Monday, March 26, 2012

Monday at the Movies - March 26, 2012

Welcome to Week Thirteen of “Monday at the Movies.” This week, we continue a trend that began on this blog three weeks ago and finally conclude a journey nearly a decade in the making.

The Jazz Singer (1927) – First up, another silent film, the third in as many weeks on this site; again, an unintended and unofficial “series” within this series of weekly reviews. While I didn’t enjoy The Jazz Singer as much as The Artist, it was a bit more fast-paced than The Italian and contains a lot of formal innovation on which I can now tell The Artist was riffing. Al Jolson stars as cantor-in-training Jakie Rabinowitz, who reinvents himself as ragtime performer Jack Robin against the wishes of his traditional father (Warner Oland, before his stint as Charlie Chan). But most don’t remember the film for the story, instead focusing on the technical novelty of lip-synchronized audio and the absolutely brilliant self-conscious meta-commentary of Jolson’s big line, “Wait a minute, wait a minute – you ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” I’ll voice the same complaint that I’ve had about all three silent flicks thus far; they’re a bit slower than what I’m used to, and in this one especially the conflict between personal success and familial obligation is dragged out a little too long for my tastes. But The Jazz Singer wins points for continually surprising me with the ways it uses audio; while a few moments are obviously just showing off and flexing muscles, most of them seem to be deployed cleverly and with just the right amount of self-reflexivity. And I have to comment on the blackface scenes, since they seem to be the most widely discussed; it’s controversial, sure, but what’s most distressing for me is that the film doesn’t provide a reason for Jack to don the burned cork, leading to a controversy which could distract from what the film seems truly to be about – moving forward.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) – Finally, we come to the end of a long road, more than nine hours long and ten years of doubts and procrastination. The first two of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films were among the inaugural reviews in this series; I was surprised to enjoy Fellowship of the Ring but retained my position that The Two Towers was dull and overlong. With this third installment, Lord of the Rings finishes two and one... in the films’ favor. The Return of the King is exciting and fast-paced, with a lot of plotlines coming to satisfying fruition amid a sense of impending danger, something most action films don’t pull off successfully. The film is, admittedly, overlong, a fact of which it seems to be aware, what with the widely-lampooned “multiple endings” in which the film seems to conclude with a meditation on the nature of endings before starting up again. What comes before, though, is high action, easily the equivalent of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for this franchise and most likely my favorite installment of this trilogy. The ensemble cast is successful, perhaps more so than in The Two Towers, but the inclusion of characters like Theobard and Faramir even redeem the middle film a bit by validating those plotlines which seemed to meander away from what really mattered. Again, the star performance is from Sean Astin, whose devotion to his friend and to the mission even might moisten a few otherwise dry eyes. All told, I’m glad I saw this thing through, and I’m happy to have been there and back again.

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

Monday, March 19, 2012

Monday at the Movies - March 19, 2012

Welcome to Week Twelve of “Monday at the Movies.” On the docket this week, an Oscar winning movie, a movie as good as The Wicker Man (2006), and a trip between worlds: in other words, two hits and a miss this week – but oh, what a miss!

The Artist (2011) – This is the second silent film in as many weeks here on The Cinema King, although it might be unfair to label Michel Hazanavicius’s Best Picture winner as such, since the film does feature diegetic sound in several important scenes. While the revisiting of the silent film is a bit of a gimmick, the ways in which Hazanavicius and company subvert the expectations that come along with the genre redeem the film from being merely “that silent film.” I remain unconvinced that The Artist is better than fellow nominee Hugo, but it’s an equally compelling love letter to the cinema and its magic. The acting is, predictably, over-the-top, as all silent performances must be, and lead actor Jean Dujardin has no compunctions about chewing the scenery as necessary while portraying the actor George Valentin and his fall from fame. More restrained, mercifully, is his leading lady Bérénice Bejo, who plays talkies flapper Peppy Miller and can convey more with a wink than a lot of today’s crop of actresses. A few familiar faces round out the supporting cast – James Cromwell, John Goodman, and Malcolm McDowell among them – but all ears must necessarily be on Ludovic Bource’s score, which flounces through the highs and wallows in the lows of George Valentin’s descent. I enjoyed the film and was glad to finally start to catch up on last year’s Oscar frontrunners, although I must confess that there are parts where the film drags and most conventional filmgoers will lose interest. But stick with it; the ending is among the best I’ve seen in recent years.

Drive Angry (2011) – You can always count on Nicolas Cage for a really bad movie, but whether it’ll be an enjoyably bad movie or just a waste of film is always up for grabs. It’s been said that you can judge a Nic Cage flick by how far back his hairline goes, and in Drive Angry we’re getting a lot of forehead. And yes, it’s as bad as all that. In fact, the only thing that redeems Drive Angry from being completely unwatchable is that it seems to be in on its own joke, recognizing how absurd it is and reveling in its own ridiculousness. Nic overacts at level red as John Milton, late of hell, walking – nay, driving – the earth in search of his granddaughter, who’s about to be sacrificed by a satanic cult. Riding shotgun is Amber Heard as ex-waitress Piper, a pretty face who doesn’t do much aside from a fight scene near the middle of the film, and the villainous William Fichtner (recognizable as the bank manager in every film you’ve ever seen) plays The Accountant, who’s looking to return Milton to hell. I didn’t see the film in 3-D, and it’s apparently lost a bit of extravagance in the translation to two dimensions, but one thing the movie isn’t missing is explosions. A credible plot, realistic dialogue, meaningful character interactions, and narrative creativity – all of these are nowhere to be seen in Drive Angry, but at least (to borrow a line from Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok) it blowed up real good.

John Carter (2012) – It’s a major science fiction franchise, backed by arguably the biggest studio in town and a story by a major author of the twentieth century. Why, then, did it underperform? Taylor Kitsch stars as Civil War vet John Carter, who finds himself transported to Mars, where he’s quickly embroiled in a planetary conflict between the Tharks (led by Willem Dafoe’s voice in the body of a Green Martian), the Red Martians (with their king Ciarán Hinds), evil Sab Than (Dominic “McNulty” West), and the mystical Therns (headed by Mark Strong’s menacing Matai Shang) over the hand of Princess Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins). Director Andrew Stanton has lent a hand on nearly every Pixar film, but for his first live-action solo outing John Carter is surprisingly good. Critical response has not been kind, and I’m not quite sure why. Granted, John Carter is not the best film you’ll see all year (wait until July for that), but it’s more than diverting; the effects are solid (although the Tharks recall the dismal Na’vi), the cast is strong, and the story is involving (if comprised of several infodumps). The best I can come up with is that John Carter’s biggest detriment is a weak marketing campaign; this ought to be a summer blockbuster, but it’s dumped ignominiously into the middle of March with not a single action figure on the shelves. I’d like to see a sequel, because it seems that the creative team is working very hard to introduce a lot of factions in an uncomplicated manner; I only hope they get a franchise out of it, because the last trilogy with which Andrew Stanton worked on made us all cry over a sheriff doll and a space ranger action figure.

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

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday at the Movies - March 12, 2012

Welcome to Week Eleven of “Monday at the Movies.” We return to our unthemed format this week, with three movies with almost nothing in common.

The Italian (1915) – If memory serves, this is the first silent film reviewed on this blog, and perhaps it deserves more fanfare than inclusion as one of three “Monday at the Movies” review, and such likely would have been the case if The Italian had made a bigger impact on me. And it’s not that I don’t like silent films; I’m a big fan of Lon Cheney’s Phantom of the Opera, and Buster Keaton still makes me lose it every time. Here we have George Beban as the eponymous immigrant who finds little of the American Dream after crossing the Atlantic. The pacing in this one is a little slow, with the emphasis on set pieces rather than plot; when the plot kicks off, it’s a bit exciting, but usually the focus is on motion and crowd scenes. Beban’s performance is surprisingly good, if a little overwrought (like every silent film’s stars), and the close-ups innovated by director Reginald Barker help us understand the emotions each character feels. The Italian is more a film to be appreciated than enjoyed; it’s well-made but ought to be regarded more technically than aesthetically.

Kick-Ass (2010) – Here’s a film that’s a bit more my speed. Inspired by comics, high schooler Dave Liziewski (Aaron Johnson) gets the bright idea to become a superhero, but he finds that there are already professionals at work – the father-daughter duo Big Daddy (Nic Cage at his hammy best) and Hit Girl (the endearingly foul-mouthed Chloe Moretz), who are gunning for local mob boss Frank D’Amico (rising star Mark Strong). The movie diverges from the Mark Millar/John Romita Jr. comic source material by putting an optimistic sheen on the comic’s cynical outlook, but it’s not an unwelcome change; the film gets us so invested in the characters that anything less than an exuberantly happy ending would feel like a cheat. Chief among these is scene-stealer Moretz, whose turn as Hit Girl is unforgettable, simultaneously menacing and adorable. And even though I’m on record as holding Nic Cage as one of the worst actors ever, his turn as Big Daddy fits perfectly with the film’s self-consciously over-the-top mentality, as he gives Big Daddy a few moments where control’s lost and others where he channels Adam West circa Batman ’66. What’s great about this film is how it suspends disbelief and then reinvents the rules of its own reality, and the result is a highly enjoyable romp through satirizing superhero conventions by way of one of the best superhero movies in recent memory.

Safe House (2012) – One word guarantees my attendance: Denzel. He stars as rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost, who surrenders to safehouse agent Ryan Reynolds after an intelligence swap goes sour, and soon our two leads are dashing through Cape Town until a new safe house can be prepped. The reason I’m an easy mark for any Denzel Washington vehicle is because Denzel always brings his A-game and can usually save any movie from ignominy. It’s a combination of an engaging on-screen personality, off-screen ethos, and perfect timing as far as pauses or repeated words go. There’s such a scene in Safe House, when he tells Reynolds, “I like this, you and me figuring s--t out. Like the Hardy Boys.” But it’s one of the only scenes in which Denzel really gets to shine; don’t let the billing on the movie posters fool you, because this is a Ryan Reynolds vehicle top to bottom. In a nutshell, this is a good and entertaining movie, but it’s not one I’m rushing out to purchase on DVD, mostly due to the Denzel deficit. The action scenes are exciting – including a few great jump moments – and there’s nothing specifically flawed about the movie (save for a slightly predictable who’s-the-traitor subplot), but it’s what I’ve come to call “Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland syndrome” – good, but not as good as it ought to be.

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

Monday, March 5, 2012

Monday at the Movies - March 5, 2012

Welcome to Week Ten of “Monday at the Movies.” While I had never intended this series to be themed each week, it seems that it’s worked out that way so far. And so in that spirit, here are “Movies You Might Have to Watch in School!”

Persepolis (2007) – Adapted from Marjane Satrapi’s much-loved graphic novel, Persepolis is the memoiristic story of Marji’s coming of age during the events of the Iranian Revolution. The film captures the tone of the original perfectly, blending hilarious humor with profoundly moving pathos, and the unique visual style of the comic is not lost in translation to motion. There are a few interpolations – several color sequences and a delightful scene in which Grandma and Marji go to the movies to see Godzilla – which enhance the visual experience. While I haven’t watched the French language original, I can vouch for the English language track, featuring (among others) Chiara Mastroianni as Marji, Sean Penn as her father, Gena Rowlands as the wise yet witty Grandma, and Iggy Pop as the brave and heroic Uncle Anoosh. While there are moments when Penn seems to be phoning it in, Rowlands and Iggy Pop are perfect choices, as is Amethyste Frezignac, who voices young Marji with just the right amount of joie de vivre. The story is deeply affecting, nuanced without reducing the story to an endorsement or rejection of the Revolution, and it hits the audience on several important emotional levels – humor, tragedy, sympathy, love. The film lost “Best Animated Feature” to Ratatouille, but in this case I’m not convinced that Pixar made the better film that year (as much as I love Ratatouille and the idea of a red-headed protagonist).

The Tempest (2010) – If there’s one thing I’m a sucker for, it’s Shakespeare at the movies, and this film had enough to lure my butt to a seat: director Julie Taymor at the helm (I loved Across the Universe and especially her other Shakespeare flick, Titus, with Anthony Hopkins), striking visuals, great source material, and an intriguing gender reversal with Helen Mirren as Prospera in place of old wizard Prospero. I love Titus and could watch it many times over, but I’m less impressed with The Tempest; it’s a perfectly adequate adaptation, but it seems to rely too much on the Prospera gimmick without doing anything inventive with the rest of the material – especially when it comes to the setting, which is lifeless and uninspiring. It’s a classic case of “nothing wrong” – even Russell Brand as one of the drunken clowns (with Alfred Molina) isn’t irritating or offensive. Perhaps worse, the film doesn’t weigh in at all on the Caliban controversy, arguably the current focal point of the play’s cultural significance. While I admit to being bored to tears with postcolonial readings of this play in particular (there seem to be other things going on, as well), the fact that Taymor almost ignores Caliban, especially when Djimon Hounsou is doing such fascinating work. But she handles the comic scenes well, with sufficient clowning in abundance, although the effect is that one wishes more for a “Stefano and Trinculo” sitcom than for the rest of this adaptation.

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