Monday, July 27, 2015

Mr. Holmes (2015)

Amid the recent Sherlock Holmes renaissance – two films and two television shows in six years – there seems to have been something of an effort to find the “more authentic” Holmes by doing something quite different from Basil Rathbone in a deerstalker cap. Bill Condon’s Mr. Holmes takes a similar tack, albeit by locating Holmes in his later years, giving us a more sobered and more affective detective than the others, one that succeeds largely on the shoulders of its star performer, Ian McKellen.

Mr. Holmes finds the great detective (McKellen) in exile-by-retirement with his housekeeper Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney) and her son Roger (Milo Parker). While tending his bees and staving off senility, Holmes is haunted by his failing memory of his last case and the need to resolve it before his powers of deductive reasoning falter for good.

First of all, Ian McKellen is absolutely amazing in this film. Among the panoply of talented Sherlocks we’ve had in the past few years, McKellen is, I can safely say, in a league of his own. I confess I haven’t seen much of Jonny Lee Miller’s Elementary performance, but Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch have wildly different though engaging screen presences; both, however, do have a similar superhuman aesthetic about them, detaching them somewhat from the Doyle stories. McKellen’s Holmes, on the other hand, is the definition of grounded, all the more so because of the weight of his past and, he confides in one of the film’s most intriguing turns, the burden of his own fame in the wake of Watson’s publications.

McKellen is mesmerizing, unsurprisingly so given the fact that he apparently can do anything on screen. In another striking debut by a child actor, though, it’s Milo Parker’s scene-stealing turn as young Roger that makes the best impression. As a kind of new Watson to the aging Holmes, Parker plays precocious deftly, reminding one just a little bit of Thomas Brodie-Sangster in Love Actually. (Or maybe I just think all British children are alike.) To make one’s mainstream debut (setting aside Robot Overlords, of which I hadn’t so much as heard) opposite two giants like McKellen and Linney is one thing, but to hold your own is something else entirely. Parker provides the biggest laughs in the film, as well as the most emotional moments when we see what constitutes growing up in a home with Holmes.

Perhaps the thing that surprised me the most was the pronounced lack of action in Mr. Holmes. Obviously, we wouldn’t expect rousing fight choreography from a septuagenarian playing a nonagenarian, but the big screen Sherlock has of late been something of a master martial artist, but Condon’s treatment is much more contemplative, much more sensitive than the casual (or careless) snark of RDJ and Cumberbatch. Consequently, the film has an air not of melancholy but of introspection, mirrored quite well by the film’s balance of three distinct timelines which unfold and interweave to address all the unfinished business of Holmes’s life.

Mr. Holmes is a quieter Sherlock Holmes film than that to which we are accustomed of late, but it’s in the vein of what we might call “traditionally British” – the same as what Eddie Izzard satirized as “room with a view with a pond and a staircase.” I don’t recall a pond, but there is still the same serenity in Mr. Holmes, something very calming amid the otherwise blockbuster summer season. And at the center of it all is a very wonderful performance by Ian McKellen, one which ought to be seen by any self-professed admirers of the great detective.

Mr. Holmes is rated PG for “thematic elements, some disturbing images and incidental smoking.” There is mention of miscarried pregnancy, bee stings, and loneliness; Holmes discusses smoking pipes and cigars.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man (2015)

When a movie studio takes on “juggernaut” status in the way that Marvel Studios has, there’s a rubbernecking tendency among the media as they begin to speculate when it will fail, when that first flop will fall. We saw it with Guardians of the Galaxy, which succeeded more than anyone expected (especially for a film with talking trees and raccoons). Now, between the departure of initial director Edgar Wright and the problem of name recognition, Ant-Man had been floated as Marvel’s first failure. The truth is, however, that Ant-Man stumbles through its exposition before ending up as a surprisingly entertaining superhero film.

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is a reformed cat burglar who wants to support his daughter, but his criminal past and ex-wife won’t let him. Meanwhile, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) discovers that his shrinking technology is being appropriated by his protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). Against the advice of his daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), Pym tasks Scott with stealing the technology from Cross, offering him the Ant-Man suit to accomplish the heist.

Let’s get the bad news out of the way for those of us true believers who love these movies – Ant-Man is a little bit clunky, especially in the exposition department. There’s a very funny line in the trailers – slightly different in the finished film – where Hank Pym tells Scott, “I need you to break into a place and steal some stuff.” The thing about Ant-Man is that the first twenty minutes or so is exactly like that, with characters very directly expressing their motivations, desires, and plot arcs. Scott’s relationship with his daughter could have been somewhat poignant, but every scene he’s in involves him telling someone else how much he cares for his daughter before being reminded that he has a criminal record. It’s very on-the-nose screenwriting that distracts from the Marvel emphasis on character; compare, for example, to Iron Man and the way it introduced Tony Stark by showing him in his natural habitat rather than telling us, “Tony, you’re irresponsible.”

Having said that, with a first act that feels very perfunctory, once Ant-Man gets going it’s a much more successful film. It manages to walk that line between acknowledging how absurd the concept is and just running with it, without feeling parodic or naïve. It’s aware of the innate absurdity of a superhero whose power is talking to ants, but at the same time it demonstrates just how much can be done with that power. There are several moments in the film where I said to myself, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that,” moments that demonstrate the creativity of the writers and the way in which they’ve taken the concept seriously without being too serious about it.

A large part of the film’s attitude comes from Rudd’s naturalism in the role; for me, he’s always been the member of the Judd Apatow “Frat Pack” who can step back from the material and wink at it without compromising the integrity of his performance, and he brings that grounded irony to Scott Lang. At the other end of the spectrum, it is an absolute delight to see Michael Douglas in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. I’ve said before that he’s one of those actors who is watchable no matter what he’s doing. In the role of the mentor – Marvel’s first “legacy” character – Douglas shines as someone crippled by loss and haunted by his past. Lilly, for those who haven’t seen her since Lost, is also quite compelling as Hope, the kind of character of which we just can’t wait to see more, and thank heavens we’ll almost certainly see her in a film down the road, because Hope has the potential to be a breakout star of the MCU – spirited, heroic, and unique (there isn’t really a comparison character, fortunately).

The thing that makes Ant-Man a real success, aside from the inevitable tie-in aspects (including cameos from Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and one other name I won’t spoil - though for God's sake, people, stay through the credits!), is its adherence to the formula of the heist film. Marvel’s been pretty good with this lately, giving us a 70s spy film with Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a space opera with Guardians of the Galaxy, so the genre play here keeps the superhero genre from growing stale (really, how many times can one replicate the structure of Superman before wearing it thin?). Think of it like Ocean’s Eleven if Danny Ocean could shrink. And the rousing score by Christophe Beck helps that atmosphere work for the audience.

I went into Ant-Man expecting it to be a passable superhero venture, one of a dozen generic entries, but the film won over the cynic in me fairly rapidly and convinced me it had something to offer – a return to form of sorts, something akin to Iron Man with its emphasis on corporate espionage rather than saving the world. It’s not as strong a film as Iron Man, but it’s no less entertaining than at least half of what Marvel has put out in the last decade.

Ant-Man is rated PG-13 for “sci-fi action violence.” There is a fair amount of running, jumping, and punching, done at an atomic level so we only see full-size people recoiling from being hit by Ant-Man. There’s also the usual amount of peril and menace from the principal antagonist.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Jurassic World (2015)

When I saw the trailer for Jurassic World, I asked the same question twice, once of the characters in the film and once of the filmmakers themselves: “Why did you think this was a good idea? We saw what happened last time.” Honestly, why anyone would build an actual Jurassic Park seemed unfathomable, given the fate of the original, but I also wanted to know why the filmmakers were ostensibly remaking the original with a higher body count. Now that I’ve actually seen the film, I can say that the answer to both versions of the question is, “But this one’s bigger,” and I’m actually not as disappointed with that answer as one might expect.

Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) manages the successful theme park Jurassic World, with little on her mind but business. On the eve of the park’s newest debut, the genetically modified Indominus Rex, Claire’s nephews (Ty Simpkins, late of Iron Man 3, and Nick Robinson) visit the park, but it’s also the day before disaster in the park – disaster to which Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and his trained velociraptors respond.

I’ll try not to get too philosophical about the difference between spectacle and storytelling here, though the difference is key on the subject of Jurassic World. It is, in short, the difference between The Maltese Falcon and Transformers. In The Maltese Falcon (the 1941 John Huston version, of course), we have a brilliant story and very substantial character work, leaving the audience feeling satisfied and accomplished by film’s end, even though (spoilers) very little is actually resolved. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got the Michael Bay movies, which are spectacles turned up to eleven, with next to nothing by way of plotting or characterization. Both can be entertaining in their own right – though, of course, Transformers is patently offensive in some of its disregard for storytelling (and offensive in other insensitivities as well).

Now, Jurassic World clearly values spectacle more than storytelling. There was some controversy about whether or not the film chastises the character of Claire for being professional at the cost of her personal life, for not wanting to follow the cliché of marriage-then-motherhood. I don’t agree with that assessment of the film (I actually think her sister comes off quite poorly for nagging Claire to “settle down”), but I think it exposes a problem with the film – the characters are so thinly written that it’s quite easy to impose an interpretation like that onto the film. That is, the characters consist of one personality trait (Claire=business, Owen=badass, kids=imperiled), and the screenplay doesn’t quite bother with value judgments on those traits.

On the other hand, while the characters are fairly flat, director Colin Trevorrow is much more interested in the theme park atmosphere of Jurassic World, about the fleshed-out attractions such a park might include, and naturally about the ways all that could go horribly, horribly wrong. It’s almost as though Trevorrow has anticipated the detractors’ cries of “Been there, done that” and responds with, “Well, of course it goes wrong. That’s what this franchise is all about.” Jurassic World doesn’t have the same kind of cautionary allegory as the Michael Crichton source material.

Jurassic World is not better than Jurassic Park, nor, I would say, is it even as good. But it is good enough. Less than three-dimensional characters aside, the horror movie-inflected direction works surprisingly well, overcoming the cynical me that came to the theaters that day and giving me that “Oh, this isn’t good” feeling in the pit of my stomach. Trevorrow does something quite intriguing, by way of comparison to Jurassic Park, which began with a tour of the grounds and devolved into chaos. Jurassic World, however, intermingles the two; as the park’s security measures fail sector by sector, the film carries on in tandem with the ignorance of the park attendees. It’s a nice change-up that keeps Jurassic World from feeling too much like a retread of the original while substituting the escalating sense of menace borrowed from, I think, home invasion and slasher films.

You can sum up the film quite nicely with a key moment from its climax, in which the human characters step out of the way and let about a dozen dinosaurs fight it out amongst themselves. Indeed, the last word of the film (if we can call it that) belongs to a dinosaur. Trevorrow has said he’s not terribly interested in a sequel, but if one existed, a) would we call it Jurassic World 2 or Jurassic Park 5?, and b) would it consist almost entirely of dinosaurs? The lesson of Jurassic World seems to be that a skeletal narrative can support a spectacle, providing that the spectacle is diverting enough. Either Jurassic World 2 will dispense with the pretext of a human supporting cast, or it’ll find a way to use them more effectively; either way, I’m decidedly less cynical about more Jurassic films than I was before seeing the film.

Jurassic World is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of science-fiction violence and peril.” I’m not really sure what more to add by way of description: there are dinosaurs, some of them are scary, and a lot of them eat people.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Terminator Genisys (2015)

Let’s get one thing clear about Terminator Genisys right off the bat:  I’m not mad; I’m just disappointed. There’s some stuff – and that’s kind of the best word for it, as I’ll discuss momentarily – in this film that is entertaining to watch, but there’s a lot about the film that is largely hollow, and the word I keep coming back to is ponderous, even overly so.

After an apparent victory over Skynet, John Connor (Jason Clarke) sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) to the past to save his mother from an inbound Terminator. But when Kyle arrives in 1984, he finds that Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke) is already prepared for his arrival, with a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) on her side. Together they realize that they’re in a divergent timeline, with Skynet set to rise in a new form.

I’ve actually never seen the original Terminator film – shocking, I know – but I have seen all the other films in the series (we’re up to five now). Even in spite of not having seen The Terminator, I have the same critique of Terminator Genisys that I had for Star Trek Into Darkness – that is, the allusions to the original source material are so obvious that even someone who hasn’t seen the original is aware of them, the effect being something akin to a clubbing over the head (I imagine) for those who are truly in the know. In both cases, the filmmakers have mistaken reference for reverence.

As for the exceptionally ponderous quality of the film, it’s as though the script writers looked at the original films and wanted to succeed by multiplying out the component parts. If you liked the liquid Terminator, this film has one of those and a shapeshifting nanobot Terminator. If you liked the time travel plot, this film has three. And if you liked Sarah Connor evolving into a badass, this film gives you a Sarah Connor who has always already been a badass. Of course, the difference is originality – we liked those beats in the films because they were different from what we had seen before. Okay, to be fair, the nanobot Terminator is pretty cool, a good adaptation of where our current understanding of robotics has taken us (even if I’m left thinking, “Didn’t I just see that in Big Hero 6?”).

Then again – and I’m not blaming director Alan Taylor for this, because he’s apparently miffed about it too – the big reveal of the nanobot Terminator was spoiled quite audaciously in the trailers. If you’ve managed to avoid the twist of which character is actually a Terminator, well done, and I won’t spoil it here because I think I would have liked the film more if I hadn’t known it ahead of time. (Although again, to be fair, it’s telegraphed a bit clearly quite early on.) And then, to top it all off, the plot is once more a race against the clock to blow up a computer before something really bad comes out of it.

I like alternate timeline stories; I think one of the best of them is Mark Millar’s Red Son, in which Superman’s rocket lands in the Soviet Union rather than Smallville, Kansas. But the difference is clear by way of one more comparison to the Star Trek reboot – where JJ Abrams’s Star Trek used an alternate timeline as a way to clear away the detritus of decades of continuity in order to do its own thing, Terminator Genisys does a soft reboot but then buckles under the weight of an inevitable future and a few obligatory callbacks (such as the inevitable “I’ll be back”).

There is “stuff” in this film – exploding things, car chases, action sequences – that is diverting enough, but they’re very much in a switch-off kind of mode that doesn’t advance the plot so much as puts it on hold. Even then, though, I’m left with questions the film shouldn’t force me to ask, like whether or not a Terminator ought to be too heavy to fit in a helicopter with two humans and their arsenal.

Unfortunately, the film ducks out on a lot of its big questions – like who sent “Old Arnold” into the past in the first place and what that mid-credits sequence actually means – because, surprise, there’s a new trilogy in the offing. That’s right, Terminator Genisys goes full Prometheus in the ending. And if the message of the film is that the future really isn’t set, let’s hope that the inevitable next Terminator film takes advantage of the alternate timeline’s freedom and does something new and surprising with the franchise. Just don’t be surprised if the next film climaxes with a few explosives around yet another computer.

Terminator Genisys is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi violence and gunplay throughout, partial nudity and brief strong language.” Robots and humans fight, occasionally shooting or stabbing each other. We see one or two naked bottoms with implied nudity during the time jumps, and one F-bomb is dropped.

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Top 10 Star Wars Musical Moments

Having just completed my most recent semimonthly rewatch of the Star Wars trilogy (that’s the Original variety, naturally), and in anticipation of The Force Awakens this December, I present another Top Ten list.  No, not a Top Ten ranking of the films in existence – the correct answer, by the way, is 5, 4, 6, 3, 2, Clone Wars, 1 – but a more musically minded listing.

The task was arduous, though, and I couldn’t bear to throw that many children to the wolves. Rather than rank the ten best tracks from 797 minutes of movies, I’m going to break this down by film. Here we present the first in an ongoing series of lists, “The Top 10 Star Wars Musical Moments!” (Look at it this way, you’re getting more posts – one for each movie!)

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. For source/cue division, I’m using both the 1993 four-disc “Anthology” box set and the 2004 two-disc “Special Edition” reissue editions, so track listings may vary for those playing the home game.

10. “Imperial Attack”
 Before we had “The Imperial March,” we had to “settle” for this motif for the evil Empire. And I say “settle” in scare quotes because even when John Williams outdoes himself as he would in Empire Strikes Back, the original ain’t bad, either. Bassoons and trombones – the lower end of the brass section – dominate, with the occasional four-note punctuation mark indicating a transition to the Death Star. Those four notes also herald the first appearance of Darth Vader on screen, so it sets the tone wonderfully for the antagonists of the film.

9. “Destruction of Alderaan”
 Here’s perhaps an offbeat choice for a Top 10 list, but I’ve always found it deliciously effective in its place. At the moment when Princess Leia is asked to betray the Rebellion to save her homeworld of Alderaan, the music spirals into confusion before the militaristic notes of the Empire take over and blast the planet to smithereens. It’s a small moment musically – only about a minute long – but Williams smartly conveys the murderous power of the Death Star in the construction of the score.

8. “The Little People Work”
 I’ve always been partial to this, ostensibly a theme song for the Jawas. Played on reedy instruments with a swirling and ambling quality, this is a crystallized example of Williams’s ability to communicate musically, one of those moments that works equally well without dialogue – indeed, the film has none, aside from the occasional nonverbal jabber and cry of “Utinni!” It tells us so much about the Jawas, implying a life of scavenging and work-as-play while inviting us just what awaits our repossessed droid companions.

7. “The Throne Room”
 This wonderful announcement of accomplishment fits just brilliantly at the end of a grand epic as at the conclusion of a long night of paper drafting (take it from someone who’s experienced both). It’s impossible not to recall the wry infectious grins of Luke and Han as they receive their medals, nor can a listener not feel a swell of pride through this ostentatious reworking of the “Force theme” (see below). Its reuse at the end of Revenge of the Sith’s soundtrack suggests that Williams regarded this as proper ceremony for the end of a long journey.

6. “The Battle of Yavin”
 You might think it cheating to put a ten-minute action cue on a Top 10 list (honey, wait’ll you see what I do for The Empire Strikes Back), but the entire climax of the film succeeds on the back of Williams’s score. The fighter pilots’ run on the Death Star is tense enough with death-by-turbolaser lurking around every swoop and dive, but it’s the Williams score that draws out the tension, kindly pausing to mourn the death of a fighter with an honorific fanfare before giving us that relentless bum-bum-bum as the final moments of the battle are decided. Finally, a wonderful breath of relief when the Death Star explodes is announced by the piece’s twinkling last notes. And it works just as well without the visuals – in your car, for one.

5. “Rescue of the Princess”
 Here we’ve got a collision of motifs – Luke’s theme, Leia’s theme, and the Imperial fanfare – in a medley that communicates the entire plot of the film. Luke’s theme creeps into the Empire’s, encounters Leia, and blasts back through the Empire to freedom. That Williams conveys this as well as, if not better than, the film proper is testament to his genius. It’s a nice climax of sorts for Luke’s heroic journey – he rescues the princess in a sweeping moment of majesty – but ends with a reminder that the real battle is yet to come.

4. “Ben’s Death/TIE Fighter Attack”
 After a kind of musical prologue representing the tragic moment in which Luke witnesses the death of his mentor, this smaller action cue gives us a relentless sense of impending danger and nonstop science-fiction action to underscore the well-directed attack sequence. It’s worth noting that when Family Guy did their spoof of Star Wars, they really didn’t have a joke to go with this scene other than Peter Griffin as Han Solo singing along to the score. This has always been my favorite action cue from A New Hope, in part because of its appearance during the Death Star run of Star Tours.

3. “Cantina Band”
 The mere fact that you’re already hearing this infectious Benny-Goodman-in-space tune in your head justifies its presence on this list.

2. “Main Title”
 From the epic fanfare blast that opens the film, John Williams’s score sets the stage for the saga to come. With the equivalent of a brass drumroll building to the instantly iconic main theme, the “Star Wars” theme defined for a generation what science fiction scores ought to sound like. It would, of course, go on to recur in each subsequent installment, but never to such great effect as upon its debut. When Marvel Comics unveiled their new Star Wars comics, they did so with a full page of “A long time ago...” followed by a two-page spread of the “Star Wars” logo over a starry background; while some might have found that a waste of three pages, I felt chills move up my arms because the comic captured precisely what the film did, and as I heard the John Williams score in my head I murmured to myself, “This is Star Wars.”

1. “Binary Sunset”
Naming the main title my #1 moment might have been a bit too predictable, but I can safely say that no musical moment defines the first film – and perhaps the entire saga – better than “Binary Sunset.” Utilizing the “Force Theme” to great effect, Williams captures the longing of Luke Skywalker and the promise of the great adventure that awaits him. It’s combined poetically with the image of the eponymous twin suns setting, allowing the genre atmosphere to collide with the plot mechanics and the technical splendor. The Force Awakens needs a “Binary Sunset” moment, a single image with a piece of music that distills the entire filmic experience.

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite Star Wars musical moment! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss my “Top 10 Empire Strikes Back Musical Moments!”

Monday, June 22, 2015

Inside Out (2015)

There was a joke going around the Internet a few days ago that Pixar began its career by asking, “What if toys had feelings?” before turning to bugs, cars, and fish. Now, the punchline claims, Pixar is turning their gaze inward to ask, “What if emotions had feelings?” Every good joke, of course, has a grain of truth to it, and the fact of the matter is that Pixar has always been rather good at probing the emotional depth of the quotidian, and going meta is an inevitable move. What’s also inevitable is that writer/director Pete Docter (of Up and Monsters Inc. fame) has done a first-rate job of it.

When Riley turns eleven and her family moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, the emotions in her head go along for the ride too. At the helm is Riley’s dominant emotion Joy (Amy Poehler), in charge of regulating Riley’s mood and creating her “core memories.” Also manning the buttons are Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling), but it’s Sadness (Phyllis Smith) who seems to be influencing Riley more than Joy would like, leading the emotions into disagreement as Riley begins a new life on the West Coast.

Let’s get the preliminary advisory out of the way – yes, I cried. It didn’t seem like I would, for the longest time in the film, which was not to Inside Out’s detriment at all, but then that trademark Pixar sucker punch arrives right at the climax, and blimey. If the film doesn’t strike that chord with you, I worry for the state of your emotions; honestly I do. It’s interesting that this has become the benchmark of success for me in evaluating a Pixar film, and I suppose it’s due to the apparent distinction between “kid’s movie” and “proper film” that I notice (but reject out of hand) the older I get. Take, for example, the smattering of trailers presented before my showing of Inside OutMinions, Hotel Transylvania 2, Shaun the Sheep, Pan, and Peanuts. Aside from my Charles Schulz nostalgia, I didn’t feel anything but boredom; there is a caliber of storytelling that Pixar films more often than not inhabit, stories told without room for cynicism or cheap gimmicks.

One senses, for instance, that a great deal of thought has gone into Inside Out, with its surprisingly nimble adaptation of how our emotions and memories operate within our own headspace. Though there is little by way of scientific precision in the film, there is a great deal of “truthiness” to the proceedings, as when the film offers an imaginative explanation for why we forget some things but spontaneously recall others. I almost wonder if Inside Out, by deftly portraying certain truths about our interiorities, will help young viewers understand those things about themselves that we adults have already had to learn for ourselves. (For one, the film acknowledges the way that our dreams are reconstructed from our memories – what Freud called “day residues.”) We may not have emotional sprites living in our brains, though we might be better off if we did.

While we’re on the subject of the emotions, it must be said that Amy Poehler is perhaps the best cast of any Pixar protagonist. While the Pixar casting department hasn’t really made any significant bumbles, Poehler is downright inspired as the embodiment of Joy. A kind of manic pixie Leslie Knope, Joy’s relentless enthusiasm is matched perfectly with Poehler’s breathless whimsy and at times infuriating cheeriness. It’s impossible to imagine another voice that would have worked quite so well, but she’s also complimented by a surprising turn by Phyllis Smith as Sadness. Smith turns in a nicely understated performance, playing up not deep sorrow but the exhaustion and defeat that comes with despair. Honestly, the voice cast is all around very strong, but it’s worth noting that the film succeeds largely on the chemistry between Joy and Sadness.

It’s a wonderful relationship, one that doesn’t pander to the simple good-guy/bad-guy narrative to which a lesser film studio might have resorted (heavens, could you imagine Jack Black voicing Disgust, with all the inevitable flatulence jokes that would have accompanied him?). Instead, Docter gives us something much more interesting, a movie about a relationship rather than a movie with an antagonism. There are no bad guys here because it’s all about Riley, about the complex and competing emotions within us and how we navigate our own psychological terrain. It’s surprisingly smart, a kind of “Disney’s Inception” in a way that shows off none of its brilliance because it’s too busy working to get you to feel. And on that account, Inside Out succeeds, one of the more moving entries in the Pixar canon and indeed the film community at large within recent memory.

Inside Out is rated PG for “mild thematic elements and some action.” Do with that what you will – aside from a scary clown and an entirely inoffensive joke about looming puberty, I can’t think of anything really objectionable in this movie. The theater of surprisingly well-behaved kids seemed to agree with me.

Bonus review! As always, Pixar has preceded their main feature with a short that is both whimsical and romantic. Lava is the story, narrated in Hawaiian ballad style, of a lovesick yet lonely volcano who turns his envy of happy dolphin couples into a wistful song of romance. Though not long on story, Lava manages to do that Pixar feat of distilling a host of emotions into one poignant moment that made this grown man realize, “Wait, I’m getting misty-eyed over a volcano?” Sung by Kuana Torres Kahele, Lava is beautiful and powerful and a delightful surprise to those of us who genuinely didn’t know what Pixar would have on tap before Inside Out.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Top 10 Books (On My Shelf) That Ought to be Movies

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, more so than watching movies. In light of that fact, and in recognition of the fact that I’ve only been watching Game of Thrones these days, The Cinema King proudly presents “The Top 10 Books (On My Shelf) That Ought to be Movies!” (We present the books in publication order.)  Hit the comments to weigh in on my choices and to offer your own.

1.  The Violent Bear It Away (1960) by Flannery O’Connor
 Despite there being a film version of O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood, her masterpiece remains untouched by Hollywood. The young Francis Tarwater is sent to live with his secular uncle Rayber, where his calling as a prophet is called into question by Rayber and by a devilish lavender man in a cream-colored car. The spectacle of Tarwater’s visions, juxtaposed with the classic good-vs-evil battle for Tarwater’s soul, would make for powerful cinema, though O’Connor’s uniquely Christian themes might not fly over well with mainstream Hollywood.
Cast: Asa Butterfield as Tarwater, Dylan Baker as Rayber

2.  Jack Kirby’s Fourth World (1970-1973) by Jack Kirby
 Amid the ongoing vogue for superhero films, this wildly imaginative mythology by the King of Comics has everything – high-concept science fiction, brilliantly colorful costumed characters, lofty monomythic archetypes, and the reassuring promise that freedom will always triumph over tyranny. Most of DC Comics’ most interesting characters came from the pen of Jack Kirby in this four-year cycle of comics, including the evil god Darkseid, hellbent on conquest and death; escape artist Mister Miracle and his bride Big Barda; the Forever People, a team of hippie teens who can morph into the singular soldier Infinity Man; and Orion, the warrior god with a temper and a dark past. Come to think of it, in the wake of Daredevil and the anticipation of the rest of Marvel’s TV projects, the Fourth World could comprise a wonderful set of Netflix series!
Cast: Clancy Brown (voice) as Darkseid, Liev Schreiber as Orion, Michael B. Jordan as Mister Miracle

3.  Kindred (1979) by Octavia Butler
 The film sells itself – think science fiction meets Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and you’ve got a crossover hit. Through forces beyond her control, Dana Franklin is thrown into the past to the antebellum plantation where her ancestors were held as slaves. Between the ongoing national conversation on race and recent cinematic efforts like Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave, Butler’s moving novel is ready and waiting for someone to breathe life into this beautiful story about how our past and our present are more closely conected than we permit ourselves to recall.
Cast: Kerry Washington as Dana, Domnhall Gleason as Rufus

4.  Middle Passage (1990) by Charles Johnson
Another slave narrative, Middle Passage ought to appeal to Pirates of the Caribbean fans for its portrayal of the illegal slave trade on the high seas, of freeman Rutherford Calhoun’s voyage with the mad yet thoughtful Captain Ebenezer Falcon in the latter’s attempt to enslave a lost African tribe, the mystic Allmuseri, and their god. The blurred line between reality and insanity, combined with the wild storms at sea, make Middle Passage both a page-turner and a deeply affective novel, and it’d be a spectacle to see.
 Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor as Rutherford Calhoun, Peter Dinklage as Ebenezer Falcon

5.  Bone (1991-2004) by Jeff Smith
 Honestly, how this long-running fantasy comic hasn’t been adapted into a trilogy of children’s movies is beyond me. The exaggerated linework of Jeff Smith creates radiantly fun characters like Fone Bone and his cousins Phoney and Smiley while populating the setting with a rich mythology and backstory that unfolds over the story’s 1,000 pages. Plus, think of the merchandizing to be had from plush Bones and quiche recipe books! You could do Bone as an animated feature or as a live-action/animated hybrid, but the youthful wonder of Fone Bone needs to be felt by as many people as possible.
 Cast: Billy West as Fone Bone, Bradley Cooper as Phoney Bone, Frank Welker as Smiley Bone, Emma Stone as Thorn

6.  The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000) by Michael Chabon
 This might be my favorite novel of all time, so I’m especially biased about this one. Chabon’s novel is a tour de force – think Moby Dick but with superhero comics, as cousins Sammy Clay and Joe Kavalier create their own superhero in 1930s New York while the specter of war looms overseas. Kavalier & Clay is a modern epic animated by the fervor surrounding the birth of the American superhero comic book. What’s more, Stan Lee makes a cameo! This is a book that demands to be read, and a film would reach a wide audience; Michael Chabon’s had some box office success before, and his greatest novel deserves the same attention.
 Cast: Miles Teller as Sammy Clay, Andrew Garfield as Joe Kavalier, Natalie Portman as Rosa Saks

7.  The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) by Junot Díaz
 Another entry in the canon of “comic book realism,” Oscar Wao is a beautiful novel about a self-proclaimed nerdboy who, like Sammy and Joe above, finds escape in superhero comics and fantasy literature. But Díaz’s greatest narrative strength is in the way he blends past and present, high and low culture, in a novel that demonstrates how inextricable we all are from each other. The witty narration by Yunior would make me rethink my policy on voiceover narration, especially if it manages to capture Díaz’s sense of humor and wonder.
 Cast: It’s got to be a cast of unknowns, to capture the novel’s slice-of-life universality

8.  Eleanor & Park (2013) by Rainbow Rowell
 Rowell’s debut novel is the story of two outcasts who find love on the school bus, facilitated by Park’s comic book collection and Eleanor’s longing for a life other than the one she has. There is something of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars here in this star-crossed romance, though without the weepy sentimentalism or the throngs of cult-like devotees. Rowell displays a gift for turns of phrase that capture the quotidian majesty of true love, “how she went from someone he’d never met to the only one who mattered.” You can see the tagline now.
  Cast: Another cast of unknowns, because the youth of the characters is so important

9.  Ms. Marvel (2014) by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona
 In a genre where it often seems like all the good ideas have already been taken, Ms. Marvel is an amazing breath of fresh air. Kamala Khan, superhero fangirl and all-around likeable lass, is empowered by a mysterious mist which allows her to transform into her idol, Ms. Marvel. Kamala’s journey of self-discovery, combined with Wilson’s wry and peculiar humor, remind us that the best hero to be is yourself (even if her high heels are “politically incorrect”). Though Alphona’s drawings are much of the fun of Ms. Marvel, the character’s spunky personality ought to transfer easily to film, especially given the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s proven track record and gift for the comedic.
 Cast: I plead ignorance for Kamala Khan (Hollywood, you must not whitewash this girl)

10.  The Sculptor (2015) by Scott McCloud
I’m a smidgeon too late on this one, having just read it’s been optioned for a movie already – then again, so have most of the books on this list, at one point or another. Either way, McCloud’s latest work of fiction is a heartrending story of ambition and the very human need to make life significant as artist David Smith trades his life for greatness before falling in love with Meg. While Meg borders on manic-pixie-dream-girl, her relationship with David draws out the clever subversion of that trope, and the staggering visuals of David’s art would look glorious on a big screen.
 Cast: Dane DeHaan as David, Shailene Woodley as Meg

Thanks for joining us this Monday! What are your favorite books that haven’t been made into films just yet?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, the third of eight films in the Harry Potter series, represents in a lot of ways a changing of the guard:  Alfonso Cuarón takes the directorial reins from Chris Columbus, Michael Gambon assumes the role of Albus Dumbledore, and a general mood of darkness falls over the franchise.  And really, only one of these things is less than ideal, because Azkaban feels the most accomplished of the three Harry Potter films thus far.

Though the wizarding world at large is content to conceal the truth from Harry, Ron, and Hermione (Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson), the recent escape of Sirius Black (Gary Oldman) from the wizard prison Azkaban puts them all in great danger – Black was imprisoned for betraying Harry’s parents and facilitating their deaths at the hands of the dark lord Voldemort. With soul-sucking Dementors prowling Hogwarts in search of the escaped convict, Harry must confront the untold secrets of his past, while new Defense Against the Dark Arts professor Remus Lupin (David Thewlis) teaches him to repel the Dementors.

Cuarón, who struck gold two years ago with the breathtaking Gravity, is perhaps an unlikely choice to take the helm on a major kid-friendly franchise; though well-known at the time for his hard-R Y tu mama también, he had already acquitted himself well with the fantastical The Little Princess (the VHS tape of which still holds fond memories for my sister and me, worn out though it may be). In fact, one might be forgiven for thinking that Azkaban was directed by Tim Burton, for Cuarón replaces Columbus’s austere candlelit corridors with dark and angular shadows, winding passageways, and a color palette more night than day.

It’s a marked difference from the style Columbus worked to cultivate, a style that fit the source material quite well, but I appreciate Cuarón’s decision to innovate visually and take Hogwarts in a moodier direction. It helps the franchise feel less like a kiddy-movie and moves it into a more mature and, I think, more interesting direction. As much as I appreciated it in the first two films, there is only so much wide-eyed wonderment that Harry Potter can be allowed before he grows up and accepts the wizarding world as his new normal. Cuarón’s play with shadows and his modified colors give us the sense of a world being lived-in, being inhabited.

The elephant in the room here is, of course, the recasting of Dumbledore after the unfortunate passing of Richard Harris. It’s important to recognize that Gambon is doing something different with Dumbledore – a more knowing, more wearied headmaster to Harris’s kinder, gentler Dumbledore – but I have to concede that it is not to my liking. I’d have preferred Peter O’Toole inherit the role (as, I understand, Harris’s family lobbied), for there is something about Gambon’s temperament that strikes a false chord for me, something almost perplexingly youthful in a character who shouldn’t be. Gambon isn’t patently bad as Dumbledore, and for that reason the revolt will have to wait for now.

I’d also like to levy a modest complaint about the underuse of the always commendable Gary Oldman, whose turn as Sirius Black amounts to little more than a cameo. This is a minor grievance, a clash of the role’s smallness in the book juxtaposed with the screen presence of Oldman. He is, of course, cast as a guarantee for future films, but one can’t help but wish Prisoner of Azkaban had just a bit more of said prisoner in the film.

These are, though, as I’ve said, small nits to pick in a film which is otherwise highly enjoyable. My personal favorite of the series (at least, on memory – I’ve only seen the next five films once each), Prisoner of Azkaban is well-crafted and engaging, with a central mystery that holds up on rewatch and a visual style that sells the film even without the ever-capable score by John Williams. On the whole, I’m feeling rather good about reviewing the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is rated PG for “frightening moments, creature violence and mild language.” There are some jump scenes in this one, including an attack from a wolf-like creature and an enormous dog, to say nothing of the appearance of the Dementors (ghostly, soul-devouring prison guards) in a few scenes. The film also includes a hippogriff (half eagle, half horse) which is meant to be gentle once one sees past the gruff exterior, the threat of execution, and an escaped demented prisoner.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets could go, as a sequel, one of three ways – as good as the first one if not a little better, leaps and bounds better than the first, or a dreadful second coming. The first one, Sorcerer’s Stone, was actually quite good, but the second one improves on the first by jumping straight into the plot, which is:

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) ignores several warnings not to return to Hogwarts for his second year at the wizarding school, even hitching a ride in a flying car owned by the family of his chum Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint). But upon arrival and reuniting with Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), Harry finds that a dark secret from Hogwarts’s past has resurfaced, and students are beginning to fall now that the “Chamber of Secrets” has been opened.

First of all, I lightly complained that much of Sorcerer’s Stone felt a little plotless, meandering and reveling in the world-building until the somewhat plot-heavy third act. Chamber of Secrets immediately rectifies that and dives headlong into the plot – revealing, in fact, that we’ve already been in the midst of the plot because of the long history of Hogwarts. The film’s opening scene finds Harry being told by the house elf Dobby that he must not return, with the movie containing a dual mystery of the identity of Salazar Slytherin’s heir and what it means for said heir to open the Chamber of Secrets. The mystery angle here is perhaps sharper than in the first one, foregrounded as it is through each of the character interactions and classroom sequences, as when Maggie Smith’s Professor McGonagall provides a mini-exposition lecture on the stakes of the attacks plaguing students.

As a result, the atmosphere is grimmer the second time around, though returning director Chris Columbus doesn’t make it unbearable or inconsistent with the first. There remains the sense of wonderment amid great danger – something key, I think, for a film which is ostensibly a children’s movie but wants to retain that adult audience – and there are several shots of the castle interiors that are frankly beautiful. Additionally, the film is wisely aware of the need to do things differently while retaining many of the familiar trappings; for instance, there’s another Quidditch match (as, I expect, there is in every film), but it’s satisfyingly different from Harry’s first outing on a broomstick.

The best addition made by Chamber of Secrets, about which I cannot say enough, is that of Kenneth Branagh as new professor Gilderoy Lockhart. In what feels a bit like a caricature of his own often self-aggrandizing Bardolatry, Branagh is uproariously funny as the infinitely conceited Lockhart, who quotes liberally from his own collected works, citing his own marvelous deeds, and blustering his way past anyone who so much as intimates he might be slightly full of it. I’ve talked about scene stealers on this blog before, but Branagh practically reinvents the concept and walks away with the film entire with this performance. It bears repeating, because I’m not exaggerating here; every sequence with Gilderoy Lockhart had me in fits of hysterics.  Chamber of Secrets is worth the watch, if only for Branagh’s exceedingly delightful performance.

Fortunately, there are many other elements worth enjoying in Chamber of Secrets. Columbus’s swan song for the franchise is a fine note on which to end for him, the rest of the supporting cast are quite charming in their own way, and the world of Harry Potter feels deeper for all that the film contributes to the larger mythology of the character.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is rated PG for “scary moments, some creature violence and mild language.” The plot is darker than the first one, with students frozen in death-like trances; several scary creatures, including giant spiders and an enormous snake, haunt the castle this time around. Again, “bloody hell” is invoked.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Tomorrowland (2015)

Tomorrowland, by Brad Bird (with some script assistance from Damon Lindelof), is sitting somewhere around 49% on Rotten Tomatoes, while his other films are solidly in the 90th percentile. What happened here? I’m not, as you might suspect, about to place Tomorrowland on a pedestal opposite its detractors, nor do I find myself agreeing wholly with the film’s detractors. Instead, the answer lies somewhere in the middle; Tomorrowland is an important film, playing to some of my political/aesthetic predispositions, but it’s not as good as it ought to be, making a few disappointing narrative mistakes on the way to its underwhelming third act.

Wasn’t the future wonderful? Tomorrowland asks why our visions of the future bend toward dystopia when our dreams used to be so optimistic. On the eve of the demolition of a NASA launch site, Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) finds a pin that promises a great big beautiful tomorrow where they’re saving a seat for her. Her quest to find Tomorrowland brings her to Frank Walker (George Clooney), a child prodigy turned jaded recluse with a long-standing link to Tomorrowland.

Here’s the thing about Tomorrowland: I cannot tell whether its most distinguishing feature is a narrative failure or precisely the point of the film. I’ll get right to the point; the entire film is predicated on the grandeur of Tomorrowland, on the gleaming promise of the future. The fable-like quality of the film relies on the wondrous spectacle of Tomorrowland, yet Tomorrowland takes entirely too long to get there, and when we do, it really fails to live up to expectations. To be fair, there’s a perfectly valid plot-related reason for this, but on the larger scale of narrative it’d be a bit like The Wizard of Oz revealing that the city of Oz is in a state of mild disrepair.

Put another way, Tomorrowland spends entirely too long getting there, dwelling in the imperfect world of the present without sufficiently jarring us out of the familiar. We sympathize with Casey (played quite well by Robertson), and after the initial glimpse of Tomorrowland we want to be there too. Ultimately, though, the promise of Tomorrowland is deferred – not, I think, to the sequel which it seems box office receipts won’t justify, but rather to the viewer’s own imagination of what Tomorrowland ought to be.

And I can’t say whether it’s a complete mistake or exactly the message of the film. That is, I can’t tell if Bird has dropped the ball entirely or if he wants us to imagine Tomorrowland for ourselves and kickstart the imaginative revolution the film is meant to provoke. Either way, I think it’s a shortcoming of the film; either it ought to fail spectacularly or soar triumphantly, but Tomorrowland simply falls short and doesn’t quite reach its target. I wanted to like the film more than I ended up doing. I never felt bored during it, thanks to the puzzle-box storytelling Lindelof seems to have perfected, but by the end of the film I was left very much with the feeling of, “Oh, that’s it?”

How then can a film which ends up being mildly disappointing simultaneously be an “important” film? We usually reserve that label for cinematic game-changers like Citizen Kane or Star Wars. But I think – I hope – that Tomorrowland might be seen as a paradigm shift in the current cultural fascination with dystopian futures. Part of the reason I love superhero movies so much is because at the end of the day they promise that everything is going to be all right. The present is often a dismal affair, and I’d much rather the entertainment I consume not amplify that feeling of dread. I’ve not read/seen Divergent or The Maze Runner in large part because I’ve already seen The Hunger Games, and there is only so much gifted-child-in-dystopia I can take. I am becoming bored of this, and in that sense Bird is preaching to a choir of one with this filmic plea for brighter imaginations.

I’m not sure why exactly Tomorrowland flopped. The opening shot, in which Clooney narrates directly to the audience about the difficulty of narration, is a solid indicator of the kind of clumsy storytelling not befitting this story, and I do wonder what Bird (who flew solo on scripts for The Incredibles and Ratatouille) could have done entirely on his own without tethering his vision to someone else. (And no, Mr. Lindelof, I haven’t forgiven you for Prometheus.) At the same time, there is a vocal group who run screaming at the merest whiff of an Ayn Rand reference, and there is what could be a strong Atlas Shrugged allusion in the midst of all this. At the end of the day, though, I think most of us wanted the film to earn its place at the innovative science-fiction table next to Inception, and it just didn’t. But if Tomorrowland can make us dream again the way Inception did (well, not quite the same brand of dreaming), its importance will outweigh its reviews. Here’s to tomorrow, and a once-more wonderful future.

Tomorrowland is rated PG for “sequences of sci-fi action violence and peril, thematic elements, and language.” There’s a really quite stunning sequence in which robots chase our heroes through their home – honestly worth the price of admission – and a few other scenes in which robots meet melty ends and people are zapped by disintegrator rays. Discussion of the fate of the world might unsettle milder viewers.