Sunday, December 21, 2014

A Christmas Carol version 12: the one with Alastair Sim

"Can you forgive a pig-headed old fool for having no eyes to see with and no ears to hear with all these years?"

How many times has Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol been adapted?  How many radio dramas, feature films, short films, television specials, and parodies have been produced since the book's publication in 1843?  The true answer may be impossible to find without copious amounts of research that I'm not all that inclined to do, but based on what I've found, it's something like 300 adaptations ever since the 1901 British short film Scrooge, or, Marley's Ghost.  Let's not even get into how many onstage versions have been penned, going back as far the same year the book was published. That's staggering, yet not all that surprising.  The story and characters are timeless, capturing something that transcends nearly two centuries and appeals to people of all different age groups and cultures.  Is there a definitive version of the story that exists on film?

While that's yet another question that has an impossible answer, I suppose I'll just talk about what I (and many others) consider the best film adaptation of the story to be: the 1951 version originally called Scrooge, but later renamed A Christmas Carol.  This version stars Alastair Sim as the titular character, and a large part of why this version works so well is because of his textured and psychologically complex portrayal of the character.  When he sneers, "Bah, humbug!" you don't feel as though he's acting like Scrooge, you believe that this is Scrooge.   The trouble with playing an iconic character is that the audience already has preconceived notions of what that character is; he is mythic and unattainable.  So many actors who would go on to portray Scrooge in later adaptations do a fine job (as if I've seen every single version), but it more often than not feels like watching a reenactment of A Christmas Carol than the thing itself.  And before you ask, no, this isn't the first Christmas Carol I ever saw.

Another key factor that makes the Sim version so distinct is its dark and somber mood.  While it never approaches true horror, there's a lived-in harshness to the locations, a gloominess to the lighting, a foreboding sense of dread laced into the music composed by Richard Addinsell.  It's an unsettling bit of filmmaking that captures the spirit of the book perfectly, especially throughout the first act.  The art direction is minimal to be sure; this isn't the polished Hollywood filmmaking you might expect out of a 50s Christmas film.  But its simplicity and straightforwardness is part of what makes it work so well, and what little you see onscreen is marvelously detailed.  There's no meandering on mindless action, no stopping to gawk at fancy visual effects, and not a scene goes by that doesn't deepen the characters or move the story forward.

Now, I think it's time to say something that I know will get me burned at the stake: I think this movie improves upon the book.  In small but important ways, Scrooge's character development and relationship with several other characters is made stronger and lends more weight to the narrative. For example, there's the expansion of the Mrs. Dilber character (Kathleen Harrison), who offers some hilarious comic relief when she sees Scrooge transformed at the end of the story.  Another addition is the reveal that Alice (Rona Anderson), Scrooge's former lover whom he'd lost in his pursuit of wealthiness, works in homeless shelters in the present day (developing her character a bit more and backing up some of the things she says to Scrooge earlier in the story).  We get more insight to how Scrooge and Marley acquired their business, and thus Scrooge's steady slope of decreasing compassion happens more gradually than in the original story (and any other retelling).  But the biggest improvement is most definitely the more textured relationship between Scrooge and his nephew, Fred (Brian Worth).  It was always the case that Scrooge's father resented him and and that his sister Fan (Carol Marsh) died at a young age, but there was no connection between the two details.  In this version, Scrooge's father resents him because his mother died giving him birth.  Fan is made to be older and dies giving birth to Fred, instilling in Scrooge the same irrational hatred toward Fred that Scrooge's own father had toward him.  It strengthens the narrative's themes and adds psychological complexity to Scrooge's character.

Some aspects of the film may not sit well with some cynical, modern moviegoers, and I can't say they are totally unjustified.  For starters, scenes featuring Bob Cratchit's (Mervyn Jones) family are very corny and saccharine. However, watching the Crachits have their gosh-darn happy Christmas together despite having almost no food to go around only makes the Christmas future scenes where Tiny Tim (Glyn Dearman) is dead much sadder and weightier.  It would be like if Cindy died in an episode of The Brady Bunch.  Then there are the special effects, which probably would have been looked dated even ten years before the film was made.  One shot in particular where Fan runs through Scrooge as if he was a ghost is so poorly constructed that you can actually see the edge of the processed film trailing behind Fan as if a big black line is suddenly following her (skip to 24:30 below).

But effects-driven Christmas Carols would come later.  And keep coming. And coming. And coming.  You get my point?  Dickens' novel is about the story and characters, and no other adaptation in an endless sea of adaptations captures the spirit and essence of what it's all about like the Sim version. There's so much heart behind the performances, so much atmosphere in the direction (by Brian Desmond Hurst), and so much that it just got right about adapting the book.  Make no mistake, it owes everything to the original writing, despite making a few improvements.  Everything that works in the film, and in every adaptation, has been because the core of the book is so absolutely fantastic. There is a colorized version of the film that was released in '89, but it diminishes a lot of the creepy mood with saturated colors and brighter aesthetics.  I'd say it's a sin to watch anything but the original black and white cut. Even if you've seen some version of A Christmas Carol a hundred times, watch this one for Alastair Sim and then I dare you to say that he's not the best version of Scrooge the screen has ever seen.


Thursday, November 20, 2014


If there's a director that seems to exist for the sole purpose of making movies that I want to see, it's Christopher Nolan. His films mix the fantastic with the gritty in powerful and awe-inspiring ways, and I have yet to see a film he's written and directed that I didn't love.  Like most moviegoers, I discovered Nolan from his work on The Dark Knight trilogy, one of the best film series of all time. But when you go backwards in his career to a film like Momento, which didn't have a huge budget but made up for it with its creativity. Compare that to his more recent films like Inception, and it's clear that the Hollywood system hasn't corrupted him just yet. Here's hoping it never does.

Written by Nolan (and his brother Jonathan), Interstellar tells an ambitious story taking place in the not-too-distant future, where we meet a farmer named Cooper (Matthew McConaughey). He's not exactly a farmer by choice; the world is in a horrible dust bowl, with government all but collapsed and most people starving to death. The widowed Cooper raises his two children, Murphey (Mackenzie Foy, and later Jessica Chastain) and Tom (Timothée Chalamet and later Casey Affleck), in horrible, dust-filled conditions while fighting nightmares from his experiences as a NASA copilot. Due to strange circumstances, he and Murphey discover that NASA, long thought to out of commission, has been operating in secret, and has plans to save the human race. Cooper must abandon his family in order to go far off into space to find out if there may be an inhabitable planet through a wormhole near Saturn that seems to have been placed there on purpose by beings unknown. He's joined by other scientists on this mission, including Amelia (Anne Hathaway), who's father (Michael Caine) is the brains behind the operation.

Interstellar is a wild ride. Whether you're catapulting through wormholes, blasting off of planets, or trying to escape miles-high ocean waves, Interstellar thrills while offering thought-provoking science fiction. There's so much I loved about the movie, but let's start with the special effects. Nolan has a history of utilizing practical effects over CGI in his films, and I absolutely love him for that. When this ship flies through space, you don't doubt for a second that it could be real. Camera angles and composition give an authenticity to the visuals that has hardly been seen in a space movie outside of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Using models, rear projection, and animatronic robots, Interstellar is so much more impressive to look at and feels more authentic than any Marvel movie that resorts to glossy CGI for the disgusting majority of its visual effects. There are some scenes where CGI was obviously used, but each instance was justified (I don't imagine the actors would have appreciated being subjected to an actual sandstorm). 


The space scenes aren't the only bits that impress; the scenes on Earth are shot in wonderfully gritty and lived-in sets, the cinematography is dynamic, and the colors are bleak but never dull. Shot by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who shot last year's Her), and eerily scored by Hans Zimmer, Interstellar's sensory experience is truly gut punch, in a good way. Seeing this at the Lincoln Center IMAX theater in New York was the best way to go, as the 70mm film print was so unbelievably clear and beautiful that I thought the screen swallowed me at one point.  And look Ma, no 3D glasses! Just pure, absorbing filmmaking.  Although, I should not that though I loved Zimmer's funeral-like scoring, it was mixed poorly with the dialogue.  There were multiple times that I couldn't hear lines because of the booming music, and I'm not the only one who noticed it. 

McConaughey, Hathaway, Chastain, Foy, and Caine all deliver first-rate performances that lend the film some much needed human emotion. McConaughey in particular delivers a phenomenal performance that lends weight to an otherwise underwritten character, so much so that I wouldn't be surprised if he gets an Oscar nomination. The Nolan brothers tend to write characters that have cold detachments towards one another, and often to serve the stories quite well. However, here the human connections get a bit more prominence, and while the film isn't 100% successful in wringing out the tear ducts, the characters' love for one another is enough to keep us invested. There are moments when cold detachment rears its ugly head in a few crucial scenes.  Sometime down the line I'll write a spoiler-heavy review to explain what I mean.  Let's just say that at one point during the second act, some guy needed a hug very badly, and he didn't get one.

While conceptually the script is very creative and thought-provoking, there are certain points where Interstellar is needlessly confusing (What!? A Chirstopher Nolan movie confusing?! Get outta here fool!).  Once again, I might wait for a more spoiler heavy review to really get into the specifics, but I can say that even if I wasn't exactly sure what was going on at any point, the film remained gripping. I could get invested in this movie at any point because of how well it's made over all, and that's a testament to the production crew more so than the writing. I actually can't wait to see the movie again so that I can pay better attention and hopefully come away with a clearer understanding about what the film is trying to say, because as of now, it could be multiple things. One theme that stands out the strongest to me is that love can transcend the boundaries of space, time, and death.

I can't recommend Interstellar enough, and to quote the infamous Tommy Wiseu, you have to see it "at least twice."  It's one of those movie experiences that demands to be seen on the biggest screen possible, with the least amount of liquid drank before you go in because this thing is long.  I can't say I'm complaining about the length, because I was so engrossed in the production design that I hardly noticed the time passing.  It's sci-fi done right, and while it is influenced by just about every major sci-fi film in history in some way, it has enough of its own style to warrant it a place right alongside them.


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Big Hero Six

"Hello. I am Baymax, your personal healthcare companion."

Are we in a new Disney Renaissance or something?  I've really been enjoying Disney's output over the last five years, as each film defies expectations, sets new standards, and makes sure to stay relevant without sacrificing the story, characters, and charm that Disney is known for.  While I actually find the studio's latest film to be the weakest of these "new renaissance" films (including The Princess and the Frog, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph and Frozen), Big Hero Six is not without its great moments and strong elements.

Though the Marvel license has been in Disney's possession for some time now, this is the first ever full-on animated film has been adapted from one of their comics (though how true the resulting film is to the comics is likely not on Harry Potter levels).  The main story (set in what might be the future) focuses on the exploits of a fourteen-year-old boy named Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter, and I swear that's not why I made the Harry Potter reference), a boy genius who gets involved with illegal robot-fighting games in the back alleys of a city called San Fransokyo. San Fransokyo is just awesome in every regard, mixing American and Japanese cultures, and is brought to life in a breathtaking display of what computer animation can do nowadays.  His brother Tadashi (Daniel Henney, though I would have sworn it was Joaquin Phoenix) is a genius as well, though he has to work harder at creating his own inventions than his little brother.

One night, Tadashi brings Hiro to the university he studies at, where he introduces him to his fellow genius friends Fred (T.J. Miller), GoGo (Jamie Chung), Wasabi (Damon Wayans, Jr.), and Honey Lemon (Genesis Rodriguez).  Tadashi also shows Hiro his newest project, a healthcare robot named Baymax (Scott Adsit), who looks more like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man than a robot, but this just makes him more huggable (and easier to turn into a Disney Store plushie).  After speaking with the the head of the robotics program Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell), Hiro decides that he wants to attend the school.  He invents Microbots: thousands of tiny robots that can band together to form incredible shapes and structures that could put millions of people out of jobs! I mean... will make everything easier and safer!  At the science exposition where Hiro shows off his new technology, someone with a personal vendetta starts a fire and steals Hiro's Microbots in the process.  It's up to Hiro, his new friends, and Baymax to find the man, get back the Microbots, and piece together why this is all happening in the first place.  They do this by using their own inventions to make themselves superheroes, and thus we have the Big Hero Six.

The film works on a number of levels; so well in fact that it overshadows some its rather large flaws.   First off, the world that the characters inhabit is sprawling and full of minute details that make it feel like a real place; a real place that I need to visit.  Right now.  Being a fan of Japanese tokusatsu, I really appreciated the nods to Japanese superhero conventions, monster movies, and sci-fi tropes.  The animation isn't just good, it's incredible; this stands right up there with Pixar as far as the quality craftsmanship that went into the CGI landscapes, characters, and mise-en-scene.  A scene that shows Hiro and Baymax flying through over the city in broad daylight gave me chills, and I didn't even see the movie in 3D.

Secondly, this is a fantastic comedy; Baymax steals the show for sure with his naiveté and limited movement, so much so that I hope this movie has a sequel solely so that I can see more of him.  I loved that they didn't really play up the whole "robot learns how to be more human" cliche I thought the writers would push for, but thankfully, Baymax doesn't need to be angsty to be interesting.  Like in How to Train Your Dragon, the side characters have distinct personalities, but don't get much focus or development.  Thankfully, Hiro is well-developed enough to carry the whole movie, showing a wide range of emotion and character flaws.  I did think he was a bit too perfect as far as his robot-building abilities go, but I'll get to that in a minute.  The relationship Hiro and Tadashi have is one of the film's stronger elements as well.  You feel their connection and are emotionally involved in the story whenever it puts their relationship at the forefront.

However, and this is a big however, there are some major problems with the movie that boot it out of being among Disney's best movies.  For one thing, it's pretty predictable; most of the plot hinges on a twist that right comes before the third act, and I saw it coming from the ten minute mark.  I'm not saying that Frozen's plot twist was anything Hitchcockian, but it was at least a bit more surprising.  The story works very well in theory, but in execution, this thing is rushed like hell in spots.  Hiro's ability to make armored suits for his friends is explained, but it happens too quickly.  Yes, we slow down for the flight scene, and a few other emotional bits, but events in the second and third acts just happen too quickly to really resonate.  This hurts the film's villain the most, which is unfortunate because on paper it's really very good.  No "take over the world" scheme, just a personal vendetta, and I really appreciated that.  The music choices are lackluster and the score is unmemorable.  The action sequences are fine, but I can't say I was wowed at any point (in fact, a car-chase that should have been really awesome ventures too far into the preposterous, and in turn fails to be exciting).  One final gripe I had with the film is the ending.  Whoa boy did they mess up the ending.  They had the perfect shot to end on and god, they screwed it up.  You can't understand what I'm talking about until you've seen the movie, so don't highlight this next part if you haven't.  I'll put it like this: imagine if in The Iron Giant, instead of ending on that great shot of all the Giant's pieces coming back together, the film continued.  The parts assembled themselves, the Giant walks all the way to Hogarth's house, they hug, and then go flying around while Hogarth unnecessarily narrates how good things are now.  Wouldn't that just SUCK? The bottom line is, this ain't no Iron Giant.

So what we have here is a movie that had more potential than it delivers. But it makes up for its shortcomings with huge laughs, great characters, and animation that pushes the boundaries of what the medium can do.  Sure, it would have been more charming to see some kind experimenting with an anime style given the subject matter, and god knows Disney could produce a phenomenal-looking anime if they wanted to...  But what we have is just fine, and I hope that we get another chance to have some fun with Baymax in a movie that feels a bit more balanced.  Did I mention that I love the hell out of the title?  "Big Hero 6."  It just sounds like a poorly translated Japanese superhero show from the 80s, doesn't it?  I need to see that.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014


“What if my problem wasn't that I don't understand people but that I don't like them?”

Nightcrawler is a film with big, important ideas and knows exactly what to do with them.  It explores the media industry from a pessimistic angle and interprets the human condition as one that is defined by facts and figures than by heart or emotion.  What you walk away with is a whole platitude of emotions and thoughts.  It may make you question the ethics of television news and the long-term results of our information-saturated generation, and not for the better.  The main character in the film is not a stand-in for the average person, but more a blueprint for where we might be headed.

Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a man living in Los Angeles who desperately wants to make a name for himself, but doesn't quite know how.  He spends all his time on his computer, reading about anything and everything.  Jobless, he steals equipment from construction sites for god-knows-what-purpose, until one night when he stumbles upon the scene of a car accident.  Fascinated by a freelance video journalist (Bill Paxton) on the scene, who calls himself a nightcrawler, Louis decides that he wants to start filming accidents and crime scenes, and then sell them to news stations, for a living.  After getting his foot in the door with the help of a network exec named Nina (Rene Russo), and hiring a desperate young man named Rick (Riz Ahmed) to be his partner for $30 a night, Louis puts himself in one deadly situation after another in an effort to be the best in the business.  And he’ll do anything to achieve that.

Written and directed by first-timer Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler is an excellent dark satire about the television media industry and a powerful social commentary on desensitization and its effects on a person’s humanity.   Louis is a fascinating character; a man with no soul or grip on reality due to a disgusting amount of time spent on the Internet (you know, the same amount of time most people spend on the Internet).  To him, life can be dissected into a series of facts, and Louis lacks all emotional connection to the real things he encounters.  The joy of seeing others suffer seems to be the only emotion he does convey, which makes his character all the more unsettling.  He gets a thrill out of the job, getting closer to wounded bodies than other nightcrawlers would, even lingering  on them and capturing them at the most “artistic” angles. It gives his resulting footage a pornographic aesthetic (if dead, bloody bodies are your thing).  The scary part is, it’s this creepy quirk that gets him ahead in the business, to the point where he has total control over the exec who got him the job in the first place.

Gyllenhaal deserves an Oscar nom for his work in this, and I don’t say that lightly.  He lost twenty pounds for the role, and completely disappears into it.  I could hardly believe one of the most pretty-boy actors in Hollywood was playing one of the slimiest, disgusting characters I’ve seen in a very long time.  His eyes bulge with amazement at horrific things, he speaks like he’s always lying, and he has a way of making you hate him while still being totally invested in his story.  Try not to wince during scenes where he recites career-building business models as if reading them from a textbook (all while the camera refuses to cut away from his robotic expression).  The rest of the cast is great as well, especially Ahim, who plays what might be the only main character in the film who sort of resembles a human being.  A stupid human being, but a human being nonetheless.

Nightcrawler is a very weird film, which makes me happily surprised that it was the number one film at the box office last weekend.  Then again, it tied with Ouiji, so make of that what you will.  Maybe people just saw it because they thought it was a horror movie, and in a sense, it is one.  Gyllenhaal playing one of the scariest characters you’ll ever see, and thought the things he does are despicable, but is he really any better than the cameramen only ten feet away?  Is he just some monster forged out of his own free will or is he just taking the next step to where the media is headed anyway? Does any news station report honest news or is it really only about the ratings? The film is loaded with questions that don’t get a clear answer, and that seems to be exactly the point. Just watch a news broadcast after seeing Nightcrawler and tell me it doesn’t seem a bit more contrived and heartless in its pandering to the information-hungry viewing public.  It’s a savage (and also darkly hilarious) film that doesn’t pull punches with its depiction of violence, keeps you on the edge of your seat, and makes you wonder what the world might be like if more Louis Blooms existed in our world.  Maybe they already do.  And maybe, in your own way, you’re one of them.


Monday, November 3, 2014

John Wick


It is possible? Could it be? Did Keanu Reeves star in a good action movie this year?  I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it for myself, but I can assure you that yes, Keanu Reeves was in a very good action movie that bends cliches, impresses with its stunts, and ditches most modern action techniques in favor of a style that blends the old-fashioned with something fresh.  Does it redefine the action movie as we know it?  It's not that good.  But just about everything it does, it does well, and for a low-budget action movie in 2014 starring Keanu fucking Reeves, that's kind of a miracle.

I'd rather not discuss the plot at length here because the way the film unfolds is something you want to experience rather than read about.  Reeves stars as is a seemingly average man dealing with the recent loss of his wife to cancer.  However, due to a string of convenient circumstances, we find out that he has a shady past as an assassin for the Russian mafia, led by Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist).  But he wasn't just an assassin; they called him "The Boogeyman," because he was the best in the business.  To deal with a personal vendetta, Wick is on the hunt for Tarasov's son Iosef (Alfie Allen), and even with leagues of hit men after him (Willem Defoe and Adrianne Palicki), nothing will stop him from getting to his goal.

I know that's pretty vague and all, but the setup is the only story-heavy aspect of the movie, and I'd prefer not to spoil it all here.  This is a vengeance film, and while I typically find revenge to be a very boring character motivation (see my X-Men Origins: Wolverine review), I couldn't help but sympathize with Wick.  Iosef is a spoiled brat who takes something very precious from Wick, and throughout the film you are rooting for Wick to find him and kill his ass.  The way the action scenes are played out is mind-blowingly awesome at times, with each punch and kick (while obviously choreographed) landing with real weight and power that's lacking in something like, say, the recent Marvel movies.  I don't want to make it seem like I glorify violence, but if you're gonna be an R-rated action movie be a god damn R-rated action movie. Most action scenes are accomplished with minimal editing, meaning you get to see complex stunts and choreography in full.  A fight scenes in a dance club matches perfectly in time with bass-heavy music to create a truly thrilling experience.  Not only that, but the action is shot without disorienting shaky-cam, a style that I'm becoming more and more intolerant of.   There's some CGI blood in the mix to help accomplish this, but I'll take that over a bloodless, sterile, explosion fest any day.

The movie is more than just great action though; the opening scenes are a beautiful example of telling a story without narration or dialogue.  Things are shown to us.  Emotions are felt.  Wick doesn't tell anyone his wife died of cancer, we see his last few moments with her and then see the funeral.  That's how you do exposition.  Performances are great across the board, with every character perfectly cast and really living in their roles.  I especially liked a creepy performance from Lance Reddick as the manager of the hotel Wick stays at.  The critics are raving about Reeves' return to form, and I can definitely see what they mean.  His physical acting is great, as are his facial expressions.  But I don't know about some of his dialogue delivery... he still sounds a bit wooden to me.  He is supposed to be a machine-like assassin, so maybe he's perfect and I should just shut up.

While the film may be light on plot, and doesn't explore every facet of its story the way it could have, the execution is so good that it's worth the price of admission just to see Reeves kick some ass.   The director of the film is David Leitch, who makes his directing debut here but has a long history in the action movie business as a stunt double, actor, and second unit director (he was even Reeve's stunt double in The Matrix).  Clearly all this experience has been a hell of an education for Leitch, because he's delivered the best action movie of the year in a year full of great action movies.  Derek Kolstad, the film's writer, infuses the script with just enough self-aware humor to make you forget how ridiculous most of it is and how contrived a lot of the plot elements are.  I'd dare say a bit of Quentin Tarantino's signature style sneaks its way into some of the scenes after the violence, a period in which most action screenwriters tend to ignore.  Just where do all those dead bodies end up?

John Wick is a surprisingly good movie, my favorite kind of good movie.  It's fast paced and tight as a drum; nothing drags on long enough for you to care that the story is awfully simple.  It hardly matters anyway, it's just great to see Keanu Reeves in the limelight again after so many years of being in the cinematic doghouse.  Sitting in the theater watching Reeves kick ass again was like seeing Nicholas Cage win another Oscar... it's just something I thought couldn't be done.  Leave your common sense at the door and just enjoy this escapist action-fest for what it is.


Monday, October 27, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: Corpse Bride

"Tell me my dear... Can a heart still break after it's stopped beating?"

So we're taking a rather large leap forward in time, but in all honesty, I just don't think that any major releases between 1996's James and the Giant Peach and 2005's Corpse Bride really qualifies to be grouped into the "creepy stop-motion family movie" sub genre.  In fact, the only major stop motion release between those nine years was Chicken Run, and though Aardman's films have their dark elements, they don't really register as "something you watch around Halloween."  I don't exactly know why there was such a drought of stop-motion films for nearly a decade; maybe James underperformed and discouraged future projects, maybe the advent of computer animation stole away some of stop-motion's novelty three-dimensional effect.  Whatever the reason, Tim Burton wasn't interested.   Perhaps as an attempt to recapture the magic of Nightmare, he assembled what is now his regular crew of stars Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and composer Danny Elfman to create another stop-motion musical with a distinct tone that mixes the macabre with light-hearted comedy.

Let's get one thing straight--I am not discrediting the animation in Nightmare.  But wow, when you watch that film and then Corpse Bride... the difference is obvious.  With new digital photographing techniques at the animators' disposal and what appear to be major leaps forward in the technology for stop-motion puppetry, Corpse Bride looks absolutely magnificent.  The characters move so fluidly and the range of emotions they express is lightyears beyond what could previously be done.  Even though the Laika studio has made even more innovations in stop-motion as far as facial expressions and set detail, certain elements of Corpse Bride (movement of clothing, for instance) set a standard that holds up to this day.

The story is based on a Russian folktale, and while I don't know the details of the original story, the film version takes place in a European village during Victorian times that is decidedly not in Russia.  Victor (voiced by Johnny Depp) and Victoria (Emily Watson) are two young, sweet-natured people who have overbearing and extreme parents (in a genius bit of character design, Victor's mother is portly while his father is stick-thin, while Victoria's are just the opposite).  Their parents have arranged a marriage between the two of them, which in most fairy tale movies would mean one of them would be detestable (or if it were a bad rom-com, they'd bicker endlessly), but both of them are likable, shy people who actually might be able to make a relationship work.  When Victor wanders off into the woods to practice his wedding vows, he places the ring on what he thinks is a root; what he's actually done is place it one the finger of a bride-to-be who was murdered there years ago, and now her soul has been awakened by Victor's marriage proposal.  The corpse's name is Emily (voiced by Helena Bonham Carter... have you won Tim Burton bingo yet?), and she takes him down to the depths of the Land of the Dead.  Here, souls from years past are in great spirits, getting drunk at the bars and having more fun than they ever did when they were alive.

The story chugs along at a good pace, with Victor's plunge into the Land of the Dead mostly played for laughs and hardly ever for scares (though Emily's resurrection scene is legitimately creepy).  Truth be told, the world of the living is a much more unsettling place, with exaggerated character designs, colorless set pieces and an overall air of unpleasantness.  That's not a flaw; it's exactly the feeling Burton and co-director Mike Johnson seem to be going for.  It makes the contrast to the Land of the Dead stuff even more fun, and when you experience that burst of color and energy, it's a welcome breath of fresh air.  The designs for the inhabitants of the Land of the Dead are well done, even if they aren't quite as memorable as anything in Nightmare.  And of course, there's the villain; Lord Barkis Bittern (voiced by Richard E. Grant), the con-artist who murdered Emily and is now after Victoria for her dowery, unaware that she and her family are flat broke and are only marrying to ensure their own existence.  He has a great voice and a menacing laugh, and while he doesn't have much depth, he does have personality to spare.

The main characters are very likable, and the comically dark nature of the parents give way to some of the funniest parts of the movie.  While there's wit to be found, there are also a lot of puns.  If you have a low tolerance for puns, you may find yourself cringing more often than not during Corpse Bride ("Dead end!" "Play dead!" "I'm the head waiter!")  Jokes that work more effectively are visual jokes, such as the "Harryhousen" piano that Victor plays or a skeleton's jaw literally dropping off in astonishment.  It nonetheless remains charming, and the story is so economically told that you never feel like a joke is dragging on or a story beat is lingering aimlessly; given that stop-motion is so time-intensive, it only makes sense to strip your story down to the bare essentials, and that's exactly what Burton and Johnson have done here.  I often find myself wishing the movie was longer, just so I can spend some more time with the characters, and that's definitely a good sign.

The songs by Danny Elfman are good, but nothing hit me as hard as the songs in Nightmare. First off, Corpse Bride has less than half the number of songs, and secondly, the songs are worked into the story very leisurely rather than existing because they need to.  It just doesn't feel like a musical most of the time.  I think most will agree that the best song, and probably the best scene in the movie, is the "Remains of the Day" number.  It's a jazzy, bombastic number that sports beautiful, playful animation and moves the story forward.  It's no surprise that Danny Elfman provides the voice for Bonejangles, the skeleton who sings it.  There's also gotta be some kind of intentional homage to Disney's classic short The Skeleton Dance somewhere in there.  I only wish the rest of the songs had this manic energy, or at least that there were more songs to enjoy (a duet for Victor and Victoria, maybe?).  I will say that the score is outstanding, and the piano piece that Victor plays is gorgeous.  Emily's entrance music is haunting (as is her "dancing in the moonlight" scene, both for different reasons).  Elfman pours tons of emotion into the orchestration, complimenting the stylish visuals with a giddily creepy atmosphere.

What else is there to say? Corpse Bride is light on its feet, featuring genre-defining animation, likable characters, great music, and lots of heart.  As a spiritual successor to The Nightmare Before Christmas, it may be lacking, but that's admittedly a tough act to follow.  Tightly-wound as it is, I would have liked to see more interaction scenes between the three main characters, but what we have is pretty solid nonetheless.  The visual humor is fantastic, the voice work is top-notch, and there's creepiness to spare without there ever being any unpleasant grotesqueries.  If this had been the pinnacle of the stop-motion industry, that might have been fine, but I'm oh-so-glad Laika stepped up to the plate to work their magic just a few years later.

Creepiness score: 6 eyes in me soup out of 10.

Movie score: 8/10

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: James and the Giant Peach

"Marvelous things will happen..."

Director Henry Selick proved he had a knack for stop-motion directing after the hugely acclaimed (and groundbreaking) The Nightmare Before Christmas, so it's no surprise that Disney was interested in pursuing another film with a similar aesthetic.  Based on the book by Ronald Dahl (the phenomenal children's author of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Matilda"), James and the Giant Peach proved that the combination of Selick as director, Tim Burton as producer, and Disney as marketer was one hell of a team.  Are the results quite as good? Well, not exactly.

"Damn, still not far away enough. I can still see my house from here!"

Personal backstory time: I saw this movie for the first time when I was only five years old, and I can still remember sitting there in the theater in amazement.  I was so engrossed in the characters, the visuals, and the story.  It became one of my favorite movies to watch nonstop on VHS for years, so warm and fuzzy feelings are inevitable while trying to view this thing as a twenty-four-year-old.  But view it I did, and it's hard as it was to admit, I couldn't get as wrapped up in the adventure as I can with other Ronald Dahl adaptations.

"Try looking at it another way..."

In the nondescript 1930s, James Henry Trotter (Paul Terry) is a young British boy living with his parents in a cozy cottage matte painting by the sea. Until one day, and I'm quoting the narrater here,
an angry rhinoceros appeared out of nowhere and gobbled up his poor mother and father.  You know, offscreen.  We jump ahead to a short time later where he lives with his two aunts, Spiker (Miriam Margoyles) and Sponge (Joanna Lumley).  They are the most vile, despicable people on the face of the earth, which is pretty bad luck for James.  He's forced to work work work work work for them all day with hardly any food and no social time.  I don't think he even goes to school.

James and the Giant Bitches...

Anyway, one day while James is saving the life of a spider from his wicked aunts, a strange old man (Peter Postlethwaite) gives him a bag full of magical "crocodile tongues."  He tells James that these glowing green macaroni worms are the key to making marvelous things happen, and not to let them escape.  However, seconds later, James trips and the tongues run free, working their magic on the insects and peach tree in his aunt's yard.  Before his very eyes, the peach grows to the size of a house, and after befriending the now giant-sized bugs that reside inside it, James uses the peach to go on an adventure to New York City and escape his horrible life.

"That's the life for me..."

James and the Giant Peach is mostly a whimsical movie, but there remains an underlying darkness that keeps the film interesting even if the end product isn't necessarily cohesive.  What helps keep the film afloat is the colorful array of characters present in the form of the giant-sized stop-motion bugs.  The Centipede (voiced by Richard Dreyfuss) is a Brooklynite who... wait Richard Dreyfuss? Really? That's pretty awesome.  The Centipede likes to talk big but doesn't always have the experience to back it all up, and for being the only supporting character with any character growth, he's probably my favorite of the bunch.  Also along for the ride is the sophisticated Grasshopper (Simon Callow), the motherly Miss Ladybug (Jane Levees), the cool, calm, and French black widow Miss Spider voiced by Susan Sarandon (wow, I never knew this cast was so star-studded!), the neurotic Earthworm (David Thewlis), and the old and deaf Glowworm (Miriam Margoyles again).

"Bright lights... Big city..."

When I talk about darkness, I'm talking about over-the-top cartoonish darkness, mainly in the form of James' aunts.  They're positively evil from their design to their dialogue, making James' suffering less realistic and probably more suitable for the target audience.  I just can't help but feel that Matilda, and later Harry Potter, were able to find the right tone to find for their abusive guardian stories in their film adaptations.  While we do see that life with his aunts is torturous (come on... you've gotta feel bad for him when he's eating those chips like they're the greatest thing he's ever had), but the aunts are caricatures without an ounce of subtlety.  The actresses are perfect for the roles though, and I still get a chuckle out of a few of their lines.  The scenes of the rhino barreling through the clouds and lightning produces the film's scariest imagery, and it's quite a beautiful thing to see in motion.

"They never did catch that rhino..."

James and the Giant Peach utilizes a Wizard of Oz-esque technique wherein the hero is whisked away to the "special world" of the film something about the filmic aesthetic changes; just like the land of Oz is a world of color compared to Dorothy's black and white world, James' world changes from live action to stop-motion when his giant peach-themed adventure begins (and his head gets really huge... I always thought that was odd...).  Like with Nightmare, the stop-motion is fantastic.  I do think it shows its age in spots (those are some stiff seagulls), but other times it's so seamless I forget I'm even watching stop-motion.  I imagine the ocean water is CGI, but the way it's designed and moves works seamlessly with the puppet animation.  I was particularly impressed with an underwater scene, even if the context didn't make much sense and one of the skeletons on a sunken pirate ship is a very lazily redressed Jack Skellington model.

I don't know nothin' about no skellingtons...

The story really is the weakest part of the film, at least from my jaded, adult perspective.  The plot just meanders too much; the characters interact, they fight off a random-ass giant mechanical shark, then they're hungry, so they start eating their ship (which has no consequences), then they need a compass so they get it from zombie pirates, then they sing about how much they love each other, then they're in New York...  there's no tension escalation.  Did it need to be more complex? Not at all.  But there needed to be a bit more context for the things that happen to them.  For instance, where did the giant, mechanical shark come from? And what is it doing? Did Spiker and Sponge drive all the way from Britain to New York underwater?  What's the story behind that?  And a rhino ate his parents.  A rhino in the clouds. That's really all we need to know?  In the book, it was a crazed rhino that escaped from the zoo that killed his parents.  It still doesn't make sense, but at least we have a bit more to work with.

Gettin' peach-wasted...

It doesn't help that Randy Newman's songs aren't particularly good.  They all work in their moments (especially during the "everyone eats the peach" song), but they are awfully saccharine.  They're very sweet-natured, and believe me when I tell you that I like to see a non-cynical kids' movie especially in today's world.  But man, "My Name is James" is a chore to get through, with its forgettable tune and insipid lyrics.  This is supposed to be the movie's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and it falls flat on its face.  I really like Newman's songs in Toy Story and Princess and the Frog, so I'm not really sure what happened here.  At least the score is nice to listen to, even if it doesn't exactly stay with you.

"We're family..."

You have to use a lot of kid logic to enjoy James and the Giant Peach, and you have to get into the whole "wish fulfillment by getting back at my evil guardians!" thing as well.  Even if you can't get into the story, and want every song to end as soon as it begins, the film has tons of charm and darkness to entertain and excite you.  And kids? This is a perfect movie for them.  They'll be drawn in by the characters, the visuals, and the offbeat adventure (not to mention they'll be rolling at some of the jokes).  It has a good message about conquering your fears head on, and standing up for yourself to people who are trying to keep you down in your place.  James isn't a complex character, but he exists more as an avatar for the young audience (and despite Paul Terry's odd inability to pronounce the letter "R," his performance is pretty good).  Watching the film at my age brings back so many memories... I couldn't believe how well I remembered the dialogue and songs, bland as they are.  It's a charming little movie that had a bit more potential than it delivers, but still entertains and even impresses on a technical level.

Creepiness score: 6 scary-as-hell spiderweb beds out of 10.

Movie score: 6/10

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Stop-Motion Creepiness Month: The Nightmare Before Christmas

"I am the shadow on the moon at night... "

The Disney Renaissance produced some of the greatest animated movies of all time.  From 1989's The Little Mermaid to 1999's Tarzan, Disney produced hit after hit and pushed animation's potential further and further every year.  Before this new golden age, however, a quirky animator named Tim Burton worked at Disney and made a stop-motion short film called Vincent.  It was a dark and atmospheric film, combining German Expressionism with a unique macabre gloominess that cemented what would become Burton's trademark style.  Disney was impressed with Vincent enough to consider letting Burton direct another project he had in mind, The Nightmare Before Christmas, a strange mixture of Halloween and Christmas themes that would recall the Rankin-Bass television specials from the '60s and '70s that Burton grew up with.  After leaving the studio in '84 to make the hugely successful Beetlejuice and Batman, Burton decided to go back to his pet project (for which Disney still owned the rights) and make it into a feature film.

But this was Disney's highest point in decades; it might have been a gamble to release a film with such radically different animation and a creepy tone that was pretty far removed from anything else the studio ever produced on a feature-length level.   Apparently produced as a "technical achievement showcase" in the wake of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, the film would be the most technically accomplished stop-motion film released up to that point, and today it holds up remarkably well.  Nightmare was definitely a hit when it was released, but the cult following the film has built throughout the years has helped it become a classic in many respects.  It's Christmas, Halloween, animation, musical... all different genres working together in equal parts to deliver an engrossing and(forgive my corniness), magical experience.  While the film was directed masterfully by Henry Selick, Tim Burton's visionary stamp is all over Nightmare in all the best ways.  And the score by Danny Elfman? We'll get to that.

We start with a magnificent opening; the camera circles around trees in a wooded area that each seem to represent a different holiday.  As we listen to Patrick Stewart narrate, we are plunged into the Halloween-themed tree's door.  Here we are treated to Elfman's first song "This is Halloween."  This wildly fun tour throughout Halloween Town is fast-paced and creepier than you'd expect from a Disney movie, then or now.  This seems to be the moment when the movie says, "Ok, kids.  You either like this stuff or you're shitting your pants right now.  Either way, I hope you're entertained."  The sequence doesn't feature anything too gory or disturbing, but it pushes the limits of being family friendly just enough to give it some shock value.  On one hand, the characters are clearly cartoonish and the song emits a mood of spooky fun rather than genuine horror. But the atmosphere is still very dark and the eeriness of the stop-motion visuals can be rather haunting, and that is what makes the opening, and the film as a whole, so memorable.  Plus the designs of the monsters and the way they move are just fantastic.

Toward the end of the opening, we are introduced to Jack "The Pumpkin King" Skellington (voiced by Chris Sarandon, but with singing voice provided by Danny Elfman himself).  He's feeling tired of living in Halloween Town, with the constant scaring, grotesqueries, and gloomy atmosphere.  When I was a kid, I misinterpreted Jack's depression here; I thought he was coming to the realization that what he was doing was wrong or immoral, but the truth is he's just bored of it all.  This leads to one of the most iconic shots in the film, which depicts Jack walking down a gigantic spiral root in front of a glowing yellow moon... it's all just so gorgeous.  And working in time with the song, "Jack's Lament," it's just too much visual splendor to take in.

When Jack discovers the holiday portals, he ventures into Christmas Town, which is just about as polar opposite to Halloween Town as can be.  As Jack discovers these things so unfamiliar to him (snow, presents, joy, etc.,),  he sings "What's This?" which just about takes the top spot for best song in the film for me.  The lyrics are witty and the score is energetic; the world of Christmas is just as well-realized as Halloween, and as much as they contrast, you somehow don't feel as though you've stepped into an entirely different movie altogether.  The visual style and level of creativity remains at an extremely high caliber.

I really could sit here and gush about every scene in the movie this way, but I think you get the point.  The characters are all fabulously well-realized, both in terms of how they're designed and how they are written.  I can't say that every character is three dimensional.  Oogie Boogie (voiced by Ken Page) has nothing going for him except that he's the film's (frankly unnecessary but still incredibly fun) Big Bad villain.   Jack and Sally (voiced by Catherine O'Harra) are charming as all hell, and I can't say a blessed thing wrong about them.  Jack Skellington has an impossible character model; with stick-thin limbs and no eyeballs for expression, his ability to move and project emotion thankfully knows no bounds.  He has such a lovable, over-the-top personality that grabs you from the very beginning.  Sally probably has the most depth; she is a mad scientist's creation who exists to serve him in ways that I hope only include making him soup and cleaning the castle.  Nevertheless, this leaf-stuffed rag doll wants out, and she spends much of the film trying to escape her creator and become closer with Jack, whom she admires and ultimately loves.  Sally is probably the most endearing character, and her bluesy, somber song simply titled, "Sally's Song," is cited by Elfman as the best song in the film.  It's hard to argue with him.

The film is about trying new things and self-discovery.  At a glance, the theme seems to be, "You are born to do what you do.  Trying to be something you're not might be fun, but will only end in disaster."  But maybe that's taking the story too literally; maybe there was a way Jack could have gone about creating his own version of Christmas in a less materialistic fashion.  A possible interpretation of the message, as I see it, is that the holidays we celebrate don't exist in the decorations (Christmas trees, Jack-O-Lanterns), but in the feeling.  It's pretty much a carbon copy of the message from How the Grinch Stole Christmas, but whereas that story's message is obviously about materialism, it takes a bit of digging to spot it in Nightmare.

While the animation is incredible, the art design is impeccably crafted, and the characters are charming and lovable,  what really pushes Nightmare from being good to GREAT is the musical score and songs.  Danny Elfman is at his absolute best here, producing what he called "one of the easiest jobs he ever had," and in a way it makes sense.  There's no push for Broadway-style showstoppers the way the Renaissance films incorporated them; instead, the songs' format follows that of an opera (where much of what might have been dialogue is sung instead).  The best songs are phenomenally catchy and memorable, always serving the story and adding tons of fun to the experience.  I could listen to this soundtrack all season long (pick one).

There's so much more I'd love to praise the film for, but it really speaks for itself.  Some claim that the love story is underdeveloped and that the plot becomes predictable by the third act, but I feel this can't even begin to take away from the beauty of the rest of the film.  There's no doubt that the film's magic would have suffered had it been animated in anything but stop motion, or had Disney pulled punches with the darkness and tried to make it more kid-friendly.  It may not reach the insane creepiness of The Adventures of Mark Twain, but to be fair, no amount of Halloween spookiness could ever compete with an angel named Satan.  The film is undeniably fun and though this wouldn't be Tim Burton's last foray into the world of stop-motion, it's probably the very best in the sub genre overall.

Creepiness Score:  7 clowns with tear-away faces out of 10.

Movie Score: 10/10