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.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

3 Short Paragraphs: Dredd 3D

2012, Pete Travis (Vantage Point) -- cinema

Walking out of the movie, I had an adrenaline high and was easily able to say it was my favourite movie seen this year.  Best?  Probably not, but definitely the one I have most thoroughly enjoyed.  This is a high action, high melodrama, ultra-violent genre flick that knows exactly what it wanted to be.  For me, it was what The Raid: Redemption wanted to be -- a floor by floor assault on the apartment complex owned by the bad guys.  But that is where the comparison ends. It is such a tight movie, a narrow and focused plot that provides just enough room for character development. The action is brutal, bleak and solidifies the world this is set in.  Karl Urban is spot-on as Dredd, never showing his face above the mega-scowl he permanently wears. Olivia Thirlby is the judge being judged, new to the brutality of this side of her world and we travel along with her and the transformation she experiences.

This is a movie based on an existing genre comic book franchise -- 2000 AD from which Judge Dredd is a primary character.  No, this is not the remake of the Stallone flick, which was an offense to every fan of the British comic books.  This is not even a properly over-the-top recreation of the comics, more a grittier (is that even possible?) down to the ground story telling in that world. In some ways it is hard to remember it is a genre flick for the bad guys are typical, more appropriate to any cop movie or an episode of The Wire.  It is the world that this is set, something the movie constantly reminds us with fly overs of Mega City One and the complete lack of regard for innocent life.  It is a dark near future after a holocaust in America, where irradiated wastelands (what better cliche phrase describes this genre's physical setting?) cover most of the land leaving singular walled cities that cover hundreds of miles.  In these cities are tower blocks, the projects of the future.  Each can easily hold 50,000+ residents.  And there are the judges easily described in the idiom, "judge, jury and executioner."  They are literally given the permission to perform these acts of justice, should the crimes call for it.  Of course, the stories are as much a comment on police states as they are balls to the walls scifi action stories.

We had to see this movie in 3D, which might be the only way it was released, considering that it is part of the title of the movie.  I have an eye condition that makes seeing 3D difficult and often headache inducing.  I also join Ebert in my contempt of 3D as an imposed technology not enjoying the inflated price, the post-production additions and the muting of colour.  But here they found an appropriate use as it added soooo much to the displayed effects of the slo-mo drug that plays a part in the movie.  These drug scenes, depicting how the drug slows your perception of time down to 1% of normal, were beautiful and colourful full of sparks and motes of dust that were just enhanced by the 3D effect.  The rest of the movie is dark and dirty, as we follow the two judges being hunted by the criminals who control the Peach Trees tower block.  Luckily colour schemes were already muted, so I doubt we noticed any alteration by the 3D tech.  And there were few "look its THREE-DEE" moments of sticking things in your face.