Sunday, November 25, 2012

Holiday Road: Like Jack Frost, “Rise of the Guardians” Left Me Feeling Cold

It’s hard to criticize an animated holiday family adventure that means so well like “Rise of the Guardians.” For once, we have a family holiday movie that doesn’t pander to five year-olds by just knocking people in the head or making creepy sexual innuendos that fly over kids’ heads. “Guardians” is a fun take on the holiday mascot mythology that includes Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and even Jack Frost as real beings who sort of work together to protect children all over the world. Sort of a holiday Justice League if you will. But why didn’t this movie quite gel for me? Perhaps it’s best to be a young kid who believes in these guys but, spoiler, Santa ain’t real kiddo.

There’s nothing outwardly wrong with “Rise of the Guardians” but I found a few things to nitpick about. And the first thing is that there’s way too much going on here. What exactly is the story in “Rise of the Guardians?” Is it a Jack Frost original story? Is the story of a young boy named Jamie who still believes in Santa? Is it about the evil Bogeyman who uses children’s fear to make him stronger? Is it about a Russian Santa Claus? Is it about an Australian Easter Bunny? There’s way too much going on here in David Lindsay-Abaire's script and not enough focus.

It’s interesting to have Jack Frost interpreted as a real character, but Chris Pine who provides his voice seems all wrong for what the animators have cooked up. Pine’s deep masculine voice doesn’t fit the skinny, Justin Bieber looking character. I found myself not quite caring about children not being able to see Jack because they don’t “believe” in him. What kid “believes” in Jack Frost in the first place? On the contrary, the Bogeyman character named Pitch Black (voiced by Jude Law) is a perfectly realized Tim Burton inspired character. I wish the film was more about him and less about Santa and the others.

DreamWorks Animation who produced the film has also found a way to capitalize on audience’s strange fascination with Despicable Me’s yellow minion characters by making Santa’s tiny elves loony little mute sidekicks. Santa has tricked them into thinking they make the presents in the North Pole even though he employs a bunch of mute yetis to do that for them. The elves are cute and funny yes, but they’re sense of humor is oddly shoehorned into a rather serious story about evil taking over the world.

“Rise of the Guardians” is far from the worse in animated fare this year. But due to the high standards set by movies like “Wreck-It Ralph” and the stop motion instant classics “Frankenweenie” and “ParaNorman” it’s subpar in comparison. It’s odd to think that both Pixar (with the not quite spectacular “Brave”) and DreamWorks, both pioneers in computer animated entertainment, took a slight backseat this year allowing for other to have a moment to shine. At this point, that Animated Feature Oscar is anybody’s to win.  GRADE: C+

Saturday, November 24, 2012

We Sold a Zoo: “Life of Pi” is an Astonishing, Emotionally Engaging Visual Feast

Who would have thought it was a good idea to cross “Cast Away” with “Slumdog Millionaire?” In “Life of Pi,” based on the popular bestseller, we get to witness a wonderful tale of survival and hope and life. It’s much like “127 Hours” from a couple years ago, except imagine trying to survive with a hungry Bengal tiger eying you for his lunch. Here we get the story of an Indian man named Pi who survives a shipwreck only to be stuck on a life raft in the middle of the ocean with a tiger also trapped on the raft. He must survive the elements and the beast who is his enemy. But he must learn to use the animal to help him survive and in so doing they make an emotional bond like none ever seen before. It’s all handled with assured direction from Ang Lee and some truly spectacular visual trickery.

We know from the beginning that Pi Patel (played as an adult by Irrfan Khan) survives his ordeal. We seem him talking with an author who wants to turn his story into a book. “Life of Pi” has a nice ring to it. He accounts his childhood in India. His family owned a zoo. He also discovered spirituality at a young age and begins following several different religions. When he was a teenager his family sold the zoo so they could move to Canada. They board all the animals on a freighter but one night during a storm the ship sinks. Pi is left alone on a lifeboat with several other animals: an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, and a Bengal tiger named Richard Parker (due to a clerical error). Pi and Richard Parker are natural enemies, but Pi can’t bring himself to kill the animal. And so begins their harrowing tale of survival.

Most of the film is set during Pi’s teenage years (played here by Suraj Sharma) during his survival ordeal. The film uses a flashback narrative structure that sort of works, but kind of instantly zaps the film of some suspense since we know Pi survives intact. The present day scenes are nowhere near the visual feast of the rest of the film. Of course, that knowledge doesn’t really lessen the intensity of the experience, even if it takes a bit of time to get going. It’s truly fascinating to witness Pi’s extraordinary skills as he learns to survive and realize how much he actually depends on the tiger. Catching fish and keeping the tiger full keeps Pi’s mind occupied. So really, they depend on each other.

Watching a young man survive on a lifeboat is something that doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the most visually stimulating experience, but Ang Lee makes it simply stunning. He employs terrific use of 3D technology to tell his visually appealing story. Cinematographer Claudio Miranda captures some truly breathtaking images that are expertly staged by Lee. Take the flying fish sequence with its experimental playfulness of the screen aspect ratio. It helps the fish feel like they’re flying right at you. And for a film that’s about a boy and tiger on a lifeboat, there are no two shots alike.

The visual effects in the film just need to be mentioned. The use of CGI for the tiger is just simply amazing. It’s so lifelike that sometimes you find yourself questioning whether it’s real or not (there is some real tiger footage mixed in there). It really helps sell the believability of a story that seems unbelievable by nature (this is, in fact, not based on a true story). Lee and the actors really help sell the emotion and by the end of the film you really see the bond that has grown between these two living beings. Screenwriter David Magee has successfully adapted a book that was deemed “unfilmable” and together with the entire cast and crew has crafted a warm, and truly rewarding cinematic experience.  GRADE: A-

Friday, November 16, 2012

President’s Day: Daniel Day-Lewis Commands the Screen in the Emotionally Inert “Lincoln”

I, like most people, have high expectations for a Steven Spielberg film. I don’t expect a gloriously shot History Channel production which is exactly what “Lincoln” is. It's sad to think the more entertaining Abraham Lincoln movie this year involved vampires. There's something dramatically inert about Spielberg’s long-awaited Lincoln biopic. Even though he was a great man, a legend in fact, and a hero of this country, his story, about his last few months in office trying to pass the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and helped end the civil war, doesn't necessarily make great cinematic drama. A fine (but most likely stuffy) stage play sure, which is what screenwriter (and playwright) Tony Kushner has done. But even more shocking is remembering that Abraham Lincoln was in fact a Republican. How times have changed!

It won’t be a shock to learn that actor Daniel Day-Lewis gives a terrific performance as the 16th President of the United States. The brilliant makeup and costume design help him effortlessly slip into the role. But does he give a great performance or is it just an impressive impersonation? Since there’s not actual footage of Lincoln one would never quite know so I chalk it up to a wonderful performance. He truly feels like someone who could lead a country as divided as the US was at that time (and to a point, still is today).  The entire cast does a great job fulfilling various historical figures. Sally Field, as Mary Todd Lincoln, chews the scenery in her equally over-the-top period dresses. She’s vying for that inevitable third Oscar nomination. The standout here is really Tommy Lee Jones as Representative Thaddeus Stevens. He injects the film with a small dose of emotion and even some humor, as does James Spader and his team of 13th Amendment lobbyists.

The most surprising aspect of the film remains how emotionally unattached I felt to the proceedings which play out like well produced History Channel recreations with outstanding production values. It's like watching 19th century C-SPAN, which I realize is something people may actually love: history buffs are sure to rejoice. And I gather it will make a useful learning tool in classrooms across the country. But like the courtroom scenes that bogged down the similarly themed “Amistad,” watching the representatives argue about the slavery bill is just not fascinating especially when you know the eventual outcome (spoiler: it passes!) Spielberg makes things as suspenseful as possible leading up to the vote but even the most skilled director of which he is can't make house sessions all that interesting. The movie could have easily been called Old White Guys Arguing. I'm not quite sure why I felt so unattached to the proceedings since a lot of this stuff has direct connections to what's going on today in this country today. We have a divided country that either love Obama or despise him. And watching Lincoln try to collect enough votes to pass a very divisive bill is not unlike the healthcare reform bill from a couple years ago. Lincoln was a great leader and an honest man which I believe is a lot of what Obama is also about.

“Lincoln” features all the behind the scenes skills one would expect from a Steven Spielberg production but none of the real fun or entertainment value. It feels like last year’s equally static “War Horse” but with a more familiar cast and without the emotional sappiness.  It’s a “serious” Spielberg film through and through but fails to be as engaging or as dramatically challenging as something like “Schindler’s List” or “Munich.” “Munich” weaved a fascinating line of entertainment and seriousness that worked thematically. Here it’s all business and no fun. The camerawork, music score, and period costumes and sets are all meticulously crafted and Day-Lewis is simply wonderful, but it’s an “important film” (and shameless Oscar bait) in search of a more entertaining and emotionally rewarding narrative. GRADE: B-

Saturday, November 10, 2012

License to Thrill: “Skyfall” Just May Be the Best Bond Movie Ever

If any movie could convert a non Bond fan it would be “Skyfall.” I guess the third time’s the charm, as they say? “Casino Royale” rebooted the James Bond franchise in a wonderful way, but it was my first foray into the franchise and while I liked it, I didn’t make me really care to see any of the other films. “Quantum of Solace” was a big slump for the non-fan. It was boring and mostly unmemorable. “Skyfall” director Sam Mendes’ first foray into the action-spy series is a glorious piece made all the more terrific because not only is it a great James Bond movie, but it’s just a great standalone film as well. Having recently watched some of the old James Bond films made me appreciate this new entry even more, but it has everything a general fan of action films have come to like. It shows surprising emotional depth and a keen eye for splendid camera trickery and is a truly spectacular adventure.

“Skyfall” opens with a glorious chase sequence that almost rivals “Casino Royale’s” famous parkour chase scene that many have described as one of the series’ top action sequences. Bond (Daniel Craig) and fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris) are in hot pursuit of a bad guy who has stolen a hard drive with classified information. Bond ends up presumed dead and doesn’t return to headquarters. But since he’s immortal he shows up extremely mad at his superior M (Judi Dench) since her orders caused Eve to mistakenly shoot him instead of the bad guy they were pursuing. Eventually this stolen hard drive takes Bond to various exotic locations until it’s revealed this is all the work of super villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem) who turns out to be a disgruntled former MI6 agent. He begins to hack into their system and even bombs the headquarters causing massive chaos and killing several agents. But his true target is M who he seeks deep personal revenge against.

“Skyfall” is so special for several reasons. It has all the trademark Bond things like the sexy, mysterious Bond girl, an over the top villain, martinis shaken not stirred, a terrific opening title theme and sequence (sung by Adele), and superior action set pieces. But this film has surprising character depth not previously seen in the other entries. Bond and M’s relationship is very fleshed out and M gets to become a more fully realized character (and we even get to see Ms. Dench fire a gun). We can credit that to co-screenwriter John Logan who gave surprisingly depth to such films as “Gladiator” and last year’s “Hugo.” The film is sprawling and long but never boring and flows nicely from one location to the next eventually landing at Bond’s childhood home called Skyfall where he proceeds to booby-trap the place ala “Home Alone” to catch the bad guys.

Oscar-winner Sam Mendes has never crafted a film of this scale before but his superior creative eye is certainly responsible for the sheer visual power of the film. Working together with fellow cinematographer Roger Deakins they have made such a visually scrumptious action film. The film’s opening and climax are amazingly filmed sequences in an altogether outstandingly well-made film. And all of the performances are top notch. Bardem is a truly wonderful and frightening and bizarre villain. This guy could be a flamboyant cousin to his Anton Chigurh.

“Skyfall” is a Bond film that longtime fans will love (with loving nods to the series) and new fans will enjoy as well. It’s everything one could want in a truly great Bond adventure without and of that truly corny stuff from way back in the 60s. I’d like to see Mike Myers try and attempt a parody of this.  GRADE: A

Sunday, November 04, 2012

Higher and Higher: Denzel Washington Gives an Intoxicating Performance in “Flight”

Robert Zemeckis, the Academy Award winning director of "Forrest Gump," hasn’t directed a live action feature film since 2000’s “Cast Away.” And now he returns with “Flight” which shares one thing in common with that previous film: a disturbing airplane crash. But the two films couldn’t be more different. “Cast Away” was a human drama about a man obsessed with time surviving alone on a deserted island. “Flight” is a very adult character study of an alcoholic airline pilot. Zemeckis always features top notch special effects and fun, tricky camera moves but "Flight" remains rather grounded in that area. It's really just a straightforward drama, with a harrowing and disturbing airplane crash sequence. And that is sort of a disappointment coming from a filmmaker whose movies always push the limits of what’s been seen on the big screen.

Denzel Washington is airline pilot Whip Whitaker. He’s divorced and has a son who he rarely sees. He’s also a hopeless alcoholic who isn’t quite aware of how serious his drinking is. But he is a brilliant pilot as in the film’s open sequence in which he’s able to land his airplane in a way that saves almost everyone on board. But how much of the plane crash was caused by the fact that he was drunk and high during the flight? That is the moral dilemma at the center of the film but from what the viewer can tell, the plane seems to have a malfunction and Whip actually prevents everyone on the plane from dying. But that doesn’t give him the right to fly planes while intoxicated.

After the incident, Whip is seen as a hero but many don’t know, until after a blood test is done, that Whip may not be the hero everyone thinks. Whip also meets a young drug addict while recovering in the hospital. She’s played by Kelly Reilly and she sort of reminded me of Robin Wright’s performance as Jenny from “Forrest Gump.” While the crash sequence is a brilliant piece of filmmaking the rest of the film can’t quite hold up. It sort of delves into movie-of-the-week territory which is sad considering the talent behind the camera. Zemeckis doesn’t using any spectacular camera moves, and why should he? This is an intimate study of alcoholism and how drinking controls one man’s life. Any fancy camerawork would call attention away from the story at hand (Zemeckis used his long time collaborator cinematographer Don Burgess) But John Gatins’ screenplay doesn’t offer many interesting plot twists to really make “Flight” anything all that special or memorable. It really just remains a showcase for Washington’s wonderful performance.

“Flight” is a mildly interesting adult drama that never quite takes off. There’s really not much to it besides that disturbing crash sequence and good acting. The human drama that follows is supported by a great central performance from its star (and a good, if brief, performance by John Goodman), but otherwise this feels like stuff we’ve seen before. It’s still miles ahead of the creepy motion capture films Zemeckis has spent the last decade making but lacks that interesting Zemeckis hook. If the ingenious filmmaker really wants to recapture the look and themes of his greatest work he’ll return to adventure or sci-fi filmmaking where he surely belongs. For now I guess “Flight” will have to do. GRADE: B-

Game Changer: “Wreck-It Ralph” is an Original and Funny Tribute to Video Game Nostalgia

It appears Pixar and Wald Disney Animation Studios (they are, in fact, not the same thing if you were curious) pulled a good ol’ “freaky Friday” this year. The two have swapped creative bodies. Earlier this year Pixar, arguably the top notch animation production studio in the film industry today, released a Disney-fied film called Brave about a Scottish princess. It was fun and whimsical and had good animation as usual, but I found it to be a lesser effort for the animation studio. However, Walt Disney Animation Studios have just released a funny and altogether clever Toy Story-like film that has all the makings of a great Pixar film called “Wreck-It Ralph” (and Pixar had nothing to do with it). What gives? It’s Disney’s 52nd “animated classic” and it is indeed destined for classic animation status. There’s no Disney princess or fanciful songs, but it has all the great elements that make a great animated family adventure.

“Wreck-It Ralph” takes place in the video game world. Much like Toy Story was about seeing how children’s toys come to life after they leave the room, this film shows how video game characters have an entire world to their own inside their arcade machines. They can travel through electrical impulses from machine to machine through electrical cords and the power strip is like a mini Grand Central Station where many video game destinations await. We’re introduced to a game called Fix It Felix Jr. Which starts Felix as a handyman who repairs an apartment building after a giant bad guy name Wreck It Ralph damages it. The player’s goal is to play as Felix, fix the building and then throw Ralph off the roof and score big points. It’s basically a lot like the original Donkey Kong game.

But like most Disney characters Ralph isn’t all that bad and actually dreams getting something better out of life. He’s in a “bad guy” support group with members like Bowser from Super Mario and even one of the ghosts from Pac-man. He decides to “game jump” one day and check out Hero’s Duty, a violent first person shooter game ala “Call of Duty” where he wants to win a gold metal. Eventually he ends up in Sugar Rush game which is like Mario Kart set in Candyland. He meets up with a cute little tyke voiced by Sarah Silverman, who’s a glitch in her game and is rejected by other characters who refuse to let her participate in racing.

“Wreck-It Ralph” is a great movie because it plays with what audience members know about video games and has a lot of fun with it. Those gamers who grew up on Nintendo and Sega will get a kick out of the many fun references and in-jokes. The world that writers Phil Johnson and Jennifer Lee have come up with is rather fascinating. They come up with “rules” that actually make a whole lot of sense. For instance, video game characters always come back to life when they’re killed because kids come along put another quarter into the machine and the game starts over again. But when a character “game jumps” and enters a different game, they can die for real. Also, when an arcade game goes “out of order” the characters are forced to enter the Grand Central Station electric hub where they’re basically homeless. Like poor Q*bert who’s game was out of order.

There are so many great characters here and they’re voiced wonderfully. Jane Lynch is great as Calhoun the main character of Hero’s Duty as a Lara Croft tough girl who’s good with a gun. Alan Tudyk plays the ruler of Sugar Rush King Candy as a crazy hybrid of Willy Wonka and the Mad Hatter. And as Ralph, John C. Reilly injects some rather touching humanity into a character that many believe to be a bad guy but he obviously isn’t at all. And 30 Rock’s Jack Mc Brayer plays a digitized a version of himself as Felix who may just have the hots for Calhoun.

“Wreck-It Ralph” may not be the traditional animated film that Disney usually churns out but it features some truly memorable characters and a great story. To think Pixar had nothing to do with this seems rather odd but it certainly fits right in creatively with anything that Pixar has ever created. It’s truly a winner.  GRADE: A-