Monday, June 25, 2012

Brave (2012)

I make no apologies for being a Pixar shill.  Their movies all do exactly what I want a film to do – transport me to a new world, move me in many emotional directions, and leave me with a memorable and complete story (arguably their strongest suit). 

And so it seems insufficient merely to say that Brave, Pixar’s latest offering, is a success.  We (that is, the royal we) assumed this much going in; therefore, it only remains to be seen how much of a success Brave manages to be.

Pixar dips into the princess business with Brave, a Scottish fairy tale about the tomboyish Merida (voiced by Kelly MacDonald) and her resistance to the idea of an arranged marriage.  Rather than obey her mother (Emma Thompson) and father (Billy Connolly), Merida wants to “ride through the glen, firing arrows into the sunset.”  But after a witch’s potion doesn’t quite change her fate the way she envisioned, Merida is left with only two days to make things right and mend her relationship with her mother.

The first thing you’ll notice about Brave, even without seeing it in 3D (which I didn’t, since my love affair with the extra dimension is waning), is how incredible the visual effects are.  The landscapes look natural, misting water might trick you into believing you’re not watching an animated film, and the abundance of detailed curly red hair can only be described as “Pixar showing off.”  With the clan of DunBroch, Pixar takes one more step toward indistinguishable perfection.

The other great Pixar talent on showcase here is their ability to create emotive, expressive nonhuman characters.  We know that they’re gifted at human faces (or even semi-human, as in the case of the Toy Story films), but the bear characters in Brave especially manage to communicate human feelings and motivations; better, none of the bears are indistinguishable, as each has a unique body language that allows us to know precisely – even if it’s a detail as fine as eye color – which bear is which.

The best example of nonverbal filmmaking, though, comes from the scene-stealing triplets Hamish, Harris, and Hubert.  These three never speak, but through their faces and their body language we know from scene one what these three rascals are like.  They’re crowd-pleasers, instant favorites, and a perfect example of what Pixar does better than any other animation studio – tact.  If this were a Dreamworks film, for example, we’d see a franchise around these three, running the joke into the ground.  (As it is, I’m kept awake at nights by the haunting specter of the “Afro Circus” song.)  But directors Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman wisely keep the boys in check (at least, as in check as three little hellions can be kept).  But if the film merits a rewatch, it’s at least to keep an eye on these three.

As always, the voice cast matches well, although the small setting doesn’t allow for many trademark Pixar cameos (but John Ratzenberger is in there).  MacDonald is spunky and sassy without shortchanging the emotional moments when her character pivots, Thompson is stern but frustrated with her daughter, and Connolly seems to be channeling Brian Cox as the patriarch, reining in his madcap stand-up inflection for a (slightly) more dignified king.

It’s not Toy Story 3 by any stretch of the imagination – I maintain that that is Pixar’s crowning achievement, if only because I still cry just thinking about it – but Brave is another solid entry in the Pixar catalog, fun for the whole family and delightfully entertaining even for those of us who ought to be too old for this sort of thing.

PS – make certain you stick around after the credits.  No, Nick Fury doesn’t recruit Merida to join The Avengers (they already have an archer, after all), but the stinger scene does tie up a loose end.
Brave is rated PG “for some scary action and rude humor.”  There’s an evil monster bear running around, growling and mauling.  In addition, there are a surprising number of nude rear ends (all played for laughs) in this one, as well as a booger joke.  I think the latter two are a first for Pixar.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2012)

When I say that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (affectionately dubbed “Old People in India” by yours truly) is the anti-Avengers, I mean that in a good way, honestly.  Everything that The Avengers is, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not, and vice versa.  None of this is to the film’s detriment, however, because there’s no reason the two films can’t come out the same weekend at the box office – and no reason I can’t enjoy both.
Director John Madden (of Shakespeare in Love, some of whose alums appear here) guides a cast of every elder British thespian (save Peter O’Toole, who was considered and whose absence here is a loss for us all) in a story of retirees who are misled by a garrulous advertisement for a retirement home “for the elderly and beautiful” owned and operated by the young Dev Patel (known to American audiences from Slumdog Millionaire).
Judi Dench is Evelyn, a blogger and young soul making the most of her experience; Tom Wilkinson is Graham, a former judge who grew up in India and has returned to seek out a former flame; Bill Nighy and Penelope Wilton (“Harriet Jones, MP”) are the married couple Douglas and Jean, at odds about their future prospects and in conflict over Douglas’s perennial optimism; and Maggie Smith is the scene-stealing Muriel, a crotchety and xenophobic (but, in the classic British tradition, eminently endearing) candidate for a hip replacement.
The stakes are not high here; there’s no world to save or, for the most part, character flaws to overcome (though Wilton and Smith do excellent work rendering their characters as, at best, difficult to love).  There are no superpowers or flamboyant costumes.  Nothing blows up.  So how does The Cinema King, who gave The Avengers such a rave review, like The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel?
Surprisingly, for the same reason I enjoyed The Avengers – a fun (but still emotionally compelling) story populated by entertaining characters portrayed by actors at the top of their game.  The obvious draw here likely isn’t the fish-out-of-water story (the trailers never touted that it was adapted from a book by Deborah Moggach) nor the exotic scenery.  Instead, the main attraction is the all-star cast of Britain’s most talented, all of whom bring their A-game to the table.  It’d be folly simply to catalog the actors and laud them individually, but their skills bear highlighting. 
Dench is charming and grandmotherly, as always, the kind of woman with whom you’d like to vacation.  Wilkinson handles his plotline with his trademark staid countenance, loosening up once in a while when he realizes retirement isn’t all serious business.  While Smith is more entertaining than one might expect from this movie – I had no idea her character was going to be so racist until her first scene – she might bring a tear to your eye as she begins to bond with one of the “untouchables.”  And Nighy and Wilton have perhaps the hardest job of all, Nighy repressing his natural charm to portray a man browbeaten by Wilton, who’s unwontedly shrewish and tasked with being the only unlikeable character in the piece. 
Even Patel, whose work in Slumdog Millionaire didn’t knock me out the way it did every other major film critic in the world, has fun here, resisting the apparent urge to pigeonhole by performing the stereotypical Indian figure (everything is “most beautiful” or “of the highest honor” and “we have a saying in India”), but when he’s among family and friends, he’s perfectly normal and speaks like everyone else in the film.  It’s a subtle distinction, but one which is much needed in a film which could very easily fall into the “empire coming back” trope.
All told, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a satisfying film with a gifted cast who could redeem even an episode of Jersey Shore by ethos alone.  While it’s one of the quieter movies you’ll see all year, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is a perfect counterpoint to the high-octane action of the traditional summer blockbuster.
If nothing else, you’ll be calling your travel agent asking if Judi Dench is free for a weekend in New Delhi.
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is rated PG-13 “for sexual content and language.”  The UK's stock character of the libidinous old man accompanies our crew, attempting to meet ladies left and right, jesting all the while about it; additionally, the sexual relationship of the hotel’s owner with his girlfriend becomes the topic of discussion several times.  There’s one F-bomb and a few remarks which I suspect are more scandalous for a British audience than for us Yanks.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Monday at the Movies - June 18, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty-Three of “Monday at the Movies,” a grab bag of movies I hadn’t reviewed yet. 

The Mummy (1999) – As with last week’s entries, The Mummy was a movie very dear to me as a child, and I think I’m sensing a pattern here.  Like the Indiana Jones movies, The Mummy is a period adventure piece mixing action, humor, the supernatural, and 1930s clothing.  In fact, the film could very easily be read as an Indy flick starring Brendan Fraser as a mercenary hired to lead Rachel Weisz to a hidden Egyptian city where an ancient evil mummy (Arnold Vosloo) is about to be resurrected.  The film is fast-paced, very exciting, and entertaining at every turn.  As with The Rocketeer, there’s something to enjoy in each scene, with director Stephen Sommers effectively never wasting a scene; when the plot isn’t advancing, the characters are interacting in fun ways.  While the chemistry between Fraser and Weisz isn’t entirely tangible – a kind of throwback, perhaps, to the early horror trope of the protagonists falling in love – John Hannah’s role as Weisz’s besotted treasure-seeking brother remains one of my favorite supporting roles in recent movies.  The screenplay, though, is surprisingly strong, flirting with the monster movie trope while giving it a modern sense of humor and weaving in a compelling take on the plagues of Egypt (making this film the unlikely love-child of Indiana Jones and Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments).  The procedural format of a chain of victims and the accompanying plagues helps the film continue to advance and gather a sense of purpose while our characters band together to fight the mummy.  More than a decade later, The Mummy is still terrifically fun.

Sin City (2005, Extended Cut) – With recent news indicating that the sequel is finally on, Sin City has been on my rewatch list for a while.  The story and the content aren’t for everyone, to be sure; the film is violent and extremely dark, its depiction of women problematic at best, and the dialogue corny in places due to Miller’s hardboiled sensibility.  But what holds the attention more is the unique visual look, which has spawned a bevy of impersonators (I contend that Zack Snyder wouldn’t have a career without Rodriguez’s inspiration, particularly on Watchmen).  The version under review today is the “Recut, Extended, Unrated” version where director Robert Rodriguez added in ten minutes of direct “translation” of Frank Miller’s comics source material but divides the interweaving narratives into their own short films (about forty minutes each).  The only story that suffers from being divided is “The Customer is Always Right,” which stars Josh Hartnett as a hitman-for-hire; the clip’s link to the end of another segment makes its ending stand not-quite-alone.  Mickey Rourke leads “The Hard Goodbye,” in which he plays the hulk Marv on a quest for revenge.  In “The Big Fat Kill,” Clive Owen aims to protect the women of Old Town from the mob.  And, in what would be my favorite segment were Jessica Alba a stronger actress, Bruce Willis seeks out Alba after learning that her former attacker “That Yellow Bastard” is eager for a second attempt.  All three leads are fantastic, delivering the noirish narration with appropriate gravel and world-weariness (it says something that the voiceover isn’t distracting), while the supporting cast (too many A-listers to name) rounds out the film into an enjoyable experience which benefits from directorial expansion.

TRON: Legacy (2010) TRON: Legacy is one of several rare breeds:  a sequel better than the original, a film that gets better each time I watch it, a film where the soundtrack is a character in its own right... you get the idea.  I have mixed feelings about the original – it hasn’t aged well, the story is a little thin, and not very much happens in between plot points – but I recognize its innovative nature and applaud the sequel for pushing the industry in the same ways as the original.  The look of the film is striking, resulting in another rare film where it looks just as good with the sound turned off; do that at your own peril, however, because you’ll be missing out on Daft Punk’s soundtrack, which was one of the best of 2010.  But the story is intriguing as well, kind of a Matrix done right what with its use of a “digital frontier” and what separates user from program; here, Jeff Bridges (in full Dude mode) reprises his role as Kevin Flynn, discoverer of “The Grid,” as well as portraying the evil program CLU (via CGI rejuvenation).  Garrett Hedlund is Bridges’s son Sam who enters The Grid looking for his father, while Olivia Wilde is charming as a naïve program hungry to learn about the real world.  The characters are more compelling than reviewers gave them credit, especially the elder Bridges, whose paternal compassion is a perfect companion for Father’s Day yesterday (always reminds me of my father, at least).  I’m admittedly a Disney shill, but the more I watch TRON: Legacy (or listen to the soundtrack), I always find something new to like.

Be sure to tune in Wednesday for The Cinema King’s review of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.  For now, though, that does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Prometheus (2012)

Like the titan Prometheus, Ridley Scott is sometimes treated like the man who brought science-fiction fire to the American cinema, if only for his impressive one-two punch of Alien and Blade Runner.  With Prometheus, Scott returns to his roots and, so to speak, mankind’s in a sci-fi epic that finds its protagonists exploring the genesis of man.  But while the scale is epic, the result is somewhat lukewarm, successful on many levels but in other places suffering from its servitude to its own mythology.

Funded by elderly tycoon Peter Weyland (Guy Pearce), a team of scientists led by archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) travels to a distant world after disparate hieroglyphics point to humanity’s origins.  In search of “The Engineers,” mysterious beings that may have seeded Earth with the potential for life, Shaw and her colleagues soon discover that their destination is filled with horrors, and that Weyland employees Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) and the android David (Michael Fassbender) have their own agendas.

While Scott protested (perhaps too much) that Prometheus wasn’t quite a prequel to the Alien franchise, he later compromised by conceding that Prometheus was linked to Alien and contained prequel-like elements, insisting all the while that Prometheus needed to be taken on its own terms.  Since I’ve only seen the original once, when I was perhaps too young (indeed, my best memories of the film come from its place in Disney World’s “Great Movie Ride”), I can appreciate Prometheus as its own entity but can’t help recognizing how the movie very nearly falls apart because of its connection to the original series.

Screenwriter Damon Lindelof caught a lot of flak for ending Lost (with Carlton Cuse) without addressing much of the series’ mythology, instead focusing on the characters and their story arcs.  It seems that Lindelof is pulling the same trick here, introducing a mythology which the characters pursue but which the audience never quite comprehends.  Case in point:  the film begins with an Engineer planting the genetic seeds of human DNA on Earth millennia ago, yet the rest of the film abandons this premise in favor of Engineers who want to destroy Earth.  While the audience doesn’t need to be spoon-fed answers (although that happens a few times in the movie, often when characters say “Listen to me” or “You mean to tell me...?”), it’s insulting to the viewer when characters literally leave the confines of the film to seek answers, presumably in a sequel.

But wait! you cry.  Doesn’t it matter more how the characters are affected by their quest for answers?  Well, sure, except in Prometheus characters enter the film with questions and leave it to pursue those same questions, with no discernible development in between.  The only catharsis in the film comes in a last-second jump moment that finally and explicitly concretizes the connection between Prometheus and Alien.  While it’s a recognizable payoff, it’s more Easter egg than satisfying conclusion, as if we’re meant to cheer and not to recognize this isn’t an ending but rather a tease for Prometheus 2.  (A comparison:  it’s the same thing as if The Dark Knight had ended with Batman chasing after The Joker – cut to black – before showing us that Bane was breaking into Wayne Manor at that moment; end credits.  Thank heavens the Nolans are smarter writers than Lindelof.)

It’s unfortunate that Rapace, the ostensible star, has been given so little to do in this and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, her American blockbuster debuts, since she’s probably a very qualified actress (I’ve never seen her Girl with the Dragon Tattoo but have only heard promising things).  Indeed, the only actor who distinguishes himself in the cast is Fassbender, who does fascinating work as David.  While an android is supposedly emotionless and inhuman, Fassbender imbues David with several very subtle characteristics, including his fan-worship of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia and his burgeoning disdain for his xenophobic (and robophobic) fellow travelers.  He’s a bit like Dr. Manhattan from Watchmen, seemingly unfeeling but ultimately saying everything with a twitch as potent as a sob.

All of this would seem to suggest that Prometheus is a terrible movie, downright rubbish with only a Fassbender in the rough to redeem it.  Surprisingly, such isn’t quite the case with Prometheus.  Rather, this is a film that succeeds by being bizarrely compelling, if only as a spectacle.  Much of this is due to Scott’s dexterity as a storyteller; even if the story signifies nothing in the end, it’s told not by an idiot but by a skilled craftsman who knows exactly where to deploy his sound and fury.

If I were to sum up the one emotion I felt during the film, it’s “dread.”  Not dread of a bad movie without a refund, but dread – fear – terror – for the characters I shouldn’t have cared about.  Like a great horror/thriller ought to, Prometheus managed to get me to murmur, “No, no, that’s not good.  Don’t do that” time and time again as, perhaps predictably, the humans make a series of bad choices that leads to their inevitable extermination.  There’s no jump moment to rival the “last supper” scene in the original Alien, although an invasive surgical procedure got me squirming and led the guy two seats over to abandon his place in our row until the worst had passed.

Though I felt cheated by the way I hadn’t been given a full movie (much the same reaction I had to Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1, the reason I waited to rent Part 2), what prevented me from asking for a refund was that the story, while incomplete, was well-told.  Though Lindelof drops the ball a bit, Scott swoops in for a save and turns Prometheus from a fumble to a field goal (but a touchdown it ain’t).  If nothing else, it's ensured that this will not be the last time you see the world "Alien" on this site.
 Prometheus is rated R “for sci-fi violence including some intense images, and brief language.”  The terrors that await the crew of the ship are not for the faint-hearted, and such terrors include (but are not limited to) (POTENTIAL SPOILERS) entanglement, impalement, asphyxiation, smashing, decapitation, bludgeoning, incineration, and evaporation.  I can’t remember any off-color language, although Idris Elba has a hilarious verbal seduction scene with Charlize Theron.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Monday at the Movies - June 11, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty-Two of “Monday at the Movies,” in which the Cinema King revisits some of his childhood favorites.

Dick Tracy (1990) – Of the two films under consideration this week, Dick Tracy is the one that has not had the same effect on me in the twenty years since I first saw it.  If nothing else, Dick Tracy is as close as film came to translating comics (before Sin City came along, at least).  Its colors are vibrant and its morals are downright Manichaean, making it an easy film to watch.  Director Warren Beatty also stars as the comic strip detective in a yellow coat, but it’s the criminals at whom he fires his signature tommy gun that steal the audience’s attention: Al Pacino as Big Boy Caprice, William Forsythe as Flattop, and Madonna as torch singer Breathless Mahoney.  But while the colors look great and lend the film a very intriguing visual style, the film hasn’t aged well in terms of substance.  Some of the performances come across as wooden (though I suspect Beatty is deliberately one-note as the do-gooder, Madonna’s work isn’t captivating), while others (ahem, Pacino) are overly blustery and cringe-worthy.  What sells the movie is that it’s populated by tons of high concepts and interesting visuals, characters with cool faces or wacked-out wardrobes, but Dick Tracy is almost overpopulated, and as a result some elements don’t make sense at the end.  I’d have liked to have seen more of Dustin Hoffman as Mumbles (an apt moniker), but as it is I’m still not certain what motivated a few characters, especially The Blank (“No-Face” in my childhood parlance).  Rewatching Dick Tracy brought back memories (especially of the complete trading card set I collected), but through my rose-tinted glasses I recognize that there is a truly great movie waiting to be made with Chester Gould’s source material.

The Rocketeer (1991)The Rocketeer, however, has aged remarkably well and remains one of my all-time favorite superhero movies (a list, I suppose, I’ll have to make once I get around to Top-10’ing this site).  It might even be one of my all-time favorite movies, period, if only because I can’t watch it without my mood changing for the better.  If you’ve never seen it, for shame.  Billy Campbell stars as Cliff Secord, who discovers a rocket-pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn); with the help of his mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin), Cliff becomes The Rocketeer to save his girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly at her most beautiful) from dashing Nazi actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton).  Really, the only thing preventing this film from being a perfect one is that it’s a little cheesy in parts, but I’ve found that a bit of nostalgia goes great with cheese.  The performances here are solid and endearing, and the 1930s atmosphere is pulled off with such grace that it’s no wonder director Joe Johnston was later asked to helm another period-piece superhero flick, Captain America: The First AvengerThe Rocketeer is a lot like the Indiana Jones franchise, but with more heart than you might expect; while the superheroics are all top-notch, the movie is surprisingly earnest in its sentiment.  Campbell and Connelly are almost star-crossed as lovers, and the development of their relationship over the course of the film elicited a surprise mistiness in my ocular region.  That’s right, true believers, a more emotional filmgoer might have wept at The Rocketeer.  Even if you don’t cry, The Rocketeer is such delightful fun that you’ll want to watch it again once the credits roll.  Oh, hell:  maybe it is perfect.

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

Monday, June 4, 2012

Monday at the Movies - June 4, 2012

Welcome to Week Twenty-One of “Monday at the Movies,” another lackluster week in the domain of the Cinema King.

The Beaver (2011)The Beaver is a cautionary tale, but the warning it carries bears no relationship to the movie you may have seen.  Rather, it’s an advisory not to trust the marketing campaign of a film.  If you’re expecting a kooky comedy in which Mel Gibson sorts through his psychological problems and reunites with his family thanks to the help of a lovable British beaver puppet, you’re out of luck.  The Beaver is extremely depressing, albeit with good performances all around.  Gibson communicates his character’s illness effectively, leading the viewer to feel on edge as he falls further from sanity, while Jodie Foster as his wife (and the film’s director) is appropriately earnest.  Cinema King favorite Anton Yelchin’s hatred of his father seethes off the screen, and his chemistry with valedictorian Jennifer Lawrence is perceptible and plausible (after an initial clichéd first encounter).  And perhaps there’s a very good movie in here somewhere, an honest depiction of mental illness led by an allegedly troubled actor, and perhaps this is merely a case of expectation misaligned with reality; that is, maybe my preconception of the movie got in the way of my appreciation for the film.  What I can say, though, is that The Beaver was a very unpleasant and uncomfortable viewing experience, making me squirm in more than a few places and grimace in others.  If this is what Foster was intending, job well done, because this is a very depressing movie.  But if we’re meant to be inspired by the film, mission not accomplished.

Hemingway & Gellhorn (2012) – Ordinarily TV movies aren’t quite under the purview of the Cinema King, but we have a bit of a Hemingway thing going on here lately.  After being disappointed by the (mis)use of Ernest Hemingway in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, I was gratified to see that HBO was working on a biopic about Hemingway’s tempestuous marriage to Martha Gellhorn.  Even better news:  Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman – a talented cast, mind you – were headlining.  (Recall, I was clamoring loudly for Clive Owen to succeed Pierce Brosnan as James Bond.)  So much for the good news.  The bad news?  The result, Hemingway & Gellhorn, is unorganized and meandering, focusing more on character than on plot.  Ordinarily this would be fine, but the characters here are too static to be interesting.  Owen and Kidman are very compelling and capture the essences of their characters, but they neither do anything very interesting nor evolve in any significant way.  The same is true for other big names who appear briefly – Tony Shalhoub, Robert Duvall, David Strathairn, etc.  Consequently, we have a novelty act that wears off once you realize it’s careening around the globe without purpose.  Worse, the film muddles history by implying that Gellhorn’s divorce from Hemingway caused his suicide years later, a move which seems to contradict the film’s attempts to canonize Gellhorn.  Ironically, the film finds many characters telling Hemingway that a film adaptation of A Farewell to Arms failed to capture his work accurately; similarly, our great Hemingway film, it seems, is yet to be.

The Ides of March (2011) – Continuing the trend of people who should be doing better work, George Clooney (who did so well with Good Night and Good Luck) directs Ryan Gosling (whose work was a surprise gem in Lars and the Real Girl) in this fable about American politics.  Gosling plays an idealistic campaign worker who falls for the American dream pitched by Clooney’s candidate, but Gosling is jaded by a series of revelations about the way the political scene really operates and drops his idealism for cynical throat-cutting and backstabbing.  Again, a fantastic supporting cast – Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, even President Logan – turns in good performances all around (Hoffman especially is, as always, engaging) but is criminally underused in yet another story that goes nowhere.  Literally.  The film ends just as it’s picking up steam, and all we’re left with is yet another film that offers up the trite moral “American politics is a dirty game.”  With so many interesting characters assembled, one wishes the writers had pushed the material at least one step beyond what we already know.  It’s not that The Ides of March is a bad movie; what we have is entertaining enough, but there’s no “pay off.”  It’s a lot of sound and fury, but it signifies nothing, ending as only a tale told by an idiot can.  If I can channel my inner Gene Shalit for a moment, “Beware The Ides of March.”

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!  (And hopefully things turn around before July 20, because that’d be a heck of a dry spell otherwise.)