most crippling impact on the film, drawing the viewer to focus almost solely upon the make-up.  The option would be to have different actors playing many of the roles in different eras, but the visual connectivity would be lost, so either way there's a sacrifice.

As noted, most of the key actors in the film take on roles in each sequence, but it's Tom Hanks who stands out the most, and not necessarily in a positive way.  His buck-toothed quack from the seafaring sequence is a corny and cliched performance through and through, a decision that condemns an already hokey story even further.  It's as if he took his Professor character from the Ladykillers and went broader.  In a later era, he channels Bob Hoskins to play an aged British heavy, which I realize in hindsight was supposed to be funny, but came off as painful and truly unbelievable.  I like Hanks (and, really, who doesn't) but he's a man who cannot distance himself from his own character, no matter how much make-up or what kind of accent he applies.  He can lose himself in a character, but that doesn't always mean he's believable as that character, and as is the case here, it's another of the great distractions the film has to offer.  Think if Brad Pitt were there instead, how Pitt is able to completely get disappear within a role, what an improvement, if minor one, it would be.

Similarly, Hugh Grant and Suzan Sarandon both play a couple of roles in the film, but in all cases they're minor roles, which leads me to wonder what these A-level players are doing in character actor parts.  Like Hanks, their stature as performers overpowers their ability to be hidden in a minor role, and as such it's something that pulls the audience somewhat out of its investment.

Invariably the film, in its sweeping, circular movement, manages to suck the viewer back in whenever a distraction occurs, and by the end, it's proven to be a rewarding, if not completely triumphant experience.  Sincerely, Cloud Atlas should best be approached as a novel, and thankfully, there is one.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Catching Up: The Rest of Halloween

Taking a cue, more an actual suggestion, from Kent I am going to catch up on all the movies I listed in the drafts section of this blog.  I was considering declaring bankruptcy, as it is always easier to start again than to follow through, but Kent's quick many-in-one post is a good idea.  Which is amusing unto itself considering my 3 Short Paragraphs is already the compromise on doing "proper" movie reviews. But whateverz; into the breach !

We rather enjoyed, or should I say i rather enjoyed last year's (viewing of) Grave Encounters. It spun the idea of a ghost hunting show on its head, tossed in the found footage idea that never seems to be dying and subjected the cast and crew to an actual haunted house.  Grave Encounters 2 (2012, download) revisits the story with the added fun of people trying to find out if the original movie was real or not.

Film student Trevor is obsessed with the original movie so much that he switches his desire to make an original student horror flick to a documentary about the first.  It doesn't hurt that someone has left a "video response" to his own YouTube posts that depicts the host of the show in the first movie, still very much alive if a bit worse for wear.  So he drags his film friends to Vancouver to find the haunted asylum and continue to search for reality within the fiction.

The movie actually has a bit of fun with the whole what is real, what is not, using actor's and producers real names, even going so far as to show the Vicious Brothers in the background.  But it follows the formula of the first to a tee which is a failing and then tries to expand the "mythology" into what created the asylums monsters, ghosts and pocket dimension aspect.  It was fun but not very satisfying.

I can tell I have now tipped over a peak of too much TV and movie watching when I spend a lot of every new show and movie going "Hey that's Benny from Reaper" or more often, "Who the heck is that guy!?!" when I recognize someone from another role.  Benny is played by Rick Gonzalez, who gets a handful of bit parts but I wish would get more and that guy was Kai Lennox, or Detective Eddie Alvarez from The Unusuals.

This movie was Apartment 143 (2011, download) one of those movies produced by a company in another country but shot as if it was the US.  If the Spanish production of this movie lends itself to anything it is the character of the apartment the haunted family is forced into living -- SUCH a lovely state of old, decrepitude.  Kai Lennox is the father in that family being haunted by what they believe to be his late wife.  It has destroyed his life, taking from him his nice suburban house and job and most of his sanity.  So he has brought in Dr. Helzer and his ghost hunting crew to put the shade to rest.

Unlike most ghost busting crews in movies, this one came with a reputation of actually having done stuff.  We get most of the evidence from their dialogue, where they relate past events to each other and how they should deal with this one and what the apparition is most likely to be. They startle at the ... well, startling events but do not freak out -- its an exciting day at the job.  But what the busters find out the mystery to be is quite.... unique.  I liked it, decent acting and a new premise and finally a parapsychologist crew that actually has encountered things before.  I am surprised more of the world did not like it.

Then we watched Cold Prey (2006, download) a Norwegian slasher movie of the Cabin in the Woods ilk, and by that I mean the Norwegian team serve up some young and pretty people to a killer in the wilderness.  The localization of the premise has the bunch on a ski weekend in the mountains of Jotunheimen (trolls anyone?) and they end up in an abandoned hotel where a slasher resides.  Yawn; I would have preferred a giant troll.

Meanwhile I loved Wind Chill (2007, download), a situational ghost story also set in the bleak cold.  This time we have some college students on a long weekend heading home.  More precisely we have Emily Blunt and her stalkerish driver Ashton Holmes, who fabricates a drive to her home town in order to be around her.  He wants to stretch the trip because, you know, once he explains to her his stalkerish reasons she will fall all over him, by taking a (long) short cut.  Too bad the trip is interrupted by a haunted section of the mountain road replete with vengeful repeating ghosts, dead priests and visions of murders past.  A rather fun and chilling (rimshot) movie.

And finally was Prowl (2010, download), a vampire movie that fits into the action genre more than horror but we have always stretched that criterion.  Amber is a girl unhappy in her small town and convinces her friends to accompany her on he trip to the The Big City.  But the car breaks down and they are forced to accept a ride from a trucker, the Harbinger element of this movie; yes, another Cabin... reference.  He delivers them to an abandoned refinery to be fed on by fledgling vampires.

It was an odd little movie, more like a feral Vampire Diaries than anything.  Pretty young girl turns out to be a born vampire that was sent to be fostered with humans.  It is just pure coincidence she ended up as their prey.  It struck me like the first in a series of young adult novels where the girl would discover more about her past as time went on, hunted by vampires and feared by humans.  But it was one movie and ... well, that's it.

That was all we ended up watching for Halloween with life interfering and the usual interruptions ruling.  We have a number of others sitting on the harddrive ready to be converted and watched and maybe will do a mid-season horror-athon.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Skyfall

2012, Sam Medes -- in theatre

Should it be a good thing or a bad thing to know what you're going to get from a James Bond film?

The franchise, under the watchful eye of the Broccoli family, has had it's turmoil, it's ups and downs.  The last film was nearly derailed by a writer's strike, this one by the collapse of MGM.  There's been controversial choices for the man in the suit, and some questionable choices made for him.  All the while, the Broccolis have made sure that no matter what, Bond is always Bond, and whenever you step into the theatre, you're going to get a opening action sequence featuring Bond in media res, a dazzling title sequence of naked silhouettes accompanying a theme song from a big name musician, and ultimate an overblown super-espionage plot which requires Bond to use plenty of gadgets, guns, wits, cars (and countless other forms of transportation from skis to space shuttles), women, pithy remarks and a hell of a lot of luck.  You may not know exactly what you're going to get, but if you've seen enough Bond films you know enough.  Therefore a Bond outing may not always be surprising, and it may not always be great, but it's rarely ever dull.

Should it be a good thing or a bad thing to be surprised by a 007 picture?

That, then, is the question.  If a Bond adventure takes you outside of the comfort zone of what you know Bond to be -- a vague mystery man who likes his ladies, liquor and license to kill -- does that make it better or worse?  We've had 22 Bond films prior to this, and, in the first 20, five different actors portraying him with their own individualistic flair, but rarely could we say we knew him, truly knew his character.  Bond isn't a superhero, he's a superspy with a weakness for his vices, but he's always going to win it for the good guys, usually by the skin of his teeth. 

It's quire remarkable, really.  What's his background?  Does he have any family?  What toll does his job have on him?  Does being a Lothario or killer affect him at all?  How fragile is his psyche?  Doesn't he want to have a home life to go to?  The questions that never get asked, and just as often get answered.  For some, it's better off not knowing.  James Bond should be as roughly sketched as possible so that anyone can fit into his tux.  Not an everyman, but every man's fantasy.

Skyfall, and in different ways, Quantum of Solace and Casino Royale have been working hard to flesh James Bond out, putting more focus on Bond as a man, a human being, capable of being hurt both physically and emotionally.  Never before has he seemed so vulnerable, so susceptible to death.  Bond has been put in countless of life-threatening situations, but he's always handled them with a calm detachment.  Daniel Craig's Bond faces his mortality like any reasonable man should, with fear and without a cache of convenient gadgetry to save him.

Skyfall is a daring Bond picture, one that dares to even hint at his lineage, one that dares to make Bond mortal, one that dares to give him age and weakness and limitations.  He's not a super-hero, and barely a super spy. Skyfall's cold open finds Bond in chase of a man carrying a hard drive containing all of Britain's undercover agents.  The chase ends with Bond being shot off the top of a moving train, accidentally by one of his own. 

Dead and buried, Bond tries to enjoy his forced retirement, but when MI6 is directly attacked, moreover when M's life is directly put in danger, Bond responds.  With Casino Royale, Bond fell in love, and had his love taken away, leading to much revenge in Quantum of Solace.  In Skyfall, there's a different kind of love at play.  M and Bond have levels to their relationship, master and handler, boss and employee, and, not so curiously, mother and son.  The film dares to explore that dynamic, calling to attention that Bonds and Ms past are made null in its wake.

Sam Mendes was a curious choice to take up the franchise.  Primarily known as the Oscar-winning director of American Beauty, Mendes is hardly renowned for his action prowess (of his half-dozen features, the small dramatic road comedy Away We Go is my favourite) but he's got a competency with characters, which, given the angle that the Craig Bond series is going, couldn't hurt.  For his part, Mendes' action sequences are beautiful, wonderfully composed, brilliantly lit, with a flair for silhouettes and expertly paced.  Skyfall is exciting and terrific to look at.

As far as the Bond mythos goes, Mendes works with what the Craig-starring series has aimed for, a rebirth.  Casino Royal was meant to start from scratch with Bond -- forget the other guys, could they do parkour? -- and with this Mendes wraps the tied and true Bond tropes that had been missing from previous two back in.  Moneypenny, car porn, exotic deadly animals, Q, and more.  It's the most Bond that Bond has been in some time. 

Perhaps the best facet, an honestly charming villain in Javier Bardem as Silva, an ex-MI6 agent and metaphorical brother to Bond.  Love and used by M, Silva was the golden boy agent of his day, a half generation ahead of Bond.  Left for dead with drastic sub-dermal disfiguring, Silva's long plotted destruction and dismembering of M and her arms is at hand.  Of course, Silva would hope Bond would see things his way and join him, but he's also accounted for the opposite to happen.

Silva, unfortunately, only has minimal screen time, and not nearly enough of it shared with Bond (I doubt if he even makes his debut within the first hour of the film) but what time he does have, Bardem doesn't chew the scenery, but savors it like a connoisseur, masticating it slowly, drawing out all its flavours.  Le Chiffre and Dominic Greene are eminently forgettable in comparison.  I was actually hopeful we would have a new Blofeld, multi-film nemesis with this one, alas.

It is a good thing to know what you're getting out of a Bond film, but when it doesn't always deliver, or tries to deliver too much of a good thing (as was the case with most of the Brosnan run), it can be disappointing.  At the same time, there can be surprises along the way, things unexpected from a Bond movie, such as drama and pathos, that don't have to be bad things, unless you want them to be.

Looper

2012, Rian Johnson

I want to like Looper more than I do. I also want Looper to be better than it is. Rian Johnson's first film, Brick, is one of my all-time favs, and Brothers Bloom, his sophomore release, had a wonderfully curious energy, so I'm a fan. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, for his part, has gone from being a solid child and teen star to one of the most versatile and interesting actors of his generation... a career shift that not coincidentally started with Brick. Yes, I'm a bit of a fan of his too. So collectively, with Looper, a mini Brick reunion, I was both excited (and being a science fiction buff, even more so) and rooting for the picture.

It would be wrong to say I had high expectations, since I've stopped actively reading news and rumour websites and a multitude of reviews, I go into films with a lot fewer preconceived notions about what films should be. Looper I did enjoy at the time, but, many weeks later, it hasn't resonated as strongly as I'd hoped. Johnson's future is a conscious and imaginative one, extrapolating upon society current progress, establishing a broader expanse between the rich and the poor, while at the same time indulging in flights of fancy like hover-cycles and, yes, time travel.

The crux of the film, in which Levitt, a hit man in the present for mobsters from the future, has to "close his loop" by killing the future version of himself is at once a curious and ridiculous premise. The film does make something out of it though, examining both the emotional toll being a killer (and then having to face killing one's self) and the odd cat and mouse game between the two versions of himself. The film invests well in Levitt's character, lesser so in his future version played by Bruce Willis, so at times they feel like they could be the same person, but that connection doesn't hold constant throughout the film.

I think the film would have benefitted from a bit more focus on the hide and seek of Levitt and Willis squaring off. It instead opted for more of a lay and wait approach which permitted the film more characters (including a never unwelcome cameo from Garrett Dellahunt, a great supporting role from Jeff Daniels, and a surprisingly effective Paul Dano) and story development, but equally reduced the spectacle and goofy pleasure the film could have had.  The laws of time travel, as appearing in this film anyway, are vague and hard to pin down (particularly, how does one's injury today, affect someone from the future, today?)  If you don't think too hard about it, the film holds up, but scrutinizing too much will lead to headaches.

It's evident Johnson had loftier ambitions for Looper than a straight-up action movie or typical Hollywood sci-fi but without ever actually abandoning those tropes it sinks his film.  It doesn't have the budget of a summer blockbuster, so it should rely on the actors and script more fully.  In trying to deliver the chase sequence and the shootouts, it sinks the film somewhat to B+ movie levels.  In other words, enjoyable, but not great.  Good, but not dazzling.  I liked it, but not enough to want to watch it again.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Four Actions and A Comedy

(..wherein I present a review of a quintet of films brought together by the meager connective thread of having watched them months ago and are not quite fresh enough in mind to write longer reviews)

Baby Mama - 2008, Michael McCullers - netflix
Serenity - 2005, Joss Whedon - blu-ray
Salt - 2010, Philip Noyce - netflix
Centurian - 2010,  Neil Marshall - netflix
Kill List - 2011, Ben Wheatley - netflix

For no reason other than I don't remember in what order I watched these, let's start with the comedy.  Baby Mama came out many years ago as a vehicle hoping to capitalize on the notoriety Tina Fey and Amy Pohler gained for playing Sarah Palin and Hilary Clinton, respectively, on Saturday Night Live.  It's not strictly an "SNL movie", as it doesn't take an existing sketch and stretch it well beyond its breaking point to 90 minutes, ala Superstar or A Night At The Roxbury or Stuart Saves His Family, but it is the product of a writer-director coming from the SNL writers' room and, to no surprise, producer Lorne Michaels, so it's close.

I remember the commercials advertising the film back then and they seemed to center around Amy Pohler's lowbrow character going to the bathroom in the sink, and playing up heavily the sitcom-like scenario of a professional, well-to-do, single woman winding up sharing a her home with a crude, lower-class surrogate mother.  It looked forced, direly so.

Years later, Fey and Pohler are two of the most iconic female comic actresses on television, with their starring vehicles, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, being mandatory watching for comedy nerds.  My affection for Liz Lemon and Leslie Knope drove me back to Baby Mama, to see just how these two powerhouses handled themselves in a feature setting together.  Their intimate rapport creates an immediately likeable dynamic between the two of them, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that Pohler's character carried intellect, just not so much education or cultural refinement.  Fey's character is Liz Lemon played far more straight laced, though she makes a charming lead.

The script itself is bland, generic, which explains why it didn't come out to Bridesmaids-style "women are funny too" raves in '08 nor has it maintained any kind of cult status like Fey's Mean Girls.  It's a 1980's style comedy mixing the odd couple, the buddy comedy and the romantic comedy genres, but without really focusing upon the comedy.  It has heart, lots of it, but at the expense of humour.  I was hoping for an under-appreciated gem in which Pohler and Fey cut loose but they're fairly reigned it, though proving that they're both quite good at investing in their characters and roles.

Of all the films I'm covering, Serenity is the only one I've seen before.  I liked the Firefly TV show well enough, picking up on it shortly after its cancellation, but the spun-off film has always been where it's at for me.  I'm not a "Browncoat" by any means, but I still maintain that Serenity is the best space opera since the Empire Strikes Back.

Whedon's had a banner year with the Avengers, which was a necessary vehicle to show the non-geek masses exactly what this guy does.  The ensemble is his forte, but he's well versed in comedy and action, and certainly knows how to innovate and bring you concepts you've never seen before.  Serenity, 7 years prior, showcased all this with about a third the budget but just as much scope.

I don't think I've watched Firefly since before seeing Serenity in theatre, so the details of the program have gotten incredibly hazy, and I likewise probably hadn't seen Serenity since it's video debut, but I remember it with much, much more clarity.  Watching it again, on blu-ray this time, was like visiting with an old friend, and I was as rapt in its story as I know I was the first time I watched it.  Whedon's planet-hopping story brilliantly reintroduces the characters from the series, carries forward plotlines without requiring any of the background, and builds its own epic around them that is cerebral yet accessible.

I watched with a keen eye to see whether Serenity did work as a cold introduction to its characters and universe, and I'm pleased to say it does an exceptional job.  It skips over the "getting the band back together" bit, but presents each of the characters in a way that you understand their general being and their dynamic with one another in short order.  I particularly like the way Book, a regular character on the TV show, is reintroduced as that ancillary supporting character that gives the heroes aide in time of need, provides the hero guidance, but he himself remains much a mystery (as he was in the TV show).

The action in this film still wows me, the digital effects are one polish removed from those of today, but largely hold up.  I love the face-off between Mal and "The Operative" (Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant in this role of a mercenary with a serious conviction to his beliefs,  believably dangerous), both of them, though the later one is a classic.  The film still gives me tingles, and while the serialized nature of Firefly worked very well for the show, the epic scope of film worked even better.

Where Serenity mixes its SF and western genres impeccably well, and Baby Mama even managed to mash up different 80's comedy genres to some degree, Salt couldn't manage to bridge the gap properly between suspense, spy and action, not for lack of trying.  There's strong waft of Bourne Identity in the air of Kurt Wimmer's script, the quest for truth in identity is the center focus here as well.  Yet, the heightened tension and drama of trying to understand whether Evelyn Salt, the film's protagonist, is or isn't a deeply implanted Russian spy keeps getting deflated every time we're subject to another action sequence.

The action sequences are actually quite good, but they seem desperately overblown and out of place in what should otherwise be a cold war spy drama.  Basically think about if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy were adapted into a James Bond flick, that's about how well Salt works. 

2011's Hannah explored much the same themes but with greater success and style.  Director Philip Noyce has played at this kind of thing before with the Jack Ryan films starring Harrison Ford, and this feels like a 2000's deviation on those films.  That the character of Salt was originally scripted to be a man and the film was rumoured to be positioned as a starring vehicle for Tom Cruise makes perfect sense, as this seems like just the kind of unmemorable, lacklustre action movie that major stars like him, or Harrison Ford in his time, or Angelina Jolie should be featured in.  

I actually wish screenwriter Wimmer had directed this, as, for all the faults of his previous efforts like Ultraviolet and Equilibrium, at least he was adventuresome in his presentation and provided something different.  Salt could stand to deal with a somewhat misguided and spastic flavour, as when it gets plainly ridiculous late in its third act, it needs a ridiculous director to spice that up even more.  Wimmer still would have directed it with a direness to the situation, but in his experimentation there would have been some much needed fun.  And that's precisely what Salt is missing.

Neil Marshall is a contemporary of Wimmer, similarly having a few cultishly adored genre pictures under his belt in Dog Soldiers and the Descent (not so much Doomsday though, I believe) but never having launched to the next level as a director, because of the material he's working with.  Centurion is definitely a complimentary film to his existing repertoire, a decently conceived and shot Roman Empire-period action-adventure, but well shy of meeting the touchstones of blockbuster status.

The film opens with a long helicopters shot of the Scottish Highlands (of course it wasn't called Scotland back then, but neither were there helicopters, so whatever) with some hella cheesy sweeping title cards that are like Superman meets Fringe meets Braveheart.  From there it leads into a brief but CGI-enhanced bloody attack sequence, a Pict raid on a Roman encampment, where the film's primary protagonist, Quintas Dias (Michael Fassbender) is the sole survivor, taken prisoner.  It's all, well, not so good.  It looks alternately cheap and corny, but cheap in the sense that its trying to hard to cover its minimal budget, and corny in the sense that it doesn't do a very good job at it.

The second through line is the dispensing of the famed 9th Legion (led by Dominic West as Titus Flavius) to quell the Pictish threat.  That doesn't go so well, but in the process they rescue Quintas Dias and we have a Saving Private Ryan or Blackhawk Down-type scenario, only in this case, the person being saved is a total badass warrior and tactician and pretty much takes the lead of the remaining Legionnaires.  After Quintas' escape he's set upon by a horde of picts, led by their greatest tracker, the mute and entirely vengeful Etain (played by a fierce, gorgeous and decidedly scary Olga Kurylenko).

The first act is pained by it's uncertain focus and its attempts to cram too many ideas and characters into one space.  I'm trying to determine if the set-up spent too much or not enough time (I'm thinking the former) in getting to the meat of the film, the cat-and-mouse chase, as the overwhelmed Romans try in desperation to maintain their cool and make it to the safety of a Roman fortress.  By the end of the second act the film shows signs of real life and the third act is largely entertaining.  Though it does try, it never successfully surpasses its B-movie roots.. Not-yet-a-superstar Fassbender and not-yet-a-cult-hero West do provide the film a needed amount of not just credible, but bravura acting, especially in the face of some opposing dire performances.  The majority of the cast is fairly solid, but one or two of them... yowza, which producer's kid and/or father were they?  It's not a fantastic film by any stretch, but also not as dire as the opening act would suggest.  Centurion is the rare film that somewhat redeems itself in its third act, rather than throws away all its good will.

Speaking of which, Kill List doesn't necessarily throw it all away in the third act but it certainly takes a surprising dovetail into far stranger territory than the opening two acts would suggest, one that the viewer will embrace wholeheartedly in it's no doubt affectionate tribute to Wicker Man and it's likeminded 70's brethren, or flat out reject. 

My initial reaction to the unravelling threads in the third act was rejection, but in hindsight I have a surer appreciation for it and what co-writer/director Ben Wheatly was attempting to do.  The basic plot of the film finds former contract killer and now full-time family man wrestling with the idea of taking on another job, even though he desperately doesn't want to.  The film opens with some intense relationship drama as Jay and his wife Shel argue heavily about finances and anything else that comes up in the process. Wheatley's script (co-written with his wife Amy Jump) is blisteringly intense and grounded in these relationship sequences.  The performances here by Neil Maskell and the fetching MyAnna Buring are frightening, awkward and far too believable.  That they can play these roles so naturally, incorporating the whole angle of contract killing as if it's a natural part of life for this couple is by far the film's greatest strength, building a foundation that allows the wonky third act to remain grounded and frightening, instead of silly and stultifying.

As Jay and his partner, Gal, proceed with their assignment -- one paying big bucks, but providing no answer and carrying far too many secrets -- Jay begins to unravel under the stress.  His violent, thoughtless reactions to his victims and their increasingly erratic response to his arrival ("Thank you", they say, smiling) is indeed distressing.  There's obviously a reason he tried to quit the business, but this particular assignment seems almost designed to push his very mental limits.

I didn't love this film, at least not initially, but it's stuck with me in the recesses of my brain.  Wheatley created a simplistic seeming story that is clever in its intricacy and subtlety.  The sometimes confounding, almost forgettable subtle, yet bizarre touches and asides throughout on have a later payoff that is impressive in its execution, since they come up so brazenly yet are paid little attention to. It's sparse soundtrack, limited more to atmospheric noise than music, maintains a certain chilliness throughout the proceedings, while equally Wheatley marks his settings, wardrobes, and lighting with a largely natural sensibility. 

That third act is a divisive doozy, a quasi-twist which seems like a remnant from '70's suspense filmmaking.  The Wicker Man remake proved that it's hard to execute that kind of scenario without seeming ridiculous (but that could be all Nic Cage) and Hot Fuzz managed it but through the filter of absurd comedy.  Kill List manages to make it logical and intriguing, but it still feels quite out of date, which may be why it's so surreal (but I'm still discerning whether it's effective or inappropriate).

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Kid Flicks

The Nightmare Before Christmas - 1993, Henry Selick - DVD
Frankenweenie (Short) - 1984, Tim Burton - DVD
Hotel Transylvania - 2012, Genndy Tartakovsky - in theatre
Wreck-It Ralph - 2012, Rich Moore - in theatre
How To Train Your Dragon - 2010, Dean DeBlois, Chris Saunders - tv

The bane of many parents' existence is the prevalence of obnoxious children's programming in the household.  In Canada, the dedicated children's programming channel, Treehouse, is equally a parent's saviour (for times when you need to get stuff done, and need the kids out of the way) and nightmare (pretty much any other time you're exposed to it).  Some of the kids programming, like Yo Gabba Gabba, Octonauts and, even still, Sesame Street, is actually quite surprising, and casually engaging for even adults.

My household is a little more complicated, though.  With one television and two kids -- of different genders and seven years age difference -- it can pose a little more challenging to entertain both kids at once (or it should, but for some reason the 10-year-old still has no problem watching banal kiddie pap like Mike the Knight or Bubble Guppies).  As parents, we have to take a little ownership over what the kids watch and try to guide them towards quality entertainment, and in our situation, find something that will stimulate a 10-year-old boy that will also not be too advanced, frightening, violent, or challenging for a 3-year-old girl.

With the boy, he's always been cool with watching anything, so long as its a cartoon.  Live action stuff like Star Wars was never his thing.  As geeks, the wife and I have long had DVDs of cartoons we liked for him to watch: Batman The Animated Series, Justice League, Looney Toons, the Tick, Samurai Jack, as well he took a shining to the more mainstay Nickelodeon animated comedies, the children of Ren & Stimpy, like Spongebob and Fairly Odd Parents (the more palatable of the genre, the knock offs are atrocious and annoying).  As a result, though we've tried to reign our daughter into more age appropriate fare, we learned quickly that she could no only handle, but liked her brother's programming.

Both kids thankfully enjoy and can sit through movies.  The Pixar films are a particular hit with everyone in the house, but most other kid-centric films don't appeal as broadly.  So, it can truly be a crapshoot, a roll of the dice to find the winners that are not only worth watching, but worth watching again and again.  Outside of the mostly reliable Pixar, I've only found a handful of other movies that I like as much as the kids do.  Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs is ridiculous but tremendously funny with a great voice cast.  The Muppets, including the latest Jason Segal effort, Muppets From Space and the early films all hold a nostalgic potency that the kids seem to tap into as well.  I haven't test run The Fantastic Mr. Fox on my daughter yet, but the boy said, after watching it in the theatre, that it was probably the best movie he ever saw (I wonder if that would hold up).


Sitting on our shelf for years, untouched and unloved, was The Nightmare Before Christmas.  I've had this movie in my collection since it first came out on DVD in 2000, and if I've watched it more than once (until recently) I would be surprised.  I was, in the 90's, a Tim Burton devotee, and as a result I was committed to loving Nightmare even though I'm not all that certain I was as enamored with it as others became.  It wasn't a flop, but at the time it seemed a disappointment at the box office.  However, within a few short years it became a monster cult hit, spawning an endless barrage of collectibles still found in record stores, comic shops and novelty boutiques.

I recall trying to expose my step-son to Nightmare a few years back but he was creeped out almost instantly, and I don't think we made it ten minutes into the picture.  To be honest, I don't think I'd watched it in over half a decade and at that point couldn't recall any details beyond the chorus to a few of the songs.  Recently, it the pursuit to diversify my 3-year-old's viewing regimen, I asked her if she wanted to watch it, and I sat, hesitantly watching her in the opening minutes, waiting for her to cringe and tell me she didn't want to watch any more.

It would seem I have a little goth in training, as she adored it instantly.  It's beautifully creepy in its design, with cheerfully morbid songs and an ominous joie de vivre that my little girl obviously keyed into immediately.  With this, his feature directorial debut, Henry Selik proved himself a stop-motion animation wizard, rapidly earning prestige and clout within the industry and with fans alike.  Working from Tim Burton's poem and with his lanky and lean character designs, the figures give wonderfully expressive physical performances, while an unprecedented number of head sculpts (about 400) gives lead Jack Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon with Danny Elfman subbing in for the songs) a richly emotive face, while other characters had some subtle traditional animation overlaid for lip synching.

Almost two decades later, Nightmare still feels very fresh and unique.  Stop motion animation is such a heady commitment and time consuming endeavor that Nightmare's modest initial returns didn't spawn the spate of imitators it would have were it a blockbuster.  Combined with it's gothic sensibility, it's borderline creepy aesthetic and its unusual holiday connection, as well as a soundtrack that was far more sinister than the usual Disney fare (although they paid for it, Disney scuttled it under their Touchstone Pictures masthead, when it could have used the Disney push... but then the traditional animation brand was still riding its Lion King/Little Mermaid/Beauty and the Beast high, so they weren't willing to risk the brand on this unusual offering).

The film holds up as a holiday classic for two holidays, meaning parents can get a lot more mileage out of it.  It maintains a holiday movie sensibility but by splitting the difference between Halloween and Christmas it actually separates itself somewhat from both, meaning it can be enjoyed outside of any festive spirit.  It's soundtrack has maintained a classic sensibility, the songs having a compounding infectiousness that may not appear so catchy at first but certainly digging into the ear after multiple exposures.

It's obviously not going to catch every kid's interest, but those that do key into it will love it deeply.  If there's any negative to The Nightmare Before Christmas, it's that it is not long enough.   At a meager (but wonderful) 75 minutes, it seems over as soon as it starts if you're trying to occupy your kids while you go off and do something else.



The 2000 release of the DVD (and subsequent Blu-Ray releases) for The Nightmare Before Christmas contains Tim Burton's 1984 live-action short film (roughly 30 minutes) Frankenweenie, naturally the source for the 2012 animated feature of the same name.

Using black and white film, shooting with a low-budget, delightfully retro 50's sensibility and a style reflective of a hybrid Twilight Zone and Leave It To Beaver, Burton tells the story of a boy, Victor, whose dog, Sparky, is unceremoniously killed.  Though wallowing in grief, he learns of the wondrously restorative capabilities of electricity in science class, and spares no effort in attempting to revive his best friend from his mortal slumber, an effort which does not go unnoticed by a suspicious neighbour.

When Sparky is fully revived in a grade-school interpretation of the science lab from the classic Frankenstein movie, he unintentionally gets up to no good, riling up the neighbourhood and causing a panic.  This leads to another homage to the classic Frankenstein, with the neighbours taking up arms and chasing after the dog, only to unwittingly trap Victor and Sparky in a mini-putt windmill set alight.

It's a charming short with quality performances from child star Barrett Oliver (D.A.R.Y.L., Cocoon, The Twilight Zone The Movie) as Victor, Daniel Stern and Shelly Duvall as his parents and characters actors like Joseph Maher and Roz Braverman as the neighbours, and even kid supporting actors like Jason Hervey and Sophia Coppola in the mix.  Burton's natural flare for off-beat children's stories shines through, but filtering it through the peachy-keen 50's aesthetic lessens most of the darker edges.  It's that same retro-50's filter that gives this nearly 30-year-old production a timeless feel, as it adopts the vibe wholeheartedly rather than doing so through an 1980's filter.

If anything, it's overlong for a short feature, which makes me wonder exactly how padded out "Tim Burton's Frankenweenie", the new animated feature, must be.  (I believe David has a review in the pipeline).


This year has seen a curious trend in spooky children's entertainment, as if Hollywood has only recently caught on to the fact that kids like creepy things too.  David covered Paranorman recently, though it was released in August.  Frankenweenie came out in time for Halloween, preceded by Hotel Transylvania, a monster mash of a film, meant to be more of a comedy than fright fest.

The titular hotel in the picture was started by Count Dracula as a refuge for all monsters to come, to be free from the oppression of human society and to relax in the assurances of both security and camaraderie of fellow monsters.  Upon the celebration of his daughter, Mavis' 118th birthday, all of his monster friends have arrived at the hotel, but amidst the joyous occasion Dracula frets as his daughter seeks to establish her independence and venture out into the human world for the first time.

Dracula does manage to trick her into staying home, but the human world comes knocking on their door in the form of a young backpacker, Jonathan, who is both completely freaked out and equally enamored with the hotel and its denizens.  Disguised as a distant relative of Frankenstein by Dracula so as not to freak out his patrons and friends, Jonathan becomes the hit of the festivities and the object of Mavis' affections.

It's a cute plot that's equal parts parental anxiety and teenaged romantic comedy, but it's hindered by a painfully high number of puns and obvious gags involving the various monsters traits.  Featuring a script from British sketch comedy wizard Peter Baynham and Saturday Night Live/Late Night With Conan O'Brien alum Robert Smigel,  and featuring the voice talents of a largely ex-SNL cast, including Adam Sandler, Andy Samberg, Molly Shannon, David Spade, Jon Lovitz, and Chris Parnell, the film should have been far more amusing.  It is pretty sharp at times from a storytelling standpoint, but the overall tone of the humour and proceedings seems dumbed-down to juvenile levels.  Given how successful Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs was at being absurd but hilarious and romantic and sentimental, there's no reason Hotel Transylvania, with all its talents, couldn't have replicated that same sensibility.  Sandler, for his part, commits to one of his less annoying voices in his cinematic career, doing a hybrid of cliche Dracula and Triumph The Insult Comic Dog (actually it was mostly the latter... I wonder if there's a "for me to poop on" outtake or ten somewhere).

In a valiant but unsuccessful effort the film features a half dozen original songs.  It's definitely a preferable route than plugging in the kid-approved hits of the day, but also futile as they all sought to replicate those very same hits, to largely painful degrees.

The name that initially sold the picture for me, however, was director Genndy Tartakovski.  Tartakovski's brilliant resume, including the Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Lab and the first (and best) animated stab at Star Wars: The Clone Wars, was the main draw.  My daughter has discovered Tartakovski's Samurai Jack, a favourite of my step-son's as well, and I hold that show as the epitome of animation at the point where art crosses entertainment.  I was hoping some of Tartakovski's more unconventional influences and inspirations would come out in Hotel Transylvania, like they did in most of his previous work, but it's a fairly straightforward directorial effort.  The only scene that had any particular impact was a sweetly framed sequence of Dracula walking down the steeply-pitched roof to join a moping Mavis.  One stand-out composition was far less than I was expecting out of this (from what I've heard, however, Tartakovski was a late arrival on the project, its sixth director).

Given that I had really no preconceptions and no expectations from the film, I was neither disappointed nor pleased.  It was moderately entertaining, well animated, but overall a forgettable experience.



Getting away from all the creepiness, yet, still focussing on supposed bad-guys, Wreck-It Ralph is a kid-flick in the vein of Toy Story, wherein it builds a world for our playthings unknowingly in our midst.  In this case it's the shared world in the arcade, where video game characters can interact not only in their own game, but with any game.  Like Toy Story, the characters "come to life" after the arcade has shut down and there's no people to notice them.

But Wreck-It Ralph isn't so much about the world it inhabits, but the characters that inhabit it, which would actually be disappointing if the story and characters weren't so involving.  The titular Ralph is the bad guy in a vintage Donkey Kong/Rampage hybrid  arcade game called "Fix-It Felix Jr.", but after 30 years, Ralph is sick of being the bad guy and sets out in search of a gold medallion of his own, if not to be the hero, then at least be seen as less of a bad guy.  Of course, by abandoning his game, in the real world, they think the machine needs to be put out to pasture, so Fix-It Felix Jr. has one night to find Ralph and bring him back before they're unplugged.

Ralph, however, is a catastrophe waiting to happen and, true to his name, he kind of wrecks everything he touches, whether it's his intention or not.  When he winds up in the cutesy "Sugar Rush" racing game, he meets Vanellope Von Sweet, a glitchy character within the game who is similarly deemed an outcast by the other game characters.  The two characters naturally forge an uneasy friendship, Vanellope's playful, precocious, sarcastic nature continually sitting uneasily with Ralph's surly, patience-free, singularly focused demeanor.

To continue explaining the ins and outs of the film would take some time, as it's not so easily summarized.  For what's ostensibly a family movie, it's surprisingly dense in its structure, with moments building upon moments, and keeping virtually everything relevant.  Though it may seem like it at the time, there's truly no fluff in the film.

Wreck-It Ralph features a seemingly endless array of sight gags and gamer in-jokes, many of which I -- a very minor dabbler in video games -- picked up on, but I'm sure there were even more that I didn't.  Thankfully these types of jokes, unlike Hotel Transylvania, were laregely unobtrusive, and mostly set deep in the background.  They certainly weren't key to enjoying the film, which I think is its brilliance, that it could make a movie about video games, fill it with nuances that only gamers could appreciate, and yet make it accessible to almost every viewer.

The central story is about what it means for Ralph to be a bad guy, and the film very, very quickly takes the black and white of good and bad and plays with its shades of grey.  A formidable moment that kickstarts the third act finds Sugar Rush's monarch, King Candy (voiced with gleeful, lispy aplomb by Alan Tudyk) having the unfortunate job of convincing Ralph that in being a good guy and helping his friend Vanellope, he's actually going to do her more harm.  Then, upon returning to his own game, Ralph sees the effect of his quest for heroic redemption, the end of his own game.

The main voice talent is perfectly cast.  John C. Reilley provides the precise awkward voice for a gigantic, disheveled ape-man, while Sarah Silverman is the only person who can make being an incessant annoyance endearing and cute (well, perhaps Kristen Schall).  Jane Lynch playing the tough as nails sergeant from a Halo-esque shoot-em-up provided the perfect amount of edge and balls, but also just the right hint of fragility, while Jack McBrayer's puritan, high pitched, mid-western drawl is perfect for a beloved 80's video game handyman hero in the Mario vein.  That the cast largely recorded together as well makes for a noticeable impact on the repartee between characters, particularly Ralph, Vanellope and King Candy (though I don't know how anyone kept from giggling when Tudyk did his thing).

The animation, quite frankly, is some of the best I've seen with regards to attention to detail, and I'm not talking in the design of the worlds (although the central hub is brilliantly conceived, while the landscape of Sugar Rush is a thorough delight) but in the nuance of movements and the shifts in pixellation between games, and those moments where we see what's happening in-game from an outside perspective.  The animators, and the director, obviously know their gaming history and put their knowledge to good use.

And then there's the soundtrack, which blends video game sound effects from across the ages and old 8-bit style compositions with modern composition techniques to wondrous effect.  It's hard to pull one's self away from the visual stimulation of the images on screen, and even more difficult to remove one's self from the story to notice, but at times I found myself smiling only to realize that it was the score that was triggering it.

I'm more impressed with Wreck-It Ralph in hindsight than I was after first viewing.  Not to say that I disliked it, far from it, but I wasn't as enamored with it as early reviews seemed to imply I should be.  Yet, in thinking about the film, and writing about it now, I find myself flat out impressed by it.  Where Pixar let us down with the tepid mommy-issues story in Brave, Wreck-It Ralph (though a Disney proper film and not a Pixar effort) truly is the heir to the Pixar throne.  All that John Lasseter, Brad Bird, and Andrew Stanton built, designing wholly unique worlds amidst our own and populating them with characters worth investing in and seeding their movies with the broadest range of emotions and excitement, from empathy and humour to suspense and even mild horror, Wreck-It Ralph truly carries that torch.



Speaking of Brave (and to a lesser extent, Hotel Transylvania) and the whole "parental issues" subgenre of kid-flicks, How To Train Your Dragon is ostensibly of this ilk, and yet transcends it in ways Brave just couldn't see fit to do, by actually giving the main character a journey that wasn't so much about their parents but about them.

In HTTYD, Hiccup is the scrawny, wimpy son of the leader of a Viking clan, and though he's been given the role of apprentice to the weapons smith, he's aware how big of a disappointment he is.  The town they live in is occasionally attacked by dragons, and the culture takes great pride in the hunting and killing of dragons, as well as dying by them too.  During one such attack Hiccup manages to injure a fabled Night Fury in flight, and the next day, upon coming face-to-face with the wounded creature, finds that the killing spirit is not within him.

Naturally the two bond, as Hiccup studies the Night Fury, "Toothless", and learns more about their nature than any viking past.  Simultaneously, Hiccup is forced to participate in dragon-fighting training, but using his newfound knowledge of dragon whispering, Hiccup soon bests every captive dragon his trainer has, without ever having to use a weapon or harm the creature.  By the time his father returns from a hunting party, he's a celebrity, but naturally it's completely misunderstood.

The film develops the characters and their relationships nicely, including the kids, who are quite apparently born and raised amongst a warrior community.  The dragons equally have a mix of different races, each with their own nuances, and individual dragons with their own personalities.  There's a lot of emotion (a surprising amount for warriors, I would assume) throughout, all of it well earned.  Hiccup's path to hero, not just amidst his people, but amongst the dragons as well, is a wonderful tale with plenty of depth, humor and heart, as a well as a surprising amount of intensity and a respectable amount (for a kids picture) of the viking brutality in tact.

(Side note: I did find it odd that this Norse-god loving clan spoke with Scottish accents, save for the kids who spoke with conventionally North America accents, and yet, it kind of worked for the film.)


Of all of these, my 3-year-old is most enthused with The Nightmare Before Christmas.  She was about as enthused with Hotel Transylvania as I was, and while she liked Wreck-It Ralph, I'm not sure that it resonated with her like Iron Giant or Monsters, Inc. has.  I don't even think she stayed and watched all of Frankenweenie, while How To Train Your Dragon, she watched somewhat passively (though she mirrored my wife's comments that Toothless looks and acts very much like our black cat).

The 10-year-old, well, he's harder to read.  He tends to avoid Nightmare when it's on, and I think he really enjoyed Hotel Transylvania in that it seemed targeted specifically to his age group.  He seemed to assume that because Frankenweenie looked old (ie. 1950's old) that it was old (which it is) and seemed to dismiss it, only somewhat retaining interest because he knows there's a cartoon of it out there.  Wreck-It Ralph, well, he stayed through to the end credits, so I imagine he liked it, but he's not always the most forthcoming with his response to seeing a movie (I think the biggest responses I have seen out of him were the aforementioned Fantastic Mr. Fox and an arms-up-high, "AWESOME!" for John Carter).  He saw How To Train Your Dragon in theatres two years ago, and seemed to enjoy it, but he poo-pooed reading the novel series when suggested to him, so I guess he wasn't that enamored with it.