Monday, March 30, 2015

Monday at the Movies - March 30, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  Two of The Cinema King’s favorites in one super bundle – Disney and costumed crusaders.

Sky High (2005) – I don’t know how this movie slipped under my radar for an entire decade, given that it’s in some aspects Disney’s live-action follow-up to The Incredibles.  But where the 2004 Pixar film was an instant classic, subverting genre tropes while simultaneously reveling in them, Sky High carries itself a little too cutely, with only the self-referential winks keeping this one from being just another angsty coming-of-age flick.  Michael Angarano plays Will Stronghold, the powerless son of The Commander and Jetstream (Kurt Russell and Kelly Preston, respectively) who’s deposited in sidekick school until his abilities manifest.  As I said, there’s none of the intelligence of The Incredibles here, other than the high-concept of a superhero high school (which, honestly, we’ve seen before).  Instead, there’s an uncomfortable dissonance between the vibrant colors of the costumes and the frankly cheap special effects that look much less than their $35 million budget; the cast are giving it their all, especially Russell’s gung-ho performance as the exuberantly enthusiastic father of a super-to-be, but I’m inclined to say that Sky High ultimately falls flat.  That said, however, there is nothing in Sky High that is patently bad, for it never offends with ineptitude.  It is, rather, less successful than it wants to be, less intelligent than it needs to be, but there is the somewhat irresistible charm of a movie which is unapologetic about its own “dumb fun” ethos, a movie which is by and large predictable but has no pretensions about its own intelligence.  There is little that separates Sky High from a direct-to-television film, but there is a sizable gap between this and a movie that worsens its audience for having seen it.

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

Monday, March 23, 2015

American Sniper (2014)

I’m not sure why it was that American Sniper was quietly snubbed at the Oscars; despite several nominations, the film made barely a splash, and it seemed people were more interested in the (admittedly amateurish) fake baby than the frankly stellar performance by Bradley Cooper.  While I’m not saying he deserved the award more than Eddie Redmayne (or, for that matter, Michael Keaton), Cooper’s work here deserves another look, especially since the film seems to have been pigeonholed by what potential viewers likely assumed were the politics of the film.

Cooper stars as Chris Kyle in this biopic of the Navy Seal sniper who is credited with the greatest number of kills as a marksman during his service in Iraq.  Sienna Miller costars as his wife Taya, who finds it difficult to keep her family together while her husband is on and off the battlefield.

I think one reason American Sniper made little more than a ripple is because audiences expected (and some critics reported – wrongly, I might add) that the film was only a rah-rah patriotic exercise with little attention to the consequences of a military career.  To which I would say, the movie you’re probably thinking of is Lone Survivor, not this one.  Clint Eastwood has been largely brushed off by many for his conservative politics and/or his abrasive curmudgeonly attitude, but American Sniper never feels like a commercial for the military in the way that Peter Berg’s earlier film toed that same line.

No, this is something much closer to The Hurt Locker, that brilliant Oscar winner from a few years back in which Kathryn Bigelow gave us both a thriller of a war film and a very sober examination of the human psyche under such conditions.  American Sniper is comparable (though a little longer) in that it devotes about as much time to Kyle’s military experiences as to the pained moments where he’s unable to let go of the battlefield and readjust to civilian life.  What American Sniper adds to the narrative of The Hurt Locker is the sense that the country had, ultimately, failed Kyle by not helping him reassimilate.  It’s a smart humanizing move that Eastwood makes, particularly as it anticipates the claim (made by those who haven’t seen the movie) that the film essentially celebrates a murderer – Eastwood rejects that out of hand by showing the dire situation overseas, the pain through which Kyle was wrung, and his true heroism at film’s end (spoilers?) when he attains a kind of healing.

Cooper is frankly astonishing as Kyle, and in any other year I would have been rooting for him to win.  Let’s not forget that Cooper got his big break on Alias, ABC’s spy drama by way of Keri Russell’s Felicity; to see him here and in Silver Linings Playbook, doing amazing work with comedy and drama, is a career to be celebrated.  I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a disappearance into a role, but it is unequivocally a commendable transformation, particularly in his ability to emote beyond his physicality, refusing to let his bulk do the acting for him.  Eastwood is a star director of the action sequences, but it’s Cooper’s quieter moments that truly define the film and almost overshadow the film as a whole.

On the note of performances, I’d actually written off Sienna Miller about the time she did GI Joe – pretty face, Jude Law’s ex, never memorable in the one or two things I’d seen of hers before.  After American Sniper, though, I’d put her in the “one to watch” category, provided that she gets a good director.  I’m sure Eastwood is a stern hand at the till when it comes to directing, but kudos to Miller for stepping up her game and bringing in a very moving turn as the other side of this very human struggle to recover.

I don’t think American Sniper got the attention it deserved, for a number of reasons.  All of those reasons, however, are largely immaterial, more a discredit to the closed minds of the prospective audience than to the film itself.  What you have here are three very talented creative forces coming together for a film that is, if not outright moving, very intelligent about its subject matter in a way that I hope puts Eastwood back on the map as a director and keeps Cooper in the spotlight where he can do more first-rate work.

American Sniper is rated R for “strong and disturbing war violence, and language throughout including some sexual references.” Many of the combat scenes are very intense and bloody, in addition to being suspenseful and loud. The film is rather unflinching in the brutality and the immediacy of violent combat.  F-bombs proliferate, as does the typical kind of chauvinistic dialogue you’d expect in aggressive male camaraderie.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Cinderella (2015)

With Maleficent (mercifully) behind us and a live-action Beauty and the Beast yet to come, we’re in the midst of a live-action reinvention over at the House of Mouse.  While I do have some reservation regarding the overall necessity of the move, I do think that Cinderella acquits itself better than Maleficent thanks to its narrative fidelity and its frankly stunning production value.

In what is essentially a remake of the 1950 animated Disney film, Lily James stars as Cinderella, left after her father’s passing in the care of her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett).  After a chance encounter with her Prince Charming (Richard Madden), Cinderella makes every effort to go to the ball, with a little magical assist from her Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter).

The most striking thing about Cinderella is, surprisingly, the clothing.  I cannot recall ever being as impressed with costume design as I was with Sandy Powell’s work on this film.  (Fun fact:  she’s also the costume designer for my all-time favorite film, The Departed.)  Perhaps some credit is due to the cinematography, but the colors in the film really pop in a way that dominates my overall impression of the film – Cinderella looks spectacular.  The dresses of Lady Tremaine and her daughters very plainly communicate their interior ugliness, doing so with a flair that Powell has described as nineteenth century by way of the 1940s.  Cinderella’s dresses, too, are incredibly vibrant, matching well the Prince’s royal finery.

The film overall has a very polished look which I credit to the very pristine direction of Kenneth Branagh, who does fairy tales with the same elegance he brings to Shakespeare and superheroes.  There are a few nods to both – from Hamlet, both Derek Jacobi and fencing, and from Thor, Stellan Skarsgard – but more importantly, Branagh brings his trademark earnestness to Cinderella.  It’s honestly a little jarring to go from the delightfully revisionist Into the Woods, in which Cinderella’s indecisiveness clashed with Prince Charming’s insincerity, to a film which wholly believes in the happily-ever-after genre tropes.

Despite the well-crafted nature of the film and the strong performances all around, there is still the lingering question of whether there is a need for another treatment of Cinderella which doesn’t really distinguish itself too strongly from the versions that preceded it.  This is, of course, the question asked of every remake at one time or another, and my chief complaint about Maleficent was, you’ll recall, that its contributions to the revisionist project were so uneven that the best scene was the one that took the fewest liberties, so clearly there’s a threshold of acceptable innovation/transgression.  Cinderella succeeds, I think, on the grounds that it steers a very straight course through the familiar elements of the plot in an even and engaging way, but as content as I felt during the end credits there was still the sensation that I hadn’t actually seen anything new.

Now, to be fair, Cinderella goes 180-degrees from Into the Woods by making the Prince more, not less, compelling; where Sondheim’s Prince “was raised to be charming, not sincere,” Cinderella gives us a prince bristling at his royal obligations, more interested in marrying for love than for obligation (subtext that I don’t recall being quite so present in the animated film).  It also recognizes that Cate Blanchett is phenomenally gifted, so Lady Tremaine’s wickedness is played up as well as explored near the end of the film as she monologues about her motivations.

Ultimately, then, I’m in an unusual place with Cinderella.  The creative team responsible have created something that amounts to a very good cover band version of a classic with a few neat solos in the middle there, but there’s a curmudgeonly bit of me that wants to cling to the original because the new isn’t different enough.  Then again, I think of all the children in the theater with me that afternoon, and I realize that for them this film likely is the definitive Cinderella, and I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.  Maybe the better metaphor is that of translation, the act of going from one language (animation) to another (live-action), and it is on those grounds that Branagh’s Cinderella succeeds.

Cinderella is rated PG for “mild thematic elements.”  I suppose that’s due to the passing of Cinderella’s parents and the verbal abuse she endures at the hands of her wicked stepmother, but this is very nearly G-rated material.

Bonus review!  Cinderella is preceded by a seven-minute short, Frozen Fever – a sequel to (you guessed it), Disney’s wildly profitable Frozen from two Christmases ago.  The short finds Elsa (Idina Menzel) prepping the kingdom for the birthday of her sister Anna (Kristen Bell).  Only two things stand in the way – the snowman Olaf (Josh Gad) is trying to eat the cake, and Elsa has a head cold.  The cynic in me thinks that Frozen Fever is a long advertisement for plush toys of the snow-babies created whenever Elsa sneezes, but aren’t they cute?  By nature of being so short, Frozen Fever isn’t long on substance, but it does continue the film’s emphasis on the sisters’ relationship over a romantic one between Anna and Kristoff in a way that is more refreshing than treacle.  The main song “Making Today a Perfect Day” is about as catchy as “For the First Time in Forever” from the main film, though it won’t, I predict, have the staying power of “Let It Go” (either in eternity or in your head).  All told, I’m a bigger fan of Disney’s original shorts like Paperman and Feast, though Frozen Fever is as pleasant as the “Toy Story Toons” we’d been getting for a while there, a fun pit stop with some familiar faces.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Monday at the Movies - March 9, 2015

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”  Daylight Savings Time sprung our review forward an hour – it’s a joke, ha ha.

I Know That Voice (2013) – I’ve been wanting to review more documentaries on here, but here is one that I worry might appeal only to a very select number of people.  For me, I Know That Voice is a very interesting look at one of my favorite subsections of Hollywood, the voice actors who bring life to cartoons, commercials, and animated movies.  For as long as I can remember, this has been a favorite guessing game of mine; identifying the same voice across multiple media and through celebrity impressions has always been fun for an amateur impressionist myself, and I Know That Voice gives viewers like me the thrill of seeing the artists perform on camera (rather than behind the safety of an animated character).  The greatest laugh of all comes when John DiMaggio, a heavyset white man, does his impression of a middle-aged black man lamenting how “frustrating” white people are “with they dogs and they yoga.” It’s a different kind of stepping into character than most of us are used to seeing, but there’s real talent here on display.  I’m also glad that the film isn’t just a series of nickels placed into voiceover jukeboxes as the performers give their greatest hits (you do get to see Mark Hamill slip into a little Joker dialogue); I Know That Voice gives a pretty strong look into the business side of the industry, showing how the performers get their gigs, how the recording process works, and the delightful fan culture surrounding them at conventions.  The striking omission here is the absence of Frank Welker, though I understand he declined to appear, but otherwise I Know That Voice is a strikingly definitive presentation of one of show business’s not-so-quiet secrets.

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

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Incredibles (2004)

I don’t think it’s fair to qualify The Incredibles as “a great Pixar film” or even “a great superhero film.”  (I do love the joke, however, that it’s the best Fantastic Four movie ever made.)  The Incredibles is, of course, all of those things, but it is for my money a great film, period.  When I informally consider my favorite films of all time (a list I really must put on this page, one of these days), I don’t usually think of The Incredibles on that count, but having rewatched it quite recently I do believe it belongs there.

After superheroes were forced into retirement by a litigious citizenry, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) struggles to maintain his cover as Bob Parr while his wife Helen, formerly Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), raises their children – speedster Dash and invisible Violet – in a best attempt to fit in.  Bob’s desire to be super leads him into a dangerous new line of work where the sinister Syndrome (Jason Lee) has other plans for the once and future Mr. Incredible.

At the risk of superfluity, The Incredibles attempts to be many things at once, and it is first-rate at all of them.  I’m often very critical of films that try to do too much in the bounded space of one movie, and I’m inclined to be even more so because of how deftly The Incredibles juggles so many narratives in less than two hours.  First, there’s a brilliant deconstruction of the superhero genre, exposing the warts-and-all in several very clever moments that have now themselves become iconic (“No capes!” and the obsession with “monologuing” chief among them).  Taking cues from Watchmen and Robert Mayer’s Superfolks, The Incredibles also manages to do what most deconstruction never even hazards – it reconstructs in the process, offering a narrative that is not about snidely deriding its inspirations but rather about creating an earnest new narrative on that foundation.

In the midst of all the grandeur of masks and superpowers, there’s a deeply personal story about what brings – and holds – a family together, with a very moving sincerity about the proceedings.  The cast (including Spencer Fox and Sarah Vowell as the kids) all work well together, with a kind of natural chemistry that you don’t find even in some real families.  Nelson has that lovable schlubby quality to his voice, and there’s evident deep affection between him and Hunter.  The scene-stealer here, as he always is in any film, is Samuel L. Jackson’s turn as Frozone, the ice-blasting companion with personality and attitude for days.  Indeed, the best scene of the film is his, in which he and his unseen wife quarrel over whether his abilities are actually needed to save the city.

All of this boils down to how sharp the writing is, and Brad Bird (doing double duty, also directing) is a very smart filmmaker, and this is the kind of movie that gives him a lifetime benefit-of-the-doubt on my end.  Lest we forget, he’s also the genius behind Ratatouille, and I can’t wait to see what he does with the mysterious Tomorrowland – a film whose trailer elicited from me the following reaction:  “Oh, the Incredibles guy?  I’ll give anything of his a shot.”  (He’s also the hysterical voice behind the manic Edna Mode, who costumes our superheroes a la Edith Head.)

At the risk of ending on a groaner of a pun, The Incredibles is a movie which wears its review on its sleeve.  It is, in a word, incredible.  And if there’s anyone in the world who hasn’t seen this one yet, it isn’t too late to catch up before the sequel arrives – and praise the Lord, one actually is on the way.

The Incredibles is rated PG for “action violence.” There’s a lot of running, jumping, punching, and exploding, all done in a cartoon manner with little to no blood.