Showing posts with label adventure. Show all posts
Showing posts with label adventure. Show all posts

July 28, 2011

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Midnight in Paris, X-Men: First Class, The Tree of Life, Super 8

Midnight in Paris (A)

Having never been to Paris, I've enjoyed exploring the city's iconic setting in various films, from The 400 Blows (which I saw recently for the first time) to Amelie, Band of Outsiders, Ronin, Before Sunset, 2 Days in Paris, and even European Vacation and Ratatouille, to name just a few. I can see why it makes for such an enchanting setting for movies, and Midnight in Paris hit all the right notes for me again. The smells and spells of the city were a terrific complement to a dream-like fantasy story. Owen Wilson played essentially the same version of the same character he's played in every movie from You, Me, and Dupree to Shanghai Knights, and while I wouldn't have expected that character to fit here, it was a near perfect fit for the quirkiness of the narrative. I didn't buy the chemistry between his character and Marion Cotillard's, but then Midnight in Paris is not a love story between characters but between a director, a city, and his cultural and literary influences. I like that Woody Allen doesn't go to really any length to explain why particular characters are where they are, when they are. The charm of this movie is easy to succumb to, and that it's Allen's highest-grossing film to date speaks to the appeal for mature, original, simple cinema in the midst of the year-round blockbuster bonanza.

X Men: First Class (B+)

Here's a movie for which I couldn't explain my interest ahead of time, other than that some aspect of the original X-Men movie and the story has always intrigued me. It involves the fact that this series is set in the real world and involves real people and places, unlike Batman, for example (why the endless fawning over and praise of that story, I still don't know). You could say Watchmen is also set in the real world, and while those graphic novels may well be interesting (I haven't read them and hated the movie), I still find X-Men to be among the most socially relevant comic book series around. Mutants are, of course, a metaphor for any marginalized minority group in history, which makes the films both relatable and actually much more emotional than Spider-Man or, good grief, The Green Hornet. Lending to the realism in this latest film is the excellent acting from Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy, and Jennifer Lawrence. Casting seasoned dramatic actors in comic book movie doesn't always work (Ed Norton as The Incredible Hulk?), but it definitely did in First Class, and if the cast stays on for the next installment, I'll follow along as well.

The Tree of Life (B+)

Up until a few years ago, I had no idea Terrence Malick was so revered by 25-40 year old male movie buffs. Among my peers in the blogging world, Malick's The New World was far and away considered the best film of the last decade. I remember quite well seeing it in the theater and shrugging my shoulders on the way out, so the devout praise for the film has always escaped me. Not baffled me, because I didn't think it was bad, but escaped me, because...I don't know, maybe I just didn't get it, or know what I should have been watching for, or have enough patience and thought to consider its deeper meanings. I never did give it a second watch, but needless to say the hype around that film made me quite anxious to have a third shot at understanding Malick (I'd previously seen The Thin Red Line). My verdict on The Tree of Life? A visually captivating and ambitious meditation on the meaning of life and nature of family, but a somewhat emotionally dull one at that. Really the only emotion I felt, other than an utter sense of awe at the cinematography and visual effects, was an unnerving fear. Brad Pitt's character was terrifying and his presence was palpable even when he wasn't on screen - maybe that was the point (Sean Penn, meanwhile, seemed absent even when he was on screen). The father-son relationship is one of about a million things that Malick lays out for interpretation and analysis. Over the next few years, as that is sure to play out again online, at least I won't be as confused. And besides, I'd much rather people spend years discussing a film like The Tree of Life than a film like The Dark Knight. (That's two digs now at TDK, if you're keeping score at home.)

Super 8 (C+)

When is a remake not actually a remake? When everything about the new movie is identical to a previous movie, other than a few plot devices. Of course we know by now that Super 8 is J.J. Abrams' homage to the films of Steven Spielberg, but instead of being merely influenced by Spielberg's films (E.T. being the easiest comparison), Super 8 plays like a lesser version of one. Sillier dialogue, a plodding pace, and hardly a speck of originality (to say nothing of logical gaps - how did the camera and the car and the kamikaze teacher come out of the train crash essentially unscathed?). Watching Super 8, I felt like I'd seen it before: the rowdy dining room table, the same-looking alien with the same-sounding guttural growls and high-pitched chirps, the placid suburban neighborhood predictably thrown into chaos. Of course I realize that this criticism, besides making me come off as a total grouch, can also be applied to countless movies. Filmmakers are influenced by filmmakers throughout history, and I expect my issues with Super 8, rather than being based on the movie's own merit, actually just stem from my nostalgia for "the real thing" - Spielberg's films.

July 8, 2010

Getafilm Gallimaufry: Robin Hood, L'Enfant, Cruise's Curse, Toy Story 3, and The Two Escobars

Robin Hood (B+)

After too many months away from the movies I jumped in with both feet last week, starting with a big spring blockbuster that I didn't want to let get away from me on the big screen. In the last installment of Gallimaufry I declared my love for Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, as well as the Robin Hood brand as a whole. Out of the loop as I've been from the movies scene in 2010, I completely forgot that Ridley Scott's version was meant to be an introduction to the title character.

You could understand, then, why I was growing restless as the movie went on and on with only minor teases of the charm, wit, humor, and romance that I associated with Robin and his merry men. Ridley's crew was comprised of weathered patriots fighting a ruthless (and inexplicably baldheaded?) villain for the honor of King Richard's crown. Embarrassingly, I was left scratching my head all the way until the finale, after which a title card reminded us that "now the legend begins". Ahhh, that's right! I'm thickheaded like that sometimes.

January 14, 2010

On the Horizon: Beyond the Chair

Like most active bloggers, I get a steady stream of emails requesting me to post particular movie news, review particular films, or link to particular websites or blogs. Some of them I follow up on, most of them I do not, either out of lack of time or lack of interest. I was ready to delete an email I received from one Dusty Duprel this week before I realized it wasn't spam and I took a closer look at what he was asking me to do: 

My name is Dusty Duprel, and what I am doing is explained in the letter attached.  As you will soon read, a close friend of mine has a lot depending on spreading this letter. What's not written are the details of how rapidly his health is fading. The reason for leaving out the heart breaking details is that we don't want pity, only to celebrate what he has accomplished. I am writing you in hopes that you will post this on your website or blog for him. 

I read Dusty's letter and was touched both by how genuinely it was written and how strange it was that I, a complete stranger, could in some way help him achieve his goal. Such are the wonders of technology in the 21st century. Of course, this isn't actually about Dusty or blogging, which is why I'm just going to copy the letter directly here for you to read:

September 21, 2009

Theater Seens: Jurassic Park

If my memory serves me correctly, Jurassic Park was the first movie I saw in a movie theater three times. I've done so with a few movies since (School of Rock being one of them), but I'd never done it before that summer of 1993. For a 12-year old boy it offered a veritable trifecta of awesomeness: 1.) child characters that I could relate to during the fun moments and feel braver and older than in the scary moments; 2.) John Williams' majestic score (just listen to that thing, chills from the first note of the prelude!) for which I would soon be learning to play exhilarating timpani rhythm in the percussion section of my middle school band, and 3.) action-packed adventure, complete with real, living dinosaurs.

It wasn't that the dinosaurs just looked real, it was that they were real, at least for a few moments in my mind. Reflecting back on this movie, I am convinced it was one of the three movies released in the 1990's that changed cinematic visual effects forever, the other two being James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgement Day and James Cameron's Titanic. (As I mentioned in the 2009 movie forecast, I'm hopeful that Cameron will once again deliver an unprecedented sight with Avatar; no, I will not watch a trailer.)

The visual effects in Jurassic Park were so awe-inspiring that they weren't even shown in the trailers - a strategy that studios would be wise to consider to help build word of mouth advertising these days. Interesting to consider, isn't it - a massive budget and not even a money shot to get people excited? In the teaser trailer you saw in late 1992, and in the theatrical trailer that whet your appetite prior to the film's June 1993 release, you didn't see a single dinosaur. Watch them below- just a glimpse of T-Rex's foot, a silhouette, snout and claw of a Velociraptor, the back of a Triceratops, and side view of the head of a Brontosaurus (or maybe it's a Brachiosaurus; my elementary school education is fading), but never a full-on dino shot. The theatrical version might have been the best trailer of the decade in that sense that it showed a lot of facial reactions, but no sense of what these characters were reacting to.

June 8, 2009

Up: "You Know, That Disney Pixar Movie"

Carl recalls the days when a Disney movie was known as a "Disney movie"...

In the week or so since seeing Up, I've heard about a dozen people refer to it in conversation as "that Pixar movie", which, of course, it is. But it's also a Disney movie, officially, as all Pixar movies have been since Cars. There is a long and tumultuous relationship between Disney and Pixar, and if you don't know about it I'm not going to take the time to fill you in now, but I do urge you to track down and watch the excellent documentary The Pixar Story as soon as possible. The important point here is that "Disney-Pixar" is the agreed upon branding at this time, but "Pixar" is all that seems to matter - and all we should expect to matter from this point on.

Like millions of people, I grew up watching Disney movies. In fact the very first memory I have of seeing a movie in a theater is the rerelease of the classic Pinocchio in 1984, when I must have been three going on four years old. This was followed up over the next 10 years of my childhood by surely hundreds of viewings of Disney movies, culminating with what remains arguably my favorite (musically): Aladdin. Hours upon hours of my young life must have been spent watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia (also in its theatrical rerelease), Bambi, Dumbo, Alice in Wonderland, Cinderella, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, Robin Hood, The Fox and the Hound, Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, and The Lion King, to name most of the popular animated ones. Additionally, I have fond memories of these live-action Disney movies: Mary Poppins, The Love Bug, Herbie Rides Again, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, Herbie Goes Bananas, Never Cry Wolf, Return to Oz, Flight of the Navigator, The Mighty Ducks, and Cool Runnings. All of these were produced and/or distributed by Disney, and they were cherished entertainment for the kids of my generation (note that we never saw these propagandic shorts) .

Then two things happened: 1.) I grew older, and 2.) Disney began a slow decline in both the quantity and quality of their original films, to the present state where the brand is almost meaningless. At least it's meaninglesst in the semi-tangible way that I once knew it: imaginative, original, durable, wholesome entertainment for children.

To be honest, these days I have to throw up my hands when thinking about what constitutes a Disney movie. The Princess Diaries? The Rookie? Remakes of both Freaky Friday and The Parent Trap? Pirates of the Caribbean? National Treasure? Howl's Moving Castle? Miracle? Glory Road? High School Musical?
Invincible? The movies in The Chronicles of Narnia series? Hannah Montana? Meet the Robinsons? College Road Trip? Though I'm not making any judgment on the quality of these films (a few of them are even good), I have trouble reconciling them with the Disney movies of my childhood. They are still G- and PG-rated films made for families, but I fear the "Disney"-ness as I knew it is lacking from them, even if I can't exactly describe what that means. Am I alone here, or am I just missing the mark because I'm no longer the target demographic?

Either way, you could be forgiven for not realizing some of those were actually Disney movies. But then, without referencing an official list (from a tremendously helpful website) you might also not realize that Disney went from releasing one movie per year up until the early 1980's, then a few movies per year up until the early 1990's, to more than a dozen a year by the 2000's (exactly 12 last year, eight so far in 2009). Therein lies the rub: Disney grew too large in the last two decades, and in the process it diluted its own unique identity.

I realize I'm not breaking any news here to people who have been paying attention, and especially to those who know about the Pixar situation. But for whatever reason it wasn't until hearing so many people call Up "that Pixar movie" that the decline of Disney really hit home (even though the same phenomenon occurred with Wall-E last year). It's hard to complain when Pixar (excuse me, Disney-Pixar) continues to deliver such dazzlingly impressive films, yet a part of me fears that after this Christmas's The Princess and the Frog, Disney really will fall into a deep sleep, never to be woken again. Pixar is the Princess, and Disney is the Frog, and when lost in the memories of my childhood, well, I find that fact a little saddening.


Incidentally, instead of reviewing the dreamy magnificence of Up (which I would now like to call La maison en petits ballons), I'll simply share my surprise that nobody else was reminded of La maison en petits cubes, the earth-shattering, mind-blowing, Oscar-winning animated short by Kunio Kato, he of "Domi arigato, Mr. Roboto" acceptance speech fame. Now, I realize 99% of people who have seen Up have not seen the short, but even those who have seen La maison apparently haven't noticed its similarity to the simultaneously intoxicating and heartbreaking montage of Carl and Ellie's marriage. Considering the set-up of the main character, the melancholic piano score, and even the use of a tree as a romantic rendezvous point, I'm baffled. (And it should go without saying that I'm not accusing one of copying the other; both obviously took years to develop.)

And so I leave it up to you now. When I reviewed the 2009 Oscar Animated Shorts I embedded this short and I'm not sure who was able to see it before it was taken down. I have once again found it but can not guarantee it will be around for long. I can imagine Kunio Kato is not happy about his film continuing to pop up online, but I consider the man a talented genius and I only hope that he can forgive my enthusiasm in showing his work to as many people as possible. Before or after your next viewing of Up (or, La maison en petits ballons), take twelve minutes in a quiet place and enjoy La maison en petits cubes (may take a moment to load):

December 25, 2008

REVIEW: Bedtime Stories (B)

"Is this really what I have to do to get people to watch my movies?"

Find my review from the Star Tribune here. It seems I'm in extreme opposition to the critical consensus in enjoying Bedtime Stories, but all I can say is that I watched it as a silly Disney movie for kids, while it appears others expected a mature, witty comedy for grown-ups.

Writing - 8
Acting - 9
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Social Significance - 3

Total: 43/50= 86% = B

November 26, 2008

REVIEW: Slumdog Millionaire (A+)

When Barack Obama was elected President three weeks ago, millions of people around the world experienced a vaguely familiar sensation, a fleeting flash of emotion that they savored for the simple reason that it just doesn't happen every day. They felt exhilaration.

Danny Boyle's life-affirming Slumdog Millionaire not only has the power to awaken your heart in the same way, but it has healthy doses of intelligence and style to boot. You can call it a modern-day fairy tale or a touching romantic comedy or a thrilling action-adventure or a tender coming-of-age drama. I'm calling it the best movie I've seen so far in 2008 - and it's not even close.

Boyle has a tendency to evoke these polarizing, effusive reactions to his films. People loved Trainspotting. They hated The Beach. They loved 28 Days Later and Millions, but just last year they hated Sunshine. And now, as the pattern continues, they love Slumdog Millionaire. Chart the critical response to his films over his career and you have what resembles an EKG reading.

In fact Boyle's films might very well be appropriate to use in cardiology research, because while watching them your heart has to pump twice as much blood to keep up with your sensory processes. In Slumdog Millionaire, your ears are put to work as you distinguish the different accents and languages from the bustling urban noises from the thumping soundtrack songs. Your skin perspires as your muscles reflexively contract and relax between adrenaline bursts. You might not taste anything, but it can sure feel like you're smelling something (one scene in particular will have you holding your nose). And your eyes? Your eyes just soak it all in, unsure of where reality ends and fantasy begins. Slumdog Millionaire is the most visually arresting movie of the year next to The Fall (their vibrancy is not their only shared trait), and it shows that Danny Boyle is an artist unafraid to paint the canvas of film with daring brushstrokes of color and light which, in the hands of the another director, would simply come off as pretentious.

But is there substance behind all of that style? Loads of it, actually. Based on a novel by Vikas Swarup and told in a series of colorful flashbacks, Slumdog Millionaire tells the life story of Jamal Malik (newcomer Dev Patel, whose puppy-dog face reminded me of a young David Schwimmer), a mature 18 year-old from the slums of Mumbai who is one question away from winning unimaginable fortune on the Indian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?". Convinced that no uneducated "slumdog" could advance to the last question of the game, the show's host arranges for a local police officer (Irfan Khan, The Namesake) to interrogate Jamal until he admits to cheating. We enter the story in between these torture sessions, which include electrocution and simulated drowning.

But Jamal isn't cheating, as we soon find out. Nor is he a genius, and nor is he just making lucky guesses. He is...well I won't say more, but it's fair to say that you'll enjoy the movie a lot more if you accept that the story really is a fairy tale, and as Jamal recounts his life story in relation to each of the questions he correctly answered on the way to the final question, we’re meant to be inspired, not surprised. His is a story of hope in the midst of despair, joy in the midst of pain, and love in the midst of impossible circumstances. During his young life, Jamal is betrayed, orphaned, kidnapped, held hostage, beaten, and, most painfully, separated from the love of his life, Latika (Freida Pinto). It was his heroic quest for Latika, and not the money, that brought Jamal to “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” in the first place.

The genius of Slumdog Millionaire is that it perfectly balances these two story threads – romance and adventure – with appropriate portions of comedy, drama, and real suspense. Screenwriter Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty) livened up his adaptation of Swarup’s novel by traveling to India and interviewing street children in the slums of Mumbai, where the film was eventually shot on location. As Beaufoy explained in a recent interview, "I wanted to get (across) the sense of this huge amount of fun, laughter, chat and sense of community that is in these slums. What you pick up on is this mass of energy." To say the least.

Framing street life in Mumbai as a joyous party is admittedly na├»ve, but anyone who doesn’t seen the pain, poverty and desperation illustrated throughout Slumdog Millionaire simply has their eyes closed, and they probably aren’t grasping the point of the story anyway. Boyle is not glossing over a terrible situation with syrupy romance, vivid colors, beautiful people, and underdog successes, he’s simply trying to get the attention of the people who believe, rather ethnocentrically, that places like Mumbai are devoid of those universal elements of culture. If you’ve gone home without that realization, wake up and get back to the theater.
Young Jamal Malik has a bright future ahead of him - and he knows it...

Once every few years, a movie comes along that redefines the way you look at cinema. It reminds you that films don't need to be deathly serious in order to be powerful and important, and they don't need to feature Oscar winners in order to showcase impressive acting (especially among the youngest members of the cast). More than anything, they reaffirm your faith in an art form that continues to evolve in ways that you couldn't imagine. Slumdog Millionaire is one of those movies. Like Cidade de Deus before it, and Fight Club before it, Slumdog Millionaire gripped my entire being for two hours, transporting me to another place and another life without allowing for even a moment to breathe. As was the case on election night, I found myself on a natural high as the celebratory end credits rolled. It felt like I'd just won 20 million rupees.

Writing - 10/10
Acting - 10/10
Production - 10/10
Emotional Impact - 10/10
Music - 5/5
Social Significance - 5/5

Total: 50/50= 100% = A+

Addendum: You didn't think I was going to pass up an opportunity to shamelessly boast about the featured song in this movie, did you? Indeed, for the second time this year, a song that I chose last January for the 2007 missing soundtrack was featured in a movie in 2008 (the first being Ryan Shaw's "We Got Love" in My Blueberry Nights), and that's not even counting the ones that have been used in commercials throughout the year. M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" can be heard almost in its entirety in Slumdog Millionaire, fortunately leaving a bigger mark than it did when it was hijacked for the Pineapple Express trailer (which ended up bringing M.I.A. from obscurity to popularity). Although the song wasn't used here in the end credits, as I proposed, it was about as close to perfect as you could get. So the question becomes:

Daniel Getahun is awesome at predicting random songs that would fit well in movies. How did he do it?:
a.) He cheated.
b.) He's lucky.
c.) He's a genius.
d.) It was written.

July 11, 2008

300 Words About: Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Side effects of drinking Tecate Light may include ruby red skin and a violent temper.

On a scale of 1 to 10, my desire to see Hellboy II: The Golden Army went from zero a few months ago, to five in the last few weeks, to seven in the last few days, and, finally, to eight as I was taking my seat. I haven't seen the first Hellboy, you see, but the right people had been championing it as the right mix of fantasy, action, and comedy.

Based on the sequel I would say they're, well, absolutely right, especially about that last bit. In fact I don't know of a film in this "genre" that has been this funny since Men In Black - which it turns out actually wasn't that funny, as much as TBS insists it was. As the title character, Ron Perlman (work much, dude?) is hilarious, and his sidekick Abe Sapien (Doug Jones, who is on thin ice here having been in two of my top 5 worst movies ever) has all the polite charm of an aquatic C-3PO.

I'm making Hellboy II sound like a comedy, which, while true, can distract from the other highly impressive aspect of this film: the stunning visual effects and production design, thanks to director Guillermo Del Toro, master of the underworld. Although I was a little disappointed to see such obvious similarities to the sets and characters of his Pan's Labyrinth, Del Toro has to be considered a leading visionary in producing terrestrial creatures.

Increasingly, his attachment to direct the upcoming Hobbit movies is sounding more and more enticing. Seeing these creatures in action is an even more amazing spectacle, and the killer beanstalk scene halfway through Hellboy II puts to shame every similar moment in Cloverfield, Iron Man, and The Incredible Hulk.

Unfortunately, it's after that scene that Hellboy II starts to lose momentum, turning into a somewhat predictable race against time/climactic battle (don't forget the movie's subtitle). We can enjoy the effects along the way, but we also start to notice that we're just not having as much fun anymore, or at least not as many laughs. I can't go too far in tackling the plot as I'm ignorant of both the original film and comic book, but suffice it to say, I'll mostly be looking forward to Hellboy III for its visual wonders.

Even so, I somehow ended up enjoying this one more than any of the other superhero movies of the summer so far. Whaddya got, Batman?

May 31, 2008

300 Words About: Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Though I saw it on opening night, the only thing I can add to the millions of reviews in the week since its release is: What did you expect? Maybe people felt betrayed by the trailer (which I dutifully avoided), but it seems the general consensus is that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is an inoffensive but otherwise fluffy failure that doesn't belong in the same conversation as the original trilogy. To which I say, again, what did you expect?

Unfortunately, this is the state we're in. Right around 2000, Hollywood figured out that, along with comic book movies, all they needed to do was continue to churn out sequels upon sequels and people would show up at the theater. And they were correct, as six of last year's top ten highest-grossing films were follow-ups to earlier movies. I can't put my finger on exactly when my expectations of these sequels dropped to near zero, but it's greatly helped me get my past my disappointment when a highly anticipated installment, like this one, fails to fully recapture the magic of its predecessors. In other words, I've wised up since The Phantom Menace. It's a sad way to see a movie, but it's necessary to avoid heartbreak.

So, Crystal Skull. It wasn't great but I got what I hoped for: Harrison Ford throwing sick two-handed punches (my favorite part of every Indy movie), everybody saying silly lines, at least one booby-trapped cave expedition, and John Williams' score. Additional positives were Shia LaBeouf (4 spelling tries there) proving that he's still one my favorite young actors, and my sister excitedly watching a terrific chase scene filmed at her alma mater. The big negatives were, of course, a completely ridiculous (even eye roll-inducing) plot and a stilted performance by Cate Blanchett, who appeared to to take this Oscar-seriously. Sure, it would have been nice to have an interesting and/or believable reason for Indy to take off to Peru, but the lack of one didn't ruin it for me because there were enough familiar elements to appreciate. It wasn't as warm and cozy as home (Raiders), but it felt like hanging out at a good friend's house.

May 30, 2008

Underrated MOTM: Return to Oz (1985)

I should tread lightly with May's Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) because I know it has a cult following. Or I guess I should say, I've just learned it has a cult following. Hopefully I don't get too much wrong here. It was simply a weird, dreamy movie from my childhood, but I've realized that I haven't heard about it in years. It's not as good as The Neverending Story, which came out the year prior and completely overshadowed it, but it occupies a similar place in my memory. Of course, your reaction to it will depend on your age at first viewing.

My memories of Return to Oz are haunting and fascinating - everything a movie should be when you're a kid. I actually went back and forth with which poster to use. The cute theatrical sheet features great art but I chose this teaser poster because it better captures the message of the film: Oz is no magical wonderland, it's the hellish place where your nightmares live.

Devoted fans of The Wizard of Oz will know that the 1939 film was based on the first installment in a series of books by L. Frank Baum, all of which had lost their licensing rights by 1980, when Academy Award-winning editor and sound designer Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now) began adapting two of the later books for his planned sequel. Murch, whose work on Return to Oz would be his first and last stint as a director, fought for years to get his picture greenlit. Disney finally took the bait, but his problems continued when production was temporarily shut down due to a ballooning budget and child labor regulations, since Fairuza Balk (Almost Famous, American History X), playing Dorothy in her film debut, was only nine years old.

Return to Oz was eventually released in 1985 with the ringing endorsements of Murch's friends, who just happened to be George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Philip Kaufman. It premiered at Radio Music City Hall and went on to gross...$11 million, thanks in large part to crabby critics (no doubt nostalgic for the 1939 Oz) who apparently could come up with no other word to describe it than "bleak." Siskel & Ebert famously gave it a "thumbs down". Time Magazine's Richard Shickel: " would defy the gifts of an Olivier to find interesting, amusing life in a context as charmless and joyless (and songless) as the one Murch and his design team have concocted." The Boston Globe's Jay Carr: "...when it isn't a grim downer, it's largely inert." The Los Angeles Times' Sheila Benson: "...the framework surrounding Return to Oz is dark and, I suspect, terribly frightening for very young children." And the New York Times' Janet Maslin: " Children are sure to be startled by the new film's bleakness....Oz itself, formerly a never-neverland existing somewhere in Dorothy's and the audience's shared imagination, now resembles any old extraterrestrial setting. It couldn't be further away." (I also have to share this now-amusing bit of Maslin's: "Claymation, a new stop-motion animation technique that allows rocks to speak, wink and develop faces whenever they feel like it, is used to remarkable effect here." Wow.)

It also didn't help that Return to Oz was rated PG. That's right, PG instead of G. This was before PG-13, remember, and anything with that "P" in it was a signal to parents everywhere that a film was in fact inappropriate for kids. I'm more than disturbed at where we've ended up with MPAA ratings in 2008, but that's another thought for another time.

The fact is, Return to Oz actually was pretty scary, and some of its more disturbing scenes were cut when it aired on the Disney channel. Soon after her original adventure, Dorothy escapes from a mental hospital after being submitted to electro-shock therapy. Her cell mate apparently drowns during the escape, and Dorothy wakes up in Oz, where the yellow brick road has been destroyed. The Tin Man and Cowardly Lion have been turned to stone, and the Scarecrow has been kidnapped by the evil Nome King and transformed into an ornament. Oz is policed by Wheelers, some of the freakiest things my young eyes had ever seen (turn up the volume...). Dorothy gets locked up again by the evil Princess Mombi, who had a gallery of 31 interchangeable heads that scared me for years. As you can see, this has turned out to be a horror show. We have a brief respite of light fun when Dorothy meets Jack Pumpkinhead (a stick man...with a pumpkin for head), who helps her fashion some kind of flying couch, but then it's back to life-or-death in a final showdown with the Nome King. You have three guesses to figure out which ornament was formerly the Scarecrow, Dorothy, or you die and become an ornament yourself - for eternity.

So the story was a little dark. That aside, the special effects were good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination and, well, that was really it. Although Walter Murch still works as an editor and sound designer (Youth Without Youth, Jarhead, Cold Mountain), he never wrote or directed another film. Fairuza Balk's career evidently peaked in the late 90's, and even Piper Laurie (as Aunt Em), who would receive her third and last Oscar nomination the following year for Children of a Lesser God, hasn't received much attention since then.

Despite all of this, the film lives on for one simple reason: it's a mysterious, provocative reimagining of that special place called Oz, and its characters are, let's face it, a lot more interesting than lions and scarecrows. I haven't read any of Baum's books, but there are those who will argue that his original idea of Oz was closer to Walter Murch's than it was to Victor Fleming's. Obviously that will be hard to accept for fans of The Wizard of Oz, but I think it's kind of funny. We always think these children's stories are supposed to be pure and innocent, when in fact they're also kind of trippy and subversive. Have you ever sat back and thought about a Roald Dahl book?

I don't think I've seen Return to Oz since I pushed it on my friends at some point in college, but there are several parts of it that I'll never forget, and its technical influence on later fantasy films is too often overlooked.


May 21, 2008

REVIEW: The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (B)

Background: It's not discussed much any more, but I'm still curious as to what sparked the countless fantasy novel film adaptations at the turn of the millennium - The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, The Chronicles of Narnia, Eragon, Twilight, The Hobbit and so on. What was the catalyst, since a number of these were written so long ago? Maybe technology...anyway, the most recent installment is The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, which follows up The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and precedes The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, due out in 2010. Andrew Adamson (Shrek and Shrek 2) is directing the trilogy, the four Pevensie children are played by the same young actors (William Moseley as Peter, Anna Popplewell as Susan, Skandar Keynes as Edmund, and Georgie Henley as Lucy), and Aslan is again voiced by Liam Neeson. Joining the cast are Ben Barnes (Stardust) and Peter Dinklage (Death at a Funeral). Prince Caspian was filmed in Prague, Slovenia, New Zealand and Poland.

Synopsis: We're back in Narnia, thirteen hundred years after the Pevensie children laid down their royal crowns and returned home. Narnia has been ruled with an iron fist by King Miraz (Sergio Castellitto) since the Telmarine people arrived and took over with brute force, banishing the few surviving Narnians to live in exile in the woods. Like all Telmarines, Prince Caspian (Barnes), current heir to the throne as Miraz's nephew, is told that the yarns about Narnia's Golden Age are fantasy, and not history. Caspian is an unassuming young man, however, and is perhaps a little too curious and a little too innocent to continue the Telmarine's dark rule. When King Miraz bears a son of his own, then, he naturally sends his guards to kill Caspian, who makes a daring escape to the woods, where we meet Trumpkin (Dinklage), Nikabrik (Warwick Davis), Reepicheep the Mouse (Eddie Izzard), and Trufflehunter the Badger (Ken Stott). Desperate, Prince Caspian blows the magic horn (formerly Susan's) that dispatches the Pevensie children back to Narnia (it's only been a year in their lives since they left, don't try the math). After finding Caspian and reuniting the remaining Narnians in the woods, the film can naturally only go in one direction: all out battle between the Narnians and the Telmarines. While there are several symbolic incidents and speeches, Aslan sightings, flirting scenes, White Witch sightings, and silly arguments, better than half the film is made of up violent combat. Duels, ambushes, stabbings, and even a suggested decapitation. As you might expect if you've read this far, good (and God) trumps evil...for now.

I Loved:
+ The terrific special effects, which are so easy to take for granted when we see them in every movie. Some of these sequences would have blown away audiences just 10 years ago.
+ The musical score by Harry Gregson-Williams, who also just happened to make his acting debut (in his 66th film) as the voice of Pattertwig the Squirrel.

I Liked:
+ The centaurs. You don't mess with centaurs.
+ Ben Barnes' Mediterranean/Spanish accent. Got me with it.

I Disliked:
- The unnecessary long 147-min. running time, cluttered up with repetitive action and stale "after school special" scenes.

I Hated:
- The unbearable, juvenile flirting between Susan and Prince Caspian. Yeah, I realize 14 year-olds might be the target demographic for this, but I didn't think I'd be watching the CW or whatever channel plays that stuff.

Writing - 7
Acting - 8
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 42/50 = 84% = B

Last Word: I have to admit some bias toward The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, as it brought to life my favorite (and best remembered) of the Narnia books. I thought the film was a totally appropriate adaptation (if not as pure as the BBC version), with the right mix of charm, action, and humor. Unfortunately, Prince Caspian only delivers the action, and in such great volume as to outweigh anything else in the film anyway. Worse still, it's not even original action - frequently I was reminded of similar scenes in Braveheart, Gladiator, and any of the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings films. Am I saying the fighting was out of place? No. This is meant to be a much darker film, and to that end it's quite successful. The themes revolve around betrayal, revenge, greed and power, and the body count is through the roof. All this combines to make Prince Caspian a war epic disguised as a PG-rated adventure movie for kids. I didn't slip into my 10 year-old self very easily, but I still found myself cheering on the Pevensies and soaking in the beautiful scenery of Narnia, and I suppose that's a good enough reason to spend several hours in front of the big screen.

February 16, 2008

REVIEW: Jumper (F)

Background: In this post-award season of Hollywood fluff, studios dump as many shelved films as they can into the mainstream. Occasionally I venture to the multiplex to see what the temperature is, as I did yesterday afternoon with Jumper, an adaptation of Steven Gould's 1992 novel by the same name. Directed by Doug Liman (Swingers, Go, The Bourne Identity), Jumper stars Hayden Christensen (Star Wars..., Shattered Glass), Samuel L. Jackson (Black Snake Moan, Snakes on a Plane), Rachel Bilson ("The O.C.") and Jamie Bell (Billy Elliot). Based on the premise, the marketing, and the stars, Jumper appears to be simply an excuse to make a video game in the future. Oh, it's already done? Huh.

Synopsis: David Rice (Christensen) discovers during his adolescence that he is a "jumper" - he can teleport anywhere, any time. Naturally he spends his time robbing banks, cavorting with women around the world and scoffing at newscasts of people suffering ("but no one can get to them," moans the news anchor). In short, he's a jerk - he knows it, and so do we. Eventually Roland Cox (Jackson), leader of the "Paladins" (mortal enemies of jumpers since ancient times), tracks down Rice, who meanwhile has inexplicably decided to court his childhood crush, Millie (Bilson). While in Rome with Millie, Rice meets Griffin (Bell), another jumper who is obsessed with killing Paladins and who has numerous hand-drawn sketches of Roland Cox on the walls of his "lair" in the middle of some desert. Rice and Griffin spend a really awkward 20 minutes flirting with each other while walking and driving through Tokyo (why was Griffin so desperate to go there again?). Rice is trying to persuade Griffin to agree to some juvenile superhero pact that will allow them to go after Roland Cox together. Griffin finally agrees, and the last 10 minutes are a painfully cliched mess (girl in danger, boy down but not out, boy finds incredible strength, saves girl, bad guy outfoxed, sequel foreshadowed).

I Loved:
+ The on-location filming in several locales - NYC, Italy, Egypt, Japan, France, and...Michigan.

I Liked:
+ Jamie Bell, for about two seconds when I could imagine him in any other movie.

I Disliked:
- Samuel L. Jackson's ridiculous hair-do. Does this guy really need a silly look for every role?
- The waste of Diane Lane - we see her in photographs more than in person.
- Hayden Christensen - good grief, get a personality and get out of sci-fi movies. Stick with roles like Life as a House and Shattered Glass, if you're going to do anything at all.

I Hated:
- The meaningless plot - what is this "war" about and how has it remained under wraps since "medieval times"? (And on that note, has no one in history ever asked, "Where did you just come from?")
- The stomach-churning cinematography - why vigorously shake the camera when a character is just standing in place doing nothing? Oh yeah, it adds "realism," because we all live in a perpetual earthquake.

Writing - 4
Acting - 5
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 4
Music - 5
Significance - 1

Total: 26/50= 52% = F

Last Word: I started grading this and just couldn't find low enough marks. Across the board, Jumper is an entirely lackluster, highly obnoxious production that doesn't even try to make up for its lack of characters. Oh, there are people "acting," but it would be a stretch to say that any of them have a personality or interesting quirk of any kind (OK, so some of them can teleport, but that becomes less and less interesting when you learn they aren't actually going anywhere with any kind of purpose). Between unnecessary close-ups and nauseating camera work, we're subject to offensive dialogue (it's not profane, just idiotic) and a confusing-yet-somehow-familiar plot. Doug Liman seems to be trying to launch his own Bourne trilogy here, but without Matt Damon, cool action, and a plot, it's going to be a difficult task. I really had some hopes for Jumper, if for no other reason than as a trip around the world, which is about the only thing it does moderately well (but Hayden Christensen eating a sub sandwich on top of the Sphinx?). Fanboys I'm sure will defend this through its trilogy, but as a newcomer to the story I am utterly disappointed. Yet another example of a relatively cool idea messed up with romance, jerks for characters, and cliched plot elements. Save the trip - you'll wish you could teleport out of the theater.

December 22, 2007

REVIEW: National Treasure: Book of Secrets (B-)

Background: Director Jon Turtletaub and screenwriting couple Cormac and Marianne Wibberley join forces again to follow up on their 2004 smash National Treasure. The trio of Nicolas Cage (Ghost Rider, World Trade Center), Diane Kruger (Troy), and Justin Bartha are all back for the sequel, along with Jon Voight (Transformers) and Harvey Keitel (Pulp Fiction). Joining the regulars this time are Helen Mirren (The Queen) and Ed Harris (Gone Baby Gone). As with the first film, the sequel was filmed all over the world, from Paris to South Dakota, where Helen Mirren reportedly had to stay and pass up an opportunity to meet Queen Elizabeth II in recognition of her Oscar-winning performance in The Queen.

Synopsis: Treasure hunter Ben Gates (Cage) and his father Patrick (Voight) are shocked to find out that their ancestor Thomas Gates was involved in the conspiracy to assassinate Abraham Lincoln, according to evidence presented by bad guy Mitch Wilkinson (Harris). Ben enlists the help of Riley Poole (Bartha) and his ex-girlfriend Abigail Chase (Kruger) to find a new treasure, one that involves trekking to Paris, London, the Oval Office, and Mount Rushmore. Oh, and also kidnapping the president to find out about the location of the secret "President's Book." The Gates team is in an "Amazing Race" against Wilkinson's crew, which sorely lacks the gadgetry and comedic relief of Riley Poole. Eventually all roads lead to a secret city buried behind Mount Rushmore, and somehow Thomas Gates is vindicated. A nice cliffhanger is also tacked on, surely foreshadowing a third National Treasure.

I Loved:
+ That the movie doesn't take itself seriously.
+ Justin Bartha as Riley Poole, once again. I don't know how he can be funny without being annoying, but he can.
+ The ridiculous high-tech wizardry - nothing is impossible to crack.

I Liked:
+ The musical score, same as in the original National Treasure.
+ Helen Mirren and Ed Harris, each of whom fit perfectly for their new role.

I Disliked:
- Diane Kruger's lingering German accent.
- The somewhat drawn-out ending.

I Hated:
- That it wasn't really a good movie. Lots of star power, but not enough charm or care taken with script to make it an Indiana Jones-quality movie.

Writing - 8
Acting - 8
Production - 8
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 5
Significance - 2

Total: 40/50= 80% = B-

Last Word: You simply can't take National Treasure: Book of Secrets seriously. Let's get that out of the way first. It's a Disney adventure movie with improbable twists, sensational stunts, and some light comedy and romance thrown in. OK, full disclosure: I loved the original National Treasure. Maybe it just grew on me because it was on the Starz channel every day, but it's a good time. I've got good news if you're with me on that - the sequel delivers. I still can't really follow the plot (basically, where does it come from?), but that hasn't stopped me from enjoying either installment thus far. The humor and action are plentiful and appropriate here, though I could have used some more wisecracking out of Justin Bartha as Riley Poole. Nicolas Cage and Diane Kruger have their bickering in good form, and Ed Harris fills in nicely for Sean Bean as the "bad" treasure hunter. National Treasure: Book of Secrets is more entertaining fluff than I usually see, but it's about as close as you can get to old-school adventure comedies these days.

December 10, 2007

REVIEW: The Golden Compass (C)

Background: British author Philip Pullman took the U.K. by storm in the late 90's with his massively popular trilogy of books titled "His Dark Materials," the first installment of which was The Golden Compass. Capitalizing on the success of the Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia films, Chris Weitz (About a Boy) adapted the book with Pullman over several years and much controversy. The story is by Pullman's own admission a direct counterargument to C.S. Lewis's case for Christianity in the Narnia series. This has of course raised the hackles of many Christians, some of whom have called for a boycott of the film. Starring Daniel Craig (Casino Royale, Layer Cake), Nicole Kidman (Margot at the Wedding), Sam Shepard (Hulk, Ghost Rider), and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, The Golden Compass was filmed in Norway, England, and Scandinavia, and features extensive use of computer animation.

Synopsis: Lots going on here. Each human has a "daemon" - a talking animal that embodies the person's soul, and trots alongside them like a lifelong pet. Lyra Belacqua (Richards) is a troublesome young girl who lives as an "orphan" at Jordan College in England. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Craig) is a dashing scientist who is on the verge of discovering the source of "dust," which binds all the worlds in the universe together, and which (I think) represents free will and/or the Holy Spirit. In the other corner is the Magisterium (the Catholic church), which seeks to control people's behavior and prevent humans from learning about dust by any means necessary, including attempts to dispatch of Lord Asriel. Its chief operative is Marisa Coulter (Kidman), who is leading a research experiment on the North Pole in which "Gyptian" children are kidnapped and inoculated with dust - their daemons are stripped from them, and they are forever the submissive property of the Magisterium. Back to Lyra: she attains a Ouija-board-like "alethiometer" - a divine truth-telling compass that can only be read by the child (her, of course) who will fulfill the prophesy of "the witches." (Does EVERY fantasy story have to have a "chosen one"?) On her quest to infiltrate and destroy the Magisterium's research experiment, Lyra befriends the wily aeronaut Lee Scoresby (Shepard) and the armored bear Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen), who has a score to settle with the illegitimate bear king Ragnar Sturlusson. Several surprisingly violent battles follow, and Lyra heroically frees the kidnapped children before setting off to save Lord Asriel (her father - gasp!), but not before the obligatory "war to end all wars" is prophesied by the witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green from Casino Royale). More to come in the next installment of the trilogy...

I Loved:
+ The visual effects - start the debate, because these are the best I've seen in any movie this year.

I Liked:
+ Dakota Blue Richards - and the other child actors, for that matter. She likely has a successful career ahead of her, and is not obnoxiously precocious like Dakota Fanning.

I Disliked:
- Sam Shepard, who showed up right off the set of Tombstone. "I reckoned you fellers was in some kind of trouble." What? Are you Virgil Earp or an "aeronaut" in a British religious fantasy film? The character of Lee Scoresby, by the way, was apparently originally intended for Samuel L. Jackson.
- That seemingly none of the characters could put two and two together: people's daemons represent their core psyche. Helloooo? The daemons of the children and "good" people are cute puppies, mice, kittens, sparrows, and rabbits. The daemons of the "evil" people are wolves, snakes, crows, and evil monkeys. Lyra, don't go in that door! His daemon is a preying mantis!
- The Gyptians - are they gypsies? Pirates? Egyptians? Why are they always hiding?
- The alethiometer - how exactly does it work again?

I Hated:
Nicole Kidman's daemon - part Gollum, part evil monkey from "The Family Guy," part Gremlin, and part Satan-baby from The Passion of the Christ. I thought daemons were supposed to be regular animals? And what, hers is the ONLY one that can't talk?
- That the end of the polar bear faceoff was a reenactment of the climactic George McFly vs. Biff Tannen scene from Back to the Future.
- The most tacked-on cliffhanger ending in a long time - "We have so much to do! This, this, this, this, that, and this! Just try and stop the next movie!" OK, I'm paraphrasing, but still...

Writing - 7
Acting - 8
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 7
Music - 4
Significance - 4

Total: 32/50= 74% = C

Last Word: I've not read any of the "His Dark Materials" trilogy, but what I've gathered so far is that the books are quite dark, and the themes of The Golden Compass have been toned down to make a more kid-friendly film. Further exploration of
"dust" and the history of the Magisterium would certainly make for a more thought-provoking movie, but I don't think even that could save what is really just a poorly told story. The plot is fairly predictable and conveniently contrived in all the usual scenes. There is no subtlety to the evil of the "bad" characters, and we don't even know anything about the heroes - Lyra and Lord Asriel. Worst of all, the casting of the Gyptians and Sam Shepard seem completely out of place. The saving grace of the production is the dazzling display of visual effects, which are not necessarily better than those in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, but are more impressive here because they're used in almost every single shot. Regarding the religious aspects of the movie (and I'll admit I'm biased by my own convictions), it seems to me Pullman is not necessarily promoting atheism so as much as he is promoting the destruction of organized religion, particularly Catholicism. Though it may be simplified from the book, the symbolism is still quite clear, as muddled as his argument may be. Looking at it as a kid's movie, The Golden Compass seems dark, bleak, and hopeless. I'll stick with The Chronicles of Narnia, thank you very much.

November 9, 2007

Underrated MOTM: Back to the Future Part II (1989)

This Underrated Movie of the Month (MOTM) is likely to stir some controversy. Let me first say that the original Back to the Future is better than both of if its sequels, and deserves its status as a contemporary classic.

Released in 1989, four years after its prequel, Back to the Future Part II was brilliantly written and directed by Robert Zemeckis, who did both for all three in the trilogy. Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd once again play Marty McFly and Doc Brown, respectively, but Elizabeth Shue is Jennifer Parker in this sequel (and in
Part III). The original Jennifer Parker (Claudia Wells), by the way, did not act again until 1996 after having to care for her ill mother. Anyway, Back to the Future Part II picks up where the original left off - "Where we're going, we don't need roads!" Great teaser.

Probably because I was young, and definitely because I saw it in the theater, Back to the Future was a lot of fun to watch. Turns out though, I still smile and put down the remote when I come across it on TV. Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown are a great on-screen duo, and play off each other perfectly. Biff Tannen is one of the most despicable characters ever, but you just can't wait to see what's going to happen to him next. That guy, Thomas F. Wilson, did a great job in all three movies - and then became a successful TV actor. And Lea Thompson of course never received enough credit for her ageless acting as Lorraine Baines McFly.

Aside from the acting, Back to the Future II is really well-written, and it's a crying shame that Robert Zemeckis never really wrote anything else. All of the complex plot pieces fall into place, and we're presented with a future that is amusing to fantasize about. It's shocking, and funny, to think that in 1989 we were still seriously dreaming about flying cars, hoverboards, hydrowave pizzas and the Cubs winning the World Series by 2015. That' a few years. Still, the imaginative details were awesome, despite the product tie-ins for Nike, Pepsi, and USA Today. Oh, and the frightening bizarro future, or past I guess it would be, or...whatever, the Hill Valley that is lorded over by evil Biff is a great addition to the story.

You can imagine that it would have been a lot of fun to be part of this movie - cast, crew, or catering. It was ahead of its time and a rare excellent sequel to a classic original. While Back to the Future III is entertaining enough, its kind of a weak finale and it doesn't really capture the imagination or whim of Part II, where the characters get to explore an unknown world and its wild implications. Convince me otherwise...
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