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.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (2001)

Next year the Harry Potter films turn fifteen; the books themselves are four years older, set to turn twenty in 2017. Now’s as good a time as any for me to take stock of the film franchise, which I’ve only reviewed in patches here and there. The first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s (née Philosopher’s) Stone, is still a remarkably engaging film, even if its magical meanderings leave much of the narrative drive until only the third act.

A young orphan named Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), taken in by his vile aunt and uncle, discovers upon turning eleven that he is of magical heritage, and he’s been admitted to the prestigious Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. There he develops his magical abilities, befriends Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), and uncovers a plot to use the alchemical Philosopher’s Stone to resurrect a great evil.

British film critic Mark Kermode has accused Chris Columbus of “direct[ing] like a bean counter,” which I don’t think is an entirely fair assessment of Columbus’s directorial abilities – at least, not as on display here. What I do see from Columbus is a very respectful approach to the wildly popular J. K. Rowling novel, one that is almost slavishly faithful to the source material but deftly managing not to feel exorbitant or devoutly bloated. Instead, Columbus directs with the ocular equivalent of “gee-whiz,” marveling at the lightly soft-focused fantasies of the film and allowing the audience to feel that same sense of wonder.

It’s not a perfect film, however, because there’s a strong sense – particularly around the second act of the film – that Sorcerer’s Stone is, for lack of a kinder word, wasting time. I don’t mean that there are things that need to be cut, but the film is much more interested in world-building and character development than in furthering the plot once Harry gets to Hogwarts. It isn’t until the third act that the mystery of the Philosopher’s Stone is revealed and the clues are assembled, giving Sorcerer’s Stone much less of a sense of being plot-driven than its subsequent installments.

Fortunately, both the characters and the world are immensely fascinating; the leading trio of young actors are superbly chosen, and each takes to their characters brilliantly. They’re helped by a virtual who’s-who of fine British performers, including Alan Rickman’s delightful sneering Severus Snape, Maggie Smith’s prim and sharp Minerva McGonagall, and the late great Richard Harris as headmaster Albus Dumbledore. I’ll have more to say on these folks as the films go on, because the show undeniably belongs to Radcliffe, Grint, and Watson, and their performances are largely note-perfect. The film's visuals, too, are especially dazzling, particularly the Quidditch match (think magical rugby on brooms), and it's to Columbus's credit that the sequence feels imperiled without losing any of the wonder in the film.

There’s one last element to the film that absolutely makes it a success after fifteen years, and that’s the unmistakable score by John Williams. I don’t know if a film score has ever so totally dominated the public’s connection with a particular musical instrument the way that Harry Potter has taken over our relationship with the celesta, but it’s impossible not to associate the franchise with “Hedwig’s Theme” as composed by Williams. It’s Williams at his undeniable best, conjuring up instantly iconic melodies that fit the film effortlessly while remaining distinctly listenable in isolation. As I said of Attack of the Clones and other Star Wars films, Williams’s score is so compelling that the rest of the film could be on mute and rest comfortably on the shoulders of the soundtrack.

As much as I remembered enjoying the films as a child and in spite of my recognition now that some of the plotting here is a little bit uneven, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is charming enough that I have no qualms about continuing on to review the rest of the series.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is rated PG for “some scary moments and mild language.” There are a few creepy looking creatures, the occasional fantastical peril (such as a broomstick chase, a troll, and a large chess game), and one moment of particularly intense magical combat in which a two-faced man is apparently disintegrated. One of the characters says “bloody hell” a few times.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Monday at the Movies - May 11, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, it rhymes with “spook” so turn the lights out for this horror flick.

The Babadook (2014) – One of my favorite film critics, Mark Kermode, named Jennifer Kent’s writing/directorial debut his favorite film of 2014, so that’s enough for me to sit up and take notice. Here’s the thing about The Babadook: it’s not, as Exorcist director William Friedkin said, the scariest film of all time, but it is unsettling enough. There’s a fine line between disturbing and daft with which most horror films struggle; see, for example, the superlatively distressing The Strangers vs. the disappointing Mama. The Babadook is on the scarier end of the spectrum, albeit with a firm and well-appreciated grounding in psychological terror over jump scares. Essie Davis and Noah Wiseman play a mother and son haunted by a demonic embodiment of grief, The Babadook, and it’s to Kent’s credit that the relationship between the two feels compellingly real, such that we care about the strained bond they share. If I have a complaint about The Babadook, it’s that it isn’t halfway near as scary as I’d have liked it to be. Kent wisely keeps the Babadook itself off-screen for much of the film, allowing the mystique to build tension, but that tension never bursts. It’s all in service of the more metaphorical level on which the Babadook resonates (and which, I suspect, interests Kent much more), but there is a point at which the fable-like allegory becomes quite obvious and the film shortchanges those moviegoers who want something a bit jumpier. For what it is, though – a low-budget and very personal psychological horror film grounded in the evident sincerity of its character development – The Babadook is worth the look and the chill or two it’ll give you.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, May 4, 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

The world is a darker place in the wake of the news that Joss Whedon won’t be helming the two-part Avengers: Infinity War (due out in 2018 and 2019). To wit, Avengers: Age of Ultron is a darker, moodier installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe than its predecessor. But if this truly is Whedon’s swan song in the world of The Avengers, it’s a damned good note on which to end, better than the original and a close contender for the MCU’s finest hour.

After a knockout opening sequence that doesn’t waste any time getting to the action, all your favorite Avengers have assembled. When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) develop an artificial intelligence project that goes awry, the other Avengers – Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) – face the threat of annihilation when the AI builds itself a body and becomes Ultron (James Spader). Along the way, the Avengers are threatened by superpowered twins (Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson) left in the wake of the fall of Hydra.

It seems clunky to type with all those parentheticals, but the Joss Whedon trademark has always been gracefulness when it comes to large ensemble casts. As in the first film, there is an organicity to the assembling of these Avengers, but where The Avengers spent the better part of its first half in assembly-mode (a really lovely first half, actually, perhaps stronger than the action-heavy climax), Age of Ultron throws the group into a cauldron already boiling with tension and camaraderie. The script is well-crafted as ever, with distinct arcs for its characters (which ought to be the norm but, sadly, isn’t) and a tight narrative focus that finds a way to expand the universe without dithering and losing focus.

I don’t want to say more about expanding the universe for fear of spoiling the film, so on the occasion of May the Fourth – Star Wars Day – I’d like to comment on Age of Ultron being ostensibly the franchise’s “Empire Strikes Back” moment, the middle and darkest entry in a trilogy. The mood in Age of Ultron is considerably grimmer than in The Avengers, though it’s by no means unbearable; in fact, what’s surprising about the film is just how much humor it includes among all the foreboding. The Avengers was funny, but Age of Ultron seems to have imported the raucous tempo of Guardians of the Galaxy’s punchlines. “Keep ’em laughing” seems to be the word of the day here, to the point where I began to wonder, amid all the franchise’s one-liners and character resurrections (Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, Pepper Potts, Bucky Barnes, et al), whether Age of Ultron would actually pull the emotional trigger and give us something truly tragic. Suffice it to say, Age of Ultron does go there, and in a way that works better than it actually ought to.

I could lather up the performers, as I usually do, but you’ve seen it all before. The cast continues to do that at which they are best while also successfully navigating through their respective character evolutions. Ruffalo, for one, is still doing the exposed-nerve timidity, but the romantic wrinkles given to his character equally compelling and don’t feel the least bit out of Bruce Banner’s rhythm. Renner gets the closest thing to the film’s center stage (an apology, perhaps, for spending much of The Avengers under Loki’s mind-control) with a development so surprisingly unanticipated that a pin drop would have deafened the audience on opening night.

The true surprises are in the incoming cast, who distinguish themselves quite nicely while also integrating into the ensemble without that feeling of intrusion. Spader in particular stands out as one of the MCU’s better villains, very well-developed and extremely menacing in a creepy sort of way – in other words, exactly the kind of character you’d expect from James Spader. The twins, Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, work very well in the context of the film, and they’re the sort of people you’d like to see more of in future films.

One final note must be made of the way that Age of Ultron very consciously engages with the superhero film genre overall. We all have this sense that the bubble is going to burst at some point (with four superhero movies coming out in July 2018 – one a week!), but Age of Ultron never feels overfull or weary. Instead, there’s an interesting way that the film comments on the trend of superhero movies toward ungrounded violence, by which I don’t mean the odd tendency of Marvel films to end with airborne combat and explosions galore. No, there seems to be a very clear commentary on Man of Steel’s ignorance (willful or otherwise) of civilian casualties. At many points in Age of Ultron, The Avengers take great pains to guarantee the safety of the innocent, at the point of risking their own lives to save the citizenry. While I’m one of the few who maintains that Man of Steel’s carnage will actually be a motivating factor for Superman in the sequels, Age of Ultron tackles the issue head-on to demonstrate that the sanctity of life ought to be the hero’s first prerogative.

Is Age of Ultron a bid for a kinder, gentler superhero film? I’m not sure that’s the message, but it is certainly a bid for a more thoughtful one. And while I’m not ready to say it’s dethroned The Winter Soldier at the top of my MCU power rankings, I will say that Whedon had made an indelible stamp on the superhero genre, and the future would do well to take its cues from him – particularly the well-crafted yet innovative juggling act of Age of Ultron.

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.” The action scenes are standard superhero fare, with all the punching, explosions, and gunfire you’d expect. Most of it is bloodless, as you’d expect from fights with robots, but some of the more personal action beats include blood. The film also includes the standard amount of innuendo and a few scenes of flirting.

By the way, today is May the Fourth – Star Wars Day! – so flashback to 2014 and take a look at my reviews of the Star Wars saga!

Monday, April 27, 2015

Monday at the Movies - April 27, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  This week, back to movies but staying firmly within the realm of superheroes. Presented in chronological (not alphabetical) order, for those playing the home game.

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015) – As the title might suggest, there are two things going on in this film. On the one hand, we have a sequel to Justice League: War, inspired by the New 52 incarnation of the world’s greatest superhero team, while on the other we have the introduction of Aquaman to this animated universe. Here’s the thing about Throne of Atlantis, based on a recent popular storyline by DC’s resident blockbuster writer Geoff Johns: only one of these plotlines is terribly interesting, and unfortunately for fans of underwater mythology it isn’t the one where the guy talks to fish. The Justice League bits and the character interactions are spot-on brilliant, particularly the scenes before the big battles and action setpieces; there’s a wonderful first date between Superman (Jerry O’Connell) and Wonder Woman (Rosario Dawson), and there’s a lovely internecine clash of personalities when Green Lantern (Nathan Fillion) tries to help Batman (Jason O’Mara) on a police chase through Gotham City. And the creative team does a strong job juggling a League of seven disparate personalities. The Aquaman parts, sadly, are much less compelling; this iteration of Aquaman is part depressive alcoholic, part reticent heir to throne but only with nothing better to do. Sam Witwer is a strong choice for the voice of the film’s villain, Ocean Master, but this character is actually terribly dull, as is (sadly) Harry Lennix’s rendition of Black Manta. It’s not a terrible film by most stretches of the imagination, but there are parts of it that are more boring than they ought to be. Throne of Atlantis should have taken more cues from Johns’s more engaging reinvention of Aquaman than they have, because this Aquaman is fairly boilerplate and a little too stuffy for his own good.

Batman vs. Robin (2015) – Maybe I’m just a sucker for the Caped Crusader, because there are things about this movie that ought to be unforgivable to a true believer like myself, but I kind of liked this one, maybe even more than its predecessor Son of Batman. This animated film stitches together plotlines from two distinct comics – Grant Morrison’s Batman vs. Robin (in which Damian Wayne tries to prove himself) and Scott Snyder’s Court of Owls (in which a shadowy conspiracy makes its bid for Gotham) – and basically waters both down to make for a more coherent 80 minutes than the sum of the parts might suggest. Here’s what works: the film looks very good, especially the Court of Owls iconography, and I’m still a fan of the chemistry between Jason O’Mara’s Batman and Stuart Allen’s Damian. I did feel that the Owls plotline was shortchanged by (without spoiling too much) putting too many faces to what should be by definition a faceless organization, but I appreciated the way it allowed Damian to fall under the Court’s sway while he bristles against his father’s training. And the film’s concluding battle, taken mostly from the comics, is a crackling good fight between Batman and the Owls in the former’s gadget-laden Batcave. It’s actually quite remarkable that a storyline from 2012 has already been adapted – kudos to Snyder and artist Greg Capullo for crafting a modern-day classic – but a more faithful adaptation would have earned two enthusiastic thumbs up rather than my usual review of “Hey, it’s Batman, so not bad.”

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week; I hear there’s some big movie coming out this Friday... something-vengers. Might review that one next.