Thursday, February 19, 2015

American Sniper (minor spoilers)

Clint Eastwood is one of the few people in Hollywood who went from being an icon in front of the camera to an icon behind it.  The films he directs are often thought-provoking and stunning in their their visual presentation, and American Sniper is no exception.  The story of an old-fashioned "man's man" living in the 21st Century is a fascinating one, built on themes like blind patriotism, PTSD, and war as a drug.  That last one may remind you of a similar little movie, The Hurt Locker, and comparisons to that film are inevitable.  I'll get to my feelings on how they stack up against one another.

Based on the auto-biography by Chris Kyle, the "most lethal sniper in U.S. military history," the story follows Kyle (Bradley Cooper) from his beginnings as a rodeo cowboy to becoming a Navy SEAL sniper in Iraq after the events of 9/11. During training, he meets and falls in love with Taya (Sienna Miller), who soon after becomes his wife.  Following the 9/11 attacks, Kyle spends the majority of his time in combat, proudly protecting his country and his fellow soldiers.  Using shooting techniques his father taught him as a child, his long-range shooting skills are unmatched, and he earns the nickname "The Legend."  He becomes involved in a manhunt to find the al-Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi through his right-hand man The Butcher (Mido Hamada), an equally deadly enemy sniper.  His home life becomes a strange other-world; his affections for his wife and young children have been drained, ignorance of the war angers him, and he becomes awkward in social situations.

What works in the film works tremendously well, especially with Cooper's performance at the forefront.  He portrays Chris Kyle as a man with a good heart but also a child-like naivety about the nature of good and evil.  His black-and-white view of the world is challenged time and time again in Iraq, and whenever he returns home to see his family, he becomes further and further disconnected from them.  When he realizes just how much gray areas there are in life, he doesn't know how to handle it.  After a while, he uses his previous intentions to protect and serve his country as an excuse to go back to the the war over and over, even after his wife tearfully threatens to leave him if he keeps it up.  It's a fascinating character study about a man who experiences dehumanization caused by war, and Cooper's portrayal of him couldn't be any better.

The film's minimal usage of music and emphasis on sound design creates a tension-filled atmosphere that hardly lets up once Kyle goes to Iraq, even in the civilian life scenes.  Disorienting shaky-cam isn't an issue for action scenes, color is muted and suitably melancholy, and the editing is sharp and efficient.  At first I found the sudden jumps in time periods jarring, but afterward I realized that it puts you in Kyle's shoes in a sense; suddenly his children are years older and are unrecognizable from the babies they used to be.  It strengthens the disconnect he has between his home life and his army life in a subtly and effectively.  Visual effects are top notch (sparse as they are), as is the production design.

Something holds American Sniper back, and similarly to this year's The Imitation Game, it happens in the last few crucial minutes of the film.  I won't say exactly what happens, only that it doesn't come to terms with the theme it's been setting up for the ENTIRE FREAKING RUNTIME: the dehumanizing effect that war has on a person and how that person deals with it when they are thrust back into society.  I'm not necessarily saying that I  enjoyed The Hurt Locker more overall, but its ending shines in comparison; it makes a the gutsy move to conclude with, "War is a drug, and the people who become addicted to war ultimately sacrifice what makes them human. "  American Sniper seems to conclude with "War fucks you up, so get some help when you get out and you'll be fine!"  That's not to say the film ends happily, and if you know the story of the real Chris Kyle, you know what happens to him. Could a few less scenes in Iraq and a few more scenes at home in the last act have helped fix this issue?

Suffice it to say, the ending DOES NOT ruin the movie.  I didn't gush for four paragraphs to end this with "it sucked."  American Sniper is a still a powerful, fascinating, and very emotional movie thanks to outstanding performances, excellent writing, direction, and good pacing.  It's really remarkable that Sniper is currently competing against two mega-franchise films (Hungers Games: Part 11 of 45 and Guardians of the Galaxy)  for top-grossing film of 2014.  Maybe people are getting tired of CGI explosions and sequels to sequels to sequels?  Whatever the reason for its success, it makes me very happy.  A solid and non-pandering anti-war film if there ever was one, American Sniper is a must-see.

9 plastic babies out of 10

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Better Call Saul (first impressions)

I'm not alone in calling Breaking Bad one of the most addicting, mind-blowing, and ridiculously intense television shows of all time.  When it ended about a year and a half ago, I was deeply satisfied and content for the story to end exactly where it did.  So as you can imagine, I was skeptical when I heard about a spin-off series featuring the supporting character Saul Goodman in the starring role.  However, I'm happy to report that (judging strictly from the two-episode premier) Better Call Saul is made with the same level of craftsmanship and loving care that its predecessor was.

That comes as a relief more than a surprise; after all, the series is still helmed by creator Vince Gilligan, without whom I'm sure the show wouldn't have that wonderful, darkly comedic tone that Breaking Bad perfected.  Still, there was plenty of room to be disappointed.  What if Saul's character became irritating when given the spotlight?  What if the show becomes too comedic?  Will any of this be as interesting as the story about the rise of Heisenberg? I think it's best to go into this show with Breaking Bad in the back of one's mind instead of the forefront.  I foresee cameos and references to the original show without outright parody or excessive character mishandling IF the opening two episodes are any indication.  Because, damn--these episodes were just great.

The show begins with a "where Saul is now" sequence that seems to take place after the events of Breaking Bad.  For people who haven't seen the original show (I know a few of you poor, unfortunate souls are out there), nothing is spoiled or even said about what happened to Saul.  For around ten minutes of screen time, there's hardly a word of dialogue amidst a dreamy black-and-white sequence that depicts Saul as a man living in fear, loneliness, and intense depression.  He reflects back on his life, seven years before meeting Walter White, and thus the real show begins.  Saul, whose actual name is Jimmy McGill, is a failing layer desperately looking for a break.  He supports his brother Charlie (Michael McKean), who once worked in a successful law firm but has since developed a mental illness.  After nearly being conned out of $500 by two fraudulent brothers (Jeremy Shamos and Daniel Spenser), Jimmy gets an idea that could save him from poverty.  However, the plan backfires when the two brothers get involved with a certain insane someone you might recognize.

I won't go to deep into the following episode for spoiler purposes, but I really like what I've seen so far.  Bob Odenkirk plays the same layered and intelligent character he did in the original show, but now he's given so much more to do.  It occurred to me right from the start how interesting it's going to be to see this "nobody" become the improbably powerful Saul Goodman we know and love.  I'm more interested to see that than I was to see C3PO being built by a young Darth Vader, anyway.  Man, the prequel pool is really shitty, isn't it?  The rest of the cast is great as well, with a nice recurring presence from Jonathan Banks (Mike from the original show) that should prove to be very promising.

All in all, I can't express how excited I am for the rest of Better Call Saul.  AMC's quality control is astounding, as they seem to be focused on creating smart and creative television as a priority.  Yes, spinoffs generally have the unfortunate connotation of being a cash-grab by nature, but thankfully this particular cash-grab is artistic in its endeavors.  Will it ultimately be as good as Breaking Bad? I suppose it's possible, but I wouldn't get my hopes up.  I'll just be happy to go along for the ride, which I can predict will be fun and intense in equal measures.


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Godzilla Raids Again (English Version)

Ah, banana oil! I was desperate and worried and anxious.  I'm not brave at all.

While I get my fair share of guilty pleasure from watching Japanese monster movies, I must admit that I haven't seen all that many of them.  I've only ever seen the Gamera movies through episodes of Mystery Science Theater, and that's just about the only way I'll ever watch them.  Much of the fun of watching these movies comes from making fun of them, especially when we're talking about the American versions.  I've seen even fewer dubbed versions of these movies, because A.) I know they're all almost exclusively terrible and B.) up until recently, they were a bit hard to find.  Well there's a snowstorm, I'm stuck inside with nothing but Netflix to comfort me, so by God, it's time I started watching some Godzilla movies to pass the time.

I love the original Godzilla movie.  I love it unironically.  It's a dated movie, but also an endlessly interesting one, both for reasons that are present in the film (the nuclear holocaust subtext) and for its enormous impact on pop culture both in Japan and in the U.S.  When it premiered in 1954, its box office success was so tremendous that Toho immediately made a sequel.  When I say immediately, I mean like Godzilla was released in November and Godzilla Raids Again was released in April.  The American cut of the first film was a pretty successful as well, which of course meant that U.S. would get a special version of the sequel as well.  A very special version.

I'd normally say you should never watch an American dub of a Japanese monster movie without having seen the original first, but I've realized now that going into the butchered version blind can be a very strange and enjoyable experience.  The original title of the film was Gigantis: The Fire Monster. You might think that title refers to the Ankylosaurus-looking beast in the poster, but oh no. Gigantis is the big lizard that looks like Godzilla.  What's so baffling about the American dub of Godzilla Raids Again is that it presents itself as a new movie that has nothing to do with Godzilla.  That's just astonishing.  The first film is even referenced through stock footage as if it's a different movie, where "Gigantis" devastated a city and is still on the loose! Was this done to avoid continuity issues, since Godzilla dies in the first film and then shows up here without explanation?  I really don't know, but it sure is weird watching a Godzilla film that refers to Godzilla by a different name.  In fact, I'm pretty sure the characters call him Anguirus a few times by accident.  This caused title issues down the line when it came to home video releases.  Apparently Toho had the video distributors change the title to Godzilla Raids Again despite the dubbing remaining inaccurate, which is made only more hilarious by the ultra-cheesy title graphic that zooms in at the beginning of the movie.  You know when you can just tell when something is a cheap '80s graphic?  Like "middle school home economics instructional video" cheap?  That is the very first thing you see in this movie, and I wouldn't have it open any other way.

Unlike the first film, whose American version included newly-shot footage and an added character for the English-speaking audience, Godzilla Raids Again is almost exclusively dubbed-over footage of the original actors.  Dubbing an animated film is difficult to do well, but it can be done.  However, dubbing a live-action film convincingly is just not possible.  Not now, and especially not in 1957. The dubbing for Raids is actually really good, all things considered.  But really good Godzilla dubbing is still really bad dubbing, and it just cannot be helped.  The dialogue is stilted and the actors are emotionally inert, rendering any non-action scenes hopelessly boring. I give them massive amounts of credit for making a lot of the lip movement match what the English actors are saying, but sometimes they say things that can't help but make you laugh. Also, characters and story?  They just aren't present here in any shape or form.  The original Godzilla had a thin story and characters to be sure, and while I can't speak for the Japanese version yet, this sequel has absolutely nothing going for it to keep the audience invested.

It hardly feels like a real movie at all; it opens with newsreel-style exposition dumps and hurries through scenes at light speed, with forced lengthy bits of voice-over by the main character Shoichi (Hiroshi Koizumi).  It's fascinating that the dub has the same problem that many children's anime dubs have; they fill atmosphere-building silence with dialogue, jokes, and needless explanations for things that are happening onscreen.  Except Raids adds no jokes, at least not intentional ones.  The only moments of silence we get are during the monster fight scenes, which thank God, are at least sort of fun to watch.

The "plot" involves Shoichi, a Japanese pilot, discovers an icy island where Gigantis and another creature known as Anguirus (Godzilla's first VS. matchup).  Then the two monsters find their way to Osaka and brawl their way through model buildings until one comes out on top.  A fellow pilot and friend of Shoichi, Kobyashi (Minoru Chiaki) must survive the monster attack, even though all hope seems lost.  I should also note that George Takei (yes, really) is one of the voice actors in the dub.  That's just... amazing.

I did admire that the film at least tries to recapture the horror-movie tone of the first film. I'm sure it's even more present in the Japanese version, but the little darkness that bled through the American dub's netting was much appreciated (it also helps that the film was shot in black and white).  It references the atomic bomb metaphor that Godzilla symbolizes enough to resonate, but not enough to make up for the emptiness of the rest of the film.  Never mind that the dubbing puts a wall between the audience and what's happening because of the uncanny valley effect, the characters simply have no personalities and the story is not focused.  There's an entire scene devoted to prisoners escaping from a holding truck that has nothing to do with anything else in the movie, for instance.  Why couldn't the movie have been about them!?

Even though the fight scenes are the only spots where there's any kind of attempt to let the picture speak for itself, I still can't call them great.  In the first film, there was an attempt to make Godzilla seem larger than life; big, slow movements and a grand presence.  Raids has a tendency to speed up the film during fight scenes, giving the creatures' movements a stop-motion quality that purposefully emulates King Kong.  It's jerky, awkward, and shatters any illusion that what you're watching is anything other than two men in bulky costumes wrestling with each other.  Hastily assembled as it was, at least the model work remains nicely detailed.  It's not filmed convincingly most of the time, but there was clearly much attention paid to the design.  However, some dinosaur puppets in a certain flashback scene are bizarrely conceived, and definitely provide some good laughs.  I'm not nuts about Godzilla's foe here; Anguirus leaves something to be desired, although my heart goes out to the poor suit actor.  It must be hard enough playing the upright Godzilla, so I can't even imagine doing the same thing as a quadruped.

So the American dub of Godzilla Raids Again is pretty terrible.  I do look forward to watching the original cut, but in all honesty, I can predict that it won't be anywhere near as good as the first film.  I'd actually be surprised if I come across any Godzilla films that actually are, which I don't necessarily mind so long as the fights are creative and the energy is up.  Raids has its fair share of ironically hilarious moments, and the dark themes of the original are trying to claw their way to the surface, but there's ultimately not much value in the film at all.   Calling Godzilla "Gigantis" was a huge mistake, as was changing his signature roar, but the way it's been covered up in the current version is positively hilarious.  The American dub is wall to wall exposition and no character, painstakingly dubbed in vain, and completely lacking the soul of the original.  A strange experience to be sure, but not a very rewarding one.  If you're a huge tokusatsu fan, you've probably already seen this movie and have made up your mind.  If you're just looking for a good movie, or even just a fun monster brawl, you have plenty of other options to choose from.


Wednesday, January 14, 2015


What an incredible experience watching Birdman is.  It's funny, gritty, timely, and above all, beautiful.  A technical accomplishment that dazzles as well as emotionally stirs, Birdman features fantastic performances from all its lead actors, who are given a script that allows them to become characters who are trying to figure out what it means to be an actor in the age of the internet while still clinging to their childhood expectations in spite of all they've beaten down with in the industry.  I was prepared for a two-hour Michael Keaton "acting" reel that uses a lot of CGI cuts to make the whole movie appear to be one long take.  What I got was a cinematic thrill ride.

The story follows Riggan Thomson (Keaton), a former Hollywood action star of a series of films called Birdman from over twenty years ago (obviously, and perfectly, as a reference to the Batman films Keaton himself).  He's currently living at a theater on Broadway, where below he is in the process of writing, directing, and starring in a new play that will hopefully bring him back to relevance since his acting career has been waning.  The rehearsals have been a disaster; his new actor Mike (Edward Norton) is ego-driven and unpredictable, his lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) is having self doubts, and his supporting actress and girlfriend Laura (Andrea Riseborough) may be pregnant with his child (and may also a bit insane).  His daughter Sam (Emma Stone) works for him behind the scenes as a personal assistant, but as a former drug addict, she's constantly on the edge of slipping back into her old ways.  Riggan's lawyer and best friend (Zach Galifianakis) does what he can to help Riggan out, but there seems to be too much chaos for him to get a handle on it all.  At the center of all this drama is Riggan's story of discovering self-value in unorthodox ways, many of which involve talking to his alter ego Birdman inside his head while he performs feats like telekinesis and levitation.  But that's all in his head, right?  Right?!

Birdman is about so many things, and to really explore them all would take up two reviews at least.  At its core, it's about staying relevant in a quickly changing world.  This isn't necessarily a new concept, especially when it comes to ex-Batman players *cough* Adam West *cough*, but the way the concept is presented is so creative that it feels fresh. It captures this point in time so well it's staggering, summing up the 2014 generation's obsessions with social media, online videos, blockbuster superhero movies, and jaded attitudes.  I find it very interesting that Emma Stone, a star of the new Spider-man films, was chosen to star in a movie that criticizes them, but I wouldn't have it any other way.  The film doesn't stand up on a soap box to tell you this; the theme is weaved throughout the narrative seamlessly and never gives easy solutions to how we're supposed to live our lives.  This is a character piece first and foremost, and it delivers due to its incredible script and valuable cast.  I can't say enough good things about this cast; it's absolutely perfect, especially considering the nature of the film's camerawork (i.e. that the entire film is made to look like one, continuous shot).  Some of these takes go on for what seems like 20 to 30 minutes, and the timing of the choreography is spot on.  The way the actors play off each other (captured through the continuous, gliding camerawork) is not just a joy to watch; it's like watching a miracle.

Director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki have created something I just can't wrap my head around... how did they do this? While some of the cuts may be obvious (going through a dark corridor), some are mind-blowingly discrete.  Like, how did they light this film? The camera is constantly swinging in all directions, whizzing through the theater, outside the theater, and hovering over rooftops like a character itself.  I imagine color correcting this film was like trying to tame a rabies-invested lion.  Don't even get me started on how lived-in the world feels, with set design (if it even is a set) that transports you to this grimy world and makes sure you stay there.  It's commendable work all around, and is without a doubt one of the most technically impressive movies I've ever seen of this type.  And I've seen Timecode.

Everything about Birdman works perfectly in synch.  The richly layered script, the rounded characters, the perfect cast, and the ground breaking direction... it's all too much to take in from having seen it only once.  I'll be damned if this movie doesn't get a nomination for best picture, or hell, wins best picture at the Oscars this year, with Keaton taking home best actor for good measure. It's an ambitious character piece as well as a glorious technical achievement, and seeing those two aspects married together so beautifully is a rare sight to behold.


Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Imitation Game (Spoiler Free)

The lives of many of the people behind the scenes of World War II remain a mystery, but few are as fascinating as the life of Alan Turing.  A brilliant mathematician with intense psychological pain, Turing helped crack the Nazi's Enigma Code, which was instrumental in helping the Allies win the war.  Loosely based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Andrew Hodges, The Imitation Game is a powerfully acted little movie that tells a very heartbreaking story.

Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch) is an outcast in many ways; for those that don't know the real-life figure, it appears at first that Turing is just not a people person.  He pretends not to understand sarcasm, intentionally irritates people with word games, and keeps to himself almost exclusively.  Due to his own persistence, he becomes the leader of a group that concentrates on cracking the Nazi's Enigma code.   Initially, the film appears to be about Turing's development from being a loner to "one of the guys," but it takes twists and turns that give more insight into his character that go far beyond "nerdy guy learns to relax."  To give away much more would likely ruin important plot points, so I plan to review the film in a spoiler-heavy fashion very soon.  This means that this review won't really delve into my major, MAJOR problem with the film's ending, but c'est la vie. 

The screenplay by Graham More is excellently penned, especially considering it's the first feature film he's ever written.  The characters are excellently developed and the story moves along at a leisurely but effective pace. While many of the details are, I'm sure, dramatized for the film, it's still one hell of a true story.  Such an important man in the history of technology (with his Turing machine being dubbed the very first computer), Turing had a very difficult and unfair life.  Despite having Einstein-like scientific and mathematic brilliance, many people are completely ignorant of his accomplishments.  The film paints Turing as a very flawed person, never some kind of superhero.  He doesn't show much compassion for other people, likely due to an incident from his childhood (portrayed in the film), and even makes the difficult decision to let innocent people die so that the code-cracking operations can remain secretive from the Germans.

Benedict Cumberbatch channels a bit of his award-winning Sherlock character into his portrayal of Turing, removing some of that character's joy and replacing it with deep-seeded pain.  It's a fantastic performance to be sure, proving that Cumberbatch is one of the best actors working in TV and movies today.  Keira Knightly is likable as Turing's only real friend Joan.  She's quick-witted, charming, and almost as brilliant as he is.  The other cast members gel very well, but there's not much more to speak of about their development that wouldn't, once again, spoil the plot.  The code-breakers grow into a sort of family, and they genuinely want to make a difference in the world, not just do their jobs well enough.

The film's tone balances the lighthearted with the traumas of World War II very nicely, never jerking from a serious scene to a humorous one.  Rather, each scene is played straight, but may have some underlying comedy that comes from the characters.  I don't know if it's Argo or The King's Speech levels of good, but it's a film that's full of heart as well as emotion amidst the period setting. The score by Alexandre Desplat (who most notably did the music for Gravity and the final Harry Potter films) is excellent as well; chilling and somber without being intrusive.  Take notes, Hans Zimmer.  Apparently, Desplat wrote the score in less than three weeks, which I just can't even conceive.

As the Oscar season wraps up, it's clear to see that many films we all thought would be Oscar contenders turned out to be total washouts.  It's nice to see that The Imitation Game not only turned out to be a good movie, it might just be one of my favorite movies this year.  It's not perfect, or even close to it; it's final act is just bad enough to hold it back from greatness without turning the movie into some kind of train wreck. Let's just say it has the same problems as the last shot of Thelma and Louise, if you know what I'm saying.  Cumberbatch and Knightly really shine here, and I would be lying if I said I didn't learn a thing or two about the behind-the-scenes happenings of World War II while watching an entertaining period piece.  Well made and full of heart, peppered with sadness that may effect many people on a personal level, The Imitation Game is well worth the watch.


Monday, January 5, 2015

A Christmas Carol version 245: The one with creepy Jim Carrey

"Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?"

After countless years of adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, we come to 2009, wherein Robert Zemeckis (director of the hugely successful films Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, and Forest Gump), released his own version of the classic.  How could this version possibly make itself stand out in the crowd of other Christmas Carol movies?  The answer is by doing the same thing he'd done for his last two films; produce it using motion capture and computer animation.  The Polar Express and Beowulf are divisive films, both made with incredible creative energy but strangely lacking in soul.  Is the motion capture process to blame?  Is it the soulless eyes of the characters, their "uncanny valley" movements, or the distractingly hyper-real aesthetics?  I still don't know where I stand personally on the topic, but I will say that many mo-cap movies have visuals that are absolutely spectacular and some visuals that miss the mark.  The line between being an animated film and a live-action film is blurred considerably when watching a mo-cap film; while you are watching real actors give computer-abridged performances, the environment they occupy, their clothing, and every object in the film is computer animated.  Whatever the classification for the films is, the only thing that really matters is the end product.

"What reason have you to be merry?"

So looking back at Zemeckis's $200 million dollar juggernaut, how does it hold up?  It wasn't a huge hit with audiences or critics, and can ultimately be considered a flop.  But there's something I really like about this adaptation, as unnecessary as its production might have been.  This is a ghost story first and foremost, unafraid to be dark, creepy, and not pander to its family audience.  It's quite faithful to the book, besides that part where, you know, the Ghost of Christmas Future shrinks Scrooge down and chases him throughout the city on a hell chariot.  It's very interesting to be able to see with, your own eyes, where exactly a movie derails itself, and by golly, that's the fucking moment.

Remember that part in the book where Scrooge gets whacked with those icicles?

Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman play numerous parts within the film in similar vein as Tom Hanks in The Polar Express.  Carrey portrays the crotchety Scrooge surprisingly well, scarcely giving way to his Jim Carey-isms in favor of a more honest approach in portraying the character.  Alastair Sim, he is not, but the performance is great nonetheless (as is the creepy, stylized character design).  He plays the three ghosts in the film as well, and I can't decide whether or not I like this idea.  I hate everything about Past, love everything about Present, and am totally indifferent about Future (though I do like the idea of him emerging from Scrooge's shadow). Gary Oldman plays Bob Cratchit as well as Tiny Tim (the "performance" part anyway), and though his acting is so good it actually makes me cry in the third act, something went horribly wrong with his character designs.  Bob Cratchit looks like a hobbit, and Tiny Tim's eyes are so wide they look like they're trying to swallow my soul.  In addition, Oldman plays the ghost of Jacob Marley, in a scene that gets it so right until Marley's Mouth unhinges and he has to deliver the rest of the dialogue in gimmicky, painfully unfunny ways.  It's a mood killer among too many mood killers.

Oh, could you not hear him during this HILARIOUS gag?

At least the music is really solid, with Alan Silvestri delivering one of his best modern scores, though nothing beats his 80s scores (most of which were produced for Zemeckis's own films).  It perfectly captures that "Christmassy" feeling without shoving "Jingle Bells" down your throat for an hour and a half.  He effectively uses familiar Christmas carols, but combines them with an originally composed score, and it's an absolute joy to listen to.  It may not be as good as Silvestri's score for The Polar Express, but it comes close.

"Ghost of the future, I fear you more than any spectre I have seen."

In spite of jaw-droppingly gorgeous environments and camera movements that sweep through luscious landscapes, detailed cities, and starry skies, some of the character animation and designs bring the movie down a peg.  Fezziwig (Bob Hoskins) and his hefty wife inexplicably fly around like Peter Pan and Wendy during a dance scene, Scrooge's fiance Belle (Robin Wright Penn) and his nepwhew Fred (Colin Firth) look like Barbie and Ken dolls next to the other characters, and many of the extras look like video game avatars from a Playstation 2 game.  Story wise, the only major problem with the film comes in the form of the aforementioned chase scene, but thankfully the film is able to pick itself up and keep going afterward.  While I usually make it a point not to see movies in 3D, this one did not disappoint.  It was just months before Avatar would come along and change the 3D industry, so when I first saw this I hadn't been exposed to much digital 3D.  I don't know if it was the theater I saw it in or if 3D just hadn't been ruined for me yet, but I got an absolute thrill out of seeing this in the format.  If only the film had been released a year later, it probably have doubled its box office intake.  There's no way the 2010 Alice in Wonderland made a literal billion dollars on its own merits. 

"I'm as light as a feather! I'm as merry as a schoolboy!"

While certainly not the best ever adaptation of A Christmas Carol, Zemeckis's version is more solid than you'd think.  Then it becomes awful, then it's good again, and then right at the end you realize that Scrooge and the other characters look way too creepy for you to truly love them, and you're left a bit cold.  But I'll tell you what it's not; a pop-culture-laden, lazy adaptation that doesn't even try to do anything new with the material.  It's biggest problem isn't that it's made in motion capture, and it.  The main issue is that slapstick is often used to lighten the mood in places that it so does not fit. Yes, some of the character designs are awful, but the environments they inhabit are an incredible sight to behold.  It never shies away from darkness, and Zemeckis's total freedom of movement with the camera produces some truly exhilarating results, and the actor's performances shine through, no matter how much digital makeup they have applied.  This is no Disney classic, but it's an offbeat and enjoyable Christmas movie that's worth seeing at least once, even if it's just to see the Ghost of Christmas present turn into this...

Now that's some good old-fashioned nightmare fuel.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Into the Woods (spoiler heavy edition)

"I wish... more than anything..."

In the past decade, the screen has only been graced with two Sondheim musical film adaptations: 2007's Sweeney Todd and 2014's Into the Woods.  The good news is that while both of these films take large liberties with the source material, they both function as movies very nicely.  While Sweeney Todd knows what it is through and through, however, Into the Woods suffers a bit of an identity crisis.  From what I've found, the Broadway musical is split into two distinct acts; one involves familiar fairy tales being spun together and playing out the way they traditionally do.  In the second act, the characters' wishes are not all they expected them to be.  It's sort of a "what happens next" for Cinderella, Jack and the Beanstalk, Little Red Riding Hood, and Rapunzel.  I absolutely love that concept, and while it's still there in the film version, there's definitely something lost in translation.

The film opens with a fantastic opening prologue that establishes the characters, their desires, and the reasons that each of them have to go "into the woods."  We meet Jack  (Daniel Huttleston) and his Mother (Tracey Ullman) from Jack and the Beanstalk, the girl from Little Red Riding Hood (Lilia Crawford), Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), and new characters in the form of a childless Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt).  The couple discovers that a Witch (Meryl Streep) cast a spell over their family after the Baker's father stole from her garden many years ago.  The curse prevents the couple from having the child they so desire, and in order to lift the spell, they need to find four things in the woods: a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, hair as yellow as corn, and a slipper as pure as gold.  I think you can see where this is heading.  The Baker and his wife meet up with the other fairy tale characters and acquire what they need from Jack, Red Ridding Hood, Cinderella, and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy).  Everyone gets what they want, happily every after, yadda yadda.

At this point in the play, that's only the ending to the first half of the story.  But in the film, we're an hour and a half into a two hour movie.  That last half hour is where the majority of the film's problems lie (something I felt strongly about before even knowing the first thing about the play).  Characters die very quickly and without impact (sometimes even clarity), and the sequence of events feels a bit forced so that the film's ultimate message can be expressed: take responsibility for your actions and teach your children to do the same.  However, that message gets a bit drowned out by the extensiveness of the classic fairy tale segment and the rushed nature of the aftermath.  This is why I said the film has a bit of an identity crisis; if the whole point of the story is explored in the second half, why spend the majority of the film dwelling on the first half of the play when, ultimately,  a lot of it doesn't matter?  Why focus on so much setup when there is such a drought of payoff? I say this with a heavy heart, because I love so much from that first hour and a half.

The cast is excellent here, with Streep, Kendrick, Blunt, Corden, and everyone else giving great acting as well as singing performances.  Johnny Depp has a lot of fun in a small part as Red Riding Hood's Wolf, with his design clearly inspired by Tex Avery's Red Hot Riding Hood.  Though he reportedly only did the part as a favor to director Rob Marshall and to Sondheim himself, at least he seems to be having fun.  I could listen to this soundtrack for days; Sondheim's lyrics are fun and his orchestrations are gorgeous.  It's not as good as West Side Story, or hell, even Sweeney Todd,  but it certainly isn't unmemorable.  Under the direction of Marshall, the film's fairy tale world is well-developed, but he offers only glimpses of the visual poetry he was able to capture in his electric Chicago.  It's as though the film could have been directed by anybody.

Despite being produced by Disney, the I appreciate that film doesn't shy away from complexity or dark themes.  Besides the character deaths and the general macabre atmosphere, there are implied instances of self-mutilation, adultery, and even child molestation (in the form of Depp's child stalker-ish Wolf).  While I could have done without the latter, it was still surprising that Disney, often infamous for sanitizing classic stories to make them marketable for a family audience, kept in so many adult themes.  I also appreciate the commitment the actors have for the material; the sadness in Streep's performance when the Witch looses Rapunzel, the over-the-top mannerisms of the Princes (Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen) in the song "Agony," and Kendrick's charming befuddlement during her "On the Steps of the Palace" number are just a few great moments that really linger.

So we have a film a bit at war with itself, but one that ultimately works.  Its rushed, last half hour would probably be a deal breaker if everything that preceded it wasn't so damn good.   The performances are excellent, the music is great, and the tone is fun and loose while still containing heart.  The themes of challenging the traditional celebration of (ironically) Disney-esque happy endings is still ultimately present in the story, even if it's more subdued than it should have been. Would the film have been better at two and a half hours? I can't quite say.  I suppose in order to see the potential of Into the Woods fully realized, I'll just have to watch a stage performance.