Sunday, March 31, 2013
The Croods are a family of Neanderthals - father Grug, mother Ugga, daughters Sandy and Eep, son Thunk, and grandma Gran - living in an extremely loose interpretation of prehistoric Earth. The Croods spend their days holed up in their cave, only venturing outside to grab food, such as the eggs of the dangerous beasts that live outside. They are uncomfortable but happy, save for Eep, who's innately curious about the outside world. One night, she sneaks away from the cave and meets up with Guy, a Homo Sapiens with an uncanny knack for invention, whom she instantly takes a very adorable liking to. According to Guy, the End of the World is imminent, as proven by the coming of earthquakes- one of which almost immediately destroys the Croods' cave. With nowhere else to turn, the family looks to Guy to lead them to the paradise of "Tomorrow"... much to Grug's resentment.
The Croods is co-directed by Chris Sanders, he of the venerable Lilo & Stitch and How to Train Your Dragon. His latest film features the same imaginative creature design and gorgeous visuals of his prior work, with many truly amazing sights to see. Have you ever seen a pair of lemurs that have the same tail? A giant green tiger with a bulbous head? Whales that scoot about on land? Human-sized flowers that move about on their own? Well, you have now. The love that went into the production is clear from the opening sequence, which introduces the family using a series of animated cave paintings, which look great and have an adorable style to them. The next scene, showing the family working together to get "breakfast" (it's nightfall by the time they finally succeed), is just as well-done, wisely giving equal focus to the frenetic and breathtaking visuals and the introduction of the family.
Ah, but with a film as lovely looking as this, there is always a very easy trap for the filmmaker to fall into: spending so much time on the visuals, that they forget to keep the story up to scratch. Sanders and co. seem to recognize this, and take some crucial first steps: with that aforementioned first scene, they set up an important dynamic between the characters, giving each their own roles and establishing their personalities, and are aided by a stellar voice cast- like Emma Stone as Eep and Nicolas Cage as Grug. Though the characters are clearly meant to ape some standard "family sitcom" archetypes (dumb dad, level-headed mom, rebellious teen daughter, snarky grandma (who the dad hates), etc. etc.), they're good archetypes that still have plenty of mileage left in them. Eep goes well beyond her Cloris Leachman is always a good choice for a grandma, and Ryan Reynolds plays as good a love interest as always. At The Croods' onset, it feels like we're going to get a family adventure film for the ages...
...but it never really delivers.
For a film with only 7 characters, it still feels like there are too many. Perhaps a longer work could have juggled them all, but the movie can't balance so many in its 90 minute time frame. There is a quick little moment near the film's end between Grug and Ugga, that serves to highlight this: as Grug is apparently about to leave the group, they grasp each other's hands, and intimately touch foreheads. See, this would be very lovely and poignant... if the two characters' relationship was even the least bit explored. As far as I can remember, Grug and Ugga have two conversations, each about 30 seconds long, and otherwise sparsely interact. Ugga has no scenes to herself, either, and I couldn't tell you a single thing about her personality... hell, until I looked the film up, I didn't even remember her name! Thunk, at least, has a few moments to himself: a scene has him find an animal that he decides to keep, which seems to be setting up a "learning responsibility" subplot for him, but this point is suddenly dropped (literally) and never picked back up. Gran makes a few snarky comments and there is a scene or two where she discusses her life, like a typical grandma character, but she doesn't do or say anything of note. Sandy, the baby, seems to undergo some form of maturation - from a feral, animalistic, violent little toddler into a happy and giggling child - with nobody making any comment on it whatsoever. It seems pretty clear that these characters once had more to do, but their scenes were cut out or reworked. It'd have been wise to completely remove one or more of these characters, so the rest of the cast could get better focus.
Eep and Guy's relationship, as well as Grug's resentment of Guy's leadership role, are the two plots that are actually focused on, and as a result, they are the ones that work. Eep and Guy actually feel like an original kind of couple- unlike the comical awkwardness and nervousness of so many other teen romances, these two are open and intimate from the onset (as cavemen, with no social standards, probably would). Eep is especially adorable in her open admiration of Guy, and never hesitates to get as close to him as she can. Grug's fear of new things and anger over his growing uselessness is presented as humorous (and it often is), but at the same time, his behavior is always understandable and relatable, and by the end, you'll want to cheer for him.
Well, if there's one thing that The Croods has changed about me, it's that I'm finally able to write words like "Eep", "Grug", and "Ugga" in my reviews, which I've always deeply dreamed of. For those who aren't unprofessional film critics, there's still enough fun to be had with Croods' imagination and creativity, so if you haven't got anything better to do, it may be worth a look.
Sunday, February 3, 2013
Well, needless to say, that's not how it really worked. Luckily, old Spielberg is here to pull back the curtain.
Despite what the incredibly bland title may suggest, Lincoln is not a film that dramatizes the entire life of Abraham Lincoln, but rather, a period of only a few months. Specifically, the months following his re-election, where he made the most important decision of his career- the decision to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. This is an incredibly hot-button issue among Lincoln's peers, especially in the wake of the ongoing Civil War, and the controversy surrounding Lincoln's issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The Proclamation, so say Lincoln's critics, was a major overreach on Lincoln's part, and a huge abuse of his powers. In the current political climate, the very idea of an entire anti-slavery amendment seems like a complete waste of time.
But Honest Abe is adamant. He believes that securing the end of slavery is the key to finally ending the war, and he and his cabinet hatch a plan: to weasel their way into earning the 20 necessary votes from House Democrats, by any means necessary.
When it comes to a movie about Abraham Lincoln, there's always one major question on everyone's mind: "How good is the guy playing Lincoln?" Well, Daniel Day-Lewis is our guy this time around, so the question is barely even necessary. The answer is that he is awesome. Lewis is a prime choice for his resemblance to the 16th President alone, but that's hardly the limit of his talent. Lewis gives the president emotional depth and complexity that we've rarely seen in past cultural depictions, and as a result, he feels a hell of a lot more human. His portrayal is noteworthy for its historical accuracy- he has a high-pitched, even nasally voice, and he's prone to witty quips and telling tangential stories. These little quirks are sure to please historians, but they pull the double-duty of making Lincoln very respectable for the audience. His occasional social awkwardness (as he makes inopportune comments or tells pointless anecdotes) not only makes him relatable, it also makes him just that more powerful when he breaks out another incredible, speech. His amusing anecdotes seem pointless to those he tells them to, but to his audience beyond the fourth wall, each one adds an extra layer of depth to the man. Though Lincoln is absent for some surprisingly long sections of the film, his presence never leaves you.
Considering how wonderful Lewis' performance is, it's surprising and interesting that much of the post-release buzz is actually surrounding another actor: the always-excellent Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens. Stevens, historically, was a Radical Republican that believed in something that even the staunchest of his fellow abolitionists had trouble believing: that black people are equal in every way to whites. Needless to say, his general conduct was loud and confrontational, and he was quite reluctant to compromise. This is the sort of character that Jones is famous for, and while I wouldn't really say that he steals the show - Lewis is too damn good for that to happen - it's still a very respectable performance.
The other supporting roles are all great, but they seem a little tangential. Secretary of State William H. Seward exists mostly to argue with Lincoln over the latter's political decisions, and Robert & Tad Lincoln (the President's sons) have little to do aside from aid to the film's fatherly portrayal of Abe. They're all good, mind you, they just feel underdeveloped, with the sole real exception of Sally Ride as Mary Todd Lincoln. Mary was a notoriously unstable woman, and the scenes where the couple argue are among the most intense in the entire film. There's something about an angry married couple that is even more exciting than war or tight political battles.
Lincoln is not without its flaws. For a movie about slavery, it's annoyingly light on the black perspective- the only African-American characters in the movie are a few Union soldiers and Elizabeth Keckley, all of whom have only small supporting roles. And the ending drags on too long, unwisely depicting Lincoln's assassination; this would be a fitting ending if the film were a full-on biopic, but since it is not, it feels unnecessary and tacked on.
But to focus on minor squabble such as these misses the point. Indeed, you'll notice that it didn't dock my score at all. The purpose of Lincoln is to take a look into a few moments in the life of an extraordinary man, and to marvel at the skill of the actor portraying him. What more could you possibly want?
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
Mental illness is a terrible thing. It comes in many forms, with many names, and affects many people- but there are very few who understand it. To the general public, those who are mentally unwell are dangerous and scary, or, barring that, tragic lost causes that have no way of supporting themselves anymore. This is reflected in our movies: if a film character is "crazy", chances are that means they're either a criminal mastermind, a deranged murderer, or a babbling man-child locked up in a padded cell.
Silver Linings Playbook breaks that trend.
Pat (Bradley Cooper) is being let out of a mental institution after an eight month stay. He was in there because of his previously-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, which was finally discovered after he caught his wife, Nikki, cheating on him. Needless to say, he didn't take it well, and responded to the situation using his fists.
Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) is a tragically young widow, whose husband's death led her to dive deep into a depression, and attempt to cope by becoming a sex addict. She's since managed to control her bodily urges, but remains highly depressed and emotionally distant.
The two meet, by chance, at dinner, at the home of a mutual friend. Neither of them are particularly adept at making friends, especially in their current emotional states, but the two eventually manage to hit it off. Pat's goal is to reconcile with Nikki (who has moved and filed a restraining order), and is getting in shape, becoming an avid reader, becoming more emotionally open, and doing other such things in the hopes of being able to impress her. Tiffany offers to deliver a letter to Nikki, under the condition that Pat enter a dance competition with her. Thus, they begin to spend an hour or so of their days together, discussing life and training avidly.
Pat and Tiffany are incredible characters, brought to life impeccably by Cooper and Lawrence. Pat's openness, eagerness, and unending optimism makes him endearing, but all that barely serves to cover up his frightening and depressing neuroses. His obsession with Nikki becomes very disturbing, as he judges seemingly everything he does based on whether or not she would like it. He becomes unhinged at the slightest offenses- a scene in which he rages to his parents (Robert DeNiro and Jacki Weaver) over the simple matter of his wedding video is terrifying. Tiffany, by contrast, piques the audience's interest by being very reserved and silent. She behaves like a socially-awkward teenager, stumbling through her conversations and tripping over her words. Her strange and often confusing behavior make for a character that you really want to know more about. And when you do find out her story... it's far from a pretty one.
Unfortunately, though the characters are amazing, the story surrounding them is less so. Underneath all of the complex layers of excellent writing and acting, the film's basic plot is really your basic romantic comedy fare, minus most of the comedy. Boy meets girl, boy and girl don't like each other at first, boy and girl eventually come to like each other, boy and girl get together, boy and girl discover some kind of conflict, boy and girl resolve conflict, boy and girl kiss. You can guess at almost everything that's going to happen before it does, which is common in a lot of low-rent romcoms, but you'd think a film like Sliver Linings Playbook would be above such things.
Silver Linings Playbook is worth a look. Its frank treatment of instability and relationships is commendable, and executed very well. Just don't expect a spectacular story to go along with it.
Friday, January 4, 2013
Thankfully, Tom Hooper knows how to handle musicals. And good thing, too, since the musical in question is the most famous of the modern age: Les Misérables. He proves that he earned his Oscar (in 2010, for The King's Speech), and by assembling a phenomenal all-star cast to sing Victor Hugo's immortal story, he creates something truly epic.
"Les Miz" is about many things and many people, so the most basic plot summary I could give is: Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a recently freed convict, whose only wrongdoings were (A) stealing a loaf of bread and (B) trying to escape prison, who has decided to create a better, more respectable life for himself. Under an assumed name, he becomes the mayor of a town, and witnesses a conflict inside a factory that results in a worker, Fantine (Anne Hathaway), being fired and thrown out. Fantine has an illegitimate daughter, Cosette (Isabelle Allen and Amanda Seyfried), whom she has been sending money to. In a desperate attempt to continue supporting Cosette, Fantine sells the few meager items she has and becomes a prostitute. She is eventually arrested, but is saved by Valjean- who realizes that the policeman arresting her is Javert (Russel Crowe), a former guard of Valjean's former prison. When Fantine dies in the hospital, Valjean becomes Cosette's caretaker, but throughout the years, he must constantly evade the pursuit of Valjean, as well as survive the June Rebellion- the infamous night in 1832, when Paris becomes aflood with insurgents against the king... one of whom has fallen in love with Cosette.
Like any narrative work, the story of a musical is important, but its true appeal lies in its music. How well the songs fit the mood, how they move the plot along, how memorable they are, and how well the actors sing them. It's no secret that Les Misérables is a good musical on the page, but even the greatest works of art require the proper treatment if one wants to translate them to the screen. If there's one surefire way to do it, it's the way Hooper has- by having the cast sing all of the songs live, as the scenes are being filmed. Usually, in a movie musical, actors record their songs before hand, and lip sync to them during filming. This does have its advantages. If the song's not being performed live, this allows the cinematographer to create many cuts and framings that can enhance the mood of the songs. But the real wonder of Les Misérables is that, by doing the opposite, the simple filming style increases the emotion of every song. If Hooper had gone for the standard movie-musical format... well, I don't think the film would have worked at all.
I don't want to buy the soundtrack album of this movie. Partly because I already have Les Miz's West End recording (and the original French concept album), but also because, without the visual component, the adaptation's music doesn't sound right. The notes are off, and the actors sometimes muffle or mumble their words in ways that don't make sense on an album. But when you see them as they sing, nothing sounds wrong. Although all of the actors have musical experience of some sort, some more so than others, the majority of them are primarily known more for their screen work. This is key. When the actors are free from both the expectations of a stage audience - the expectations of a passionate, technically perfect performance - and the comforting safety net of recording in a studio, they are suddenly required to not only sing, but act. Just singing about how you feel won't cut it in the up-close-and-personal world of movies; you've gotta sell it. And the whole cast isn't getting Oscar buzz for nothing.
Are you sick of hearing about how great Anne Hathaway is? Too bad! Because good lord is she amazing in Les Misérables. If her preparation for the role (she lost over 25 pounds so as to appear sickly and near death) wasn't enough evidence, her performance shows us that she has essentially become Fantine. I sobbed right along with her- she doesn't do much else, but given her horrific circumstances, you can't blame her. We've already seen it in the advertising, but her performance of "I Dreamed a Dream", the beloved Susan Boyle anthem, can't be spoken highly of enough. Through a single, static shot of her face, Hathaway weeps through the song while still miraculously maintaining her vocal range, and more than any other singer before her, embodies every word of the song in voice and image. Fantine dies within the first 1/4th of the movie, but you never forget her.
Not to say that the rest of the cast isn't fantastic. You'd expect nothing less but perfection from Hugh Jackman, and perfection is what you get- his Valjean may, as with Hathaway's, become the definitive performance. Russell Crowe has been criticized in some circles for having a rougher, less clean voice than his castmates, but I think it suits Javert's calm yet ruthless character- and of course, being Russell G. D. Crowe, he still acts the hell out of it. Cosette is, unfortunately, not an especially defined character, but Amanda Seyfried has a natural charm about her that gives her a little bit more weight. And as for her younger counterpart, Isabelle Allen, I must say that she amazes me. Not only is she a good singer, but she also has an uncanny resemblance to that famous engraving of Cosette, so prominently featured on the Les Miz musical's advertisements (and replicated impeccably by Allen for the film's, as seen above). So excellent is she that, after filming wrapped, the West End production actually cast her in the exact same role! Congrats to her, and I hope she has a future in performing.
Quite possibly the sole complaint I could make about the entire production is the relationship between Cosette and Marius. Even then, it's a small complaint: it's the way they meet. That is, if you could call it a "meeting". The two casually spot each other on the street, without even a word from each other, and yet in the next scene, each sings about how they are awed by, and in love with, the other. Amanda Seyfried and Eddie Redmayne are good enough actors that they sell the ensuing relationship (their duet, "A Heart Full of Love", is lovely), but I never really got over how strangely obsessed they became after a single glance. Love At First Sight is a cliché that's fairly common, especially in Victor Hugo's day, but you'd think an author of his stature would be above such melodrama. And in any case, it simply makes no sense when viewed in the modern day.
For being a novel that's 1400 pages long, Les Misérables is remarkably well-suited to being adapted into a 165-minute movie. Most of the plot doesn't feel condensed or abrupt; in fact, it feels like there's plenty of breathing room to spare, to fill up with pretty camerawork and deliberate pacing. The emotional impact of the story is squeezed out of every inch of the movie- one of the most beautiful shots is the very first, that of a tattered French flag floating in the ocean. Given how often a nation's flag is used for symbolic reasons, the metaphor is pretty obvious, but that doesn't make it any less cool.
Go see Les Misérables. You probably already did, but it never hurts to see something twice. Assuming you haven't seen it twice already... Or three times... or four...
Wednesday, January 2, 2013
But this dumb idea just may have worked out after all. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey may be only the first third of a single story, but it doesn't actually feel that way. Instead, it stands on its own. It really is the first movie in a trilogy, not the first incomplete fragment of a single film.
Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit of the title, lives a peaceful, quiet life in the rather small hobbit community of the Shire. He's fond of food, relaxation, and visitors- but not adventure. Oh, certainly not adventure! Alas, adventure finds him, in the form of a wise old wizard named Gandalf and a band of 13 dwarves. The dwarves, led by one Thorin Oakenshield, are out to reclaim their gold and land from Smaug, a nasty dragon that stole it from them many years prior. Hobbits are naturally small and quick creatures, so Gandalf is convinced that Bilbo would make the perfect "burglar" to help them steal back the riches. At first, Bilbo balks... but the lure of a new experience wins him over, and he finds himself running off to join the quest.
The real heart of Tolkien's universe isn't the beautiful locales or the exotic creatures, though those certainly are cool- it's the many (many, many, many...) distinct characters, with their own detailed journeys, quirks, and depths. The Lord of the Rings films did a wonderful job of portraying a variety of interesting people, and so does The Hobbit. Martin Freeman, best known as Watson in The BBC's Sherlock, was perfectly cast for the role of Bilbo, especially the Bilbo that we see in the film. In Tolkien's novel, Bilbo felt like a crotchety old man with all his griping and grouching, and was a real load. Until he found the ring, he was of no use at all to the dwarves. The movies, by contrast, portray him more like an awkward twentysomething- he rarely knows just what he's supposed to be doing or saying, and handles himself poorly along the way. Freeman has portrayed this sort of character in the past, and does it well here - the initial scene, where Bilbo stands frozen in disbelief as a dozen strangers trash his house, is especially hilarious - but the really interesting part is how we see Bilbo mature and evolve into something more. He's barely able to ride his pony at the beginning, but by the end, we've seen him outsmart dangerous monsters, traverse hundreds of miles with nary a scratch on him, and leap into the field of battle to protect his comrades. It's a side of the character you don't expect to see, but once you do, it's greatly satisfying.
Ian Holm, who portrayed Bilbo in the Rings trilogy, also appears, as a 60-years-older version of the hobbit that narrates the story. Holm has a great voice, like an old Oxford scholar, and he's the perfect choice for the narrator of a fairy tale like this one. Holm isn't the only Ian to reprise his role from the last trilogy. There's also Sir Ian - Sir Ian McKellen - as Gandalf, who still has all of the charm and wittiness that we saw of him in Lord of the Rings. Unfortunately, he really doesn't have much to do in this one. For the most part, Gandalf stands around, looking wise, occasionally saying smart things, and disappearing for long stretches, only to return just in time to get the cast out of a bad scrape. Granted, that's the same way that he was portrayed in the book- but that was one of the book's bigger flaws! And it doesn't help that McKellen seems distressingly old in An Unexpected Journey- his voice is scratchy and occasionally mumbling, and he moves a lot slower than he did only a decade prior. It's still a pretty good performance, but it also served to remind me of the mortality of a really great actor- and it makes me sad.
Despite the greatly-expanded length of the story, Jackson and co. apparently didn't think to give any more development to the company of dwarves, who are all completely indistinct and mostly unmemorable. I honestly can't remember most of their names (it doesn't help that many of them are very similar- there's a Nori, a Dori, AND an Ori), and the attempts to give them any sort of distinct personality traits are quite weak. It'd have been nice to see more of them. The only real exception is the leader, Thorin, played by Richard Armitage. Thorin is the grandson of a dwarf king, and he defeated the great Orc leader Azog in a massive battle to reclaim the dwarves' gold. Obviously, the quest failed, but it made for a great battle scene that showed off Thorin's deterministic spirit and status as an excellent fighter. I really felt for Thorin and his cause throughout the film, and he's practically the second protagonist next to Bilbo. And what a great co-protagonist he is!
But yet again, the guy who really steals the show is that good old skinny freak, Gollum. Andy Serkis returns to voice and motion-capture him (in, sadly, only one scene), and it's awesome to just see him again. Gollum's game of riddles with Bilbo is fun to watch, for the thrill of watching the two characters bounce off of each other for a while- and you're given enough time to try and solve the riddles yourself, which is a nice bonus. Serkis is a remarkable actor, and he gives Gollum an impressive amount of character and personality in his limited screen time. When Gollum suddenly goes from scowling anger to cheerily announcing that, if Bilbo doesn't win their game, then "we eats it whole!", it's really funny. Serkis has already won a sizable amount of awards for his work- which is a real testament to his enormous talent, considering how rarely voice and mo-cap actors are given any respect at all.
While Gollum's cameo is welcome (and necessary), others are... not so much. See, in expanding The Hobbit and turning it into a trilogy prequel to Lord of the Rings, Jackson decided to bring back classic characters from that trilogy, such as Christopher Lee's Saruman and Cate Blanchett's Galadriel. I suppose it's neat to see them again, but their jarringly brief appearances are superflous, existing only to forward a subplot foreshadowing the return of Sauron- which is also superflous! It's exciting, I suppose, to witness the first rumblings of Rings' story, but it's also unnecessary. The Hobbit is about the hobbit! Not the adventures that come after his!
One thing that has been buzzed about regarding The Hobbit is its use of 48 Frames Per Second. This means that it's been filmed at twice the frame rate that the majority of movies are shot in (24 Frames Per Second). It allows for a heavy amount of detail, and for a visual look that closer resembles real life- or, as some other critics have criticized, a TLC reality show. I saw An Unexpected Journey in 2D and in 24 Frames Per Second, so I can't comment on those elements- but I can certainly say that it's quite obvious that it was meant to be seen that way. The battle scenes, when shown at 24 FPS, look a bit jerky and unnatural, as if it's been sped up. The 2D conversion really doesn't work either. Many foreground or background elements seem unusually flat, and it feels like you're watching a 3D movie with one eye closed. It's quite a shame, because for the most part, the special effects are spectacular.
The first part of The Hobbit has some problems, relating mostly to extraneous technical or storyline additions. But it's also a very fun movie, and one you won't regret seeing. Bring on Part 2!
Friday, December 14, 2012
Yes, the central concept of Rise of the Guardians - that of a superhero team consisting of various childhood fables - is so brilliant and full of potential that it's really astounding that no one has tried it before. And with an artist like William Joyce involved (the film is based on his Guardians of Childhood book series), you'd have every reason to expect great things. Well, we've received good things, certainly good things, but a fair share of bad things, too. Rise is good enough for me- but with all the potential it has, it's a bit of a disappointment.
The Guardians of Childhood are a group of world-renowned folk heroes who have been chosen by the Man in the Moon to protect the sanctity and purity of children. The team, for hundreds of years, has consisted of Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, the Easter Bunny, and the Sandman - the "Big Four" - but the Man has finally decided on a fifth: Jack Frost. Frost and the Guardians aren't the only mythological creatures out there, but to have the powers of a Guardian requires children to believe in you. If kids don't believe, you have no such power. This is bad news for Jack, who's long been forgotten by the world. And the world is about to get much worse- a sinister, feared presence, also long forgotten, has appeared to make his mark, and he aims to destroy the Guardians and all that they have worked for.
Rise of the Guardians is a winner based on the art alone. So much imagination went into every single scrap of the Guardians, and it's a sight to behold. Santa's Workshop is filled with toys, elves, and Yetis bustling around and mingling in fun and amusing ways; the Tooth Fairy's castle is run like a bustling business, with little helper-fairies scrambling all across the world to obtain lost teeth; and the Easter Bunny's warren is covered in beautiful and vibrant colors, where Easter eggs grow from flowers (!) and the rivers run in every hue of the rainbow. The Sandman doesn't have a domain, but he does have sand, and what incredible sand! Anyone who knows much about animation understands how incredibly difficult it is to even draw sand on a computer, but Dreamworks has created sand that dances, floats, and flies about in all directions, and it's gorgeous. Jack Frost, similarly, is a wanderer, and he controls snow and ice. Both of these are just as hard to animate, but once again, it's achieved with flying colors. Jack performs some impressive feats with the ice, molding it, controlling it, and drawing on it, but it never stops looking real. At the film's very beginning, where Jack breaks through a frozen lake and it crumbles into fragments around him, it looked so real and so beautiful that I teared up. I really did! And that wasn't even the only time the gorgeous animation moved me so.
Now, with a hero team made up of folk icons like these, there's only one possible choice for their arch-nemesis: the Boogeyman! And, yes, our villain in the film is indeed the Boogeyman... or as they inexplicably insist on calling him most of the time, "Pitch Black". Unfortunately, the otherwise limitless imagination of the film's art design staggers to a complete standstill when it comes to him. While the Guardians have beautifully designed homes and abilities, Pitch is depressingly simple, just a tall man with grey skin and a black coat. His lair is similarly bland- it's just a dark basement with a bunch of cages. The really sad thing is, the Boogeyman is quite possibly the only character of the group that allows complete artistic freedom. While the Guardians each have common depictions or simple requirements that limit the ways they can be designed (Tooth Fairy has to be winged and colorful, Santa has to be a fat old man in red, Easter Bunny has to be a rabbit, etc.), there is absolutely no limitations on what the Boogeyman could look like. I mean, go ahead- name me a physical trait of the Boogeyman! You can't! There was so much they could go with here, especially since Pitch is supposed to be the very embodiment of a child's fears. Is a middle-aged Edward Cullen lookalike really the best they could come up with?
Oh, and his minions are just a limitless horde of black horses made of dream dust. "Night Mares", see? Har dee har har.
Easily the weakest part of Rise is its screenplay. Taken on its own merits, it's junk! Most attempts at comedic dialogue fall flat, there's an abundance of cliché lines, and the story structure is sophomoric. I was able to accurately quote entire lines of dialogue, despite having never seen the film before (the villain's annoyingly standard "join me, hero!" scene happens, in the most predictable way possible. And guess how the hero responds!). The plot feels unfocused, and sometimes seems to be structured more like a miniseries than a movie. One 10-minute plot thread has the Guardians helping the Tooth Fairy to help her with her job, and it all goes swimmingly. The next 10 minutes have them trying to save Easter. The next 10, Jack's trying to discover his past. There is no real overarching journey of any kind- or at least, not a physical journey. The intended storyline is basically your standard "Hero's Journey" for Jack, where we're supposed to see him move past his own doubts in himself and become a real hero. The only problem is, this is rather botched. It's not made clear that Jack is insecure about himself, only that he isn't interested in joining a group. This fits his established status as a drifter, and the concept that he's looking for answers in life is only directly informed to us by other characters as they speak to him. The film's climax is disappointing, as despite the global consequences at stake, the final battle is confined to a single small area, and it's over in quite a short period of time.
Rise's is saved, partially by the animation, and partially by the spirit and drive of the cast. Some surprising choices are made, but they all work amazingly. Alec Baldwin is Santa, who has a Russian accent, and yet after the initial surprise wears off, this fits him perfectly. Hugh Jackman is the Easter Bunny, and while his accent is unexpectedly based on a stereotypical Australian (Jack even calls him the "Easter Kangaroo"), it actually fits with his rugged-adventurer personality. Isla Fisher's cute and friendly voice sounds perfect for a fairy, and Chris Pine gives Jack a young, roguish tone that's befitting of Captain Kirk himself. Even Pitch, a bland character as far as design goes, is made at least somewhat interesting by Jude Law's dark, imposing interpretation.
Rise of the Guardians, if nothing else, may go down in my mental history books as the only mediocre movie I've ever actually cried at. If you're like me, and are a fan of animation or appreciate art and character design a great deal, then this is one movie you definitely should see. If you prefer plot, then there's not much to recommend.
Wednesday, November 14, 2012
After the confusing world-saving/personal-revenge conundrum that was the plot of 2008's Quantum of Solace, this new film wisely dials back on the scale. This time around, it's not the entire world that's threatened, but MI6, Bond's employer. Many in England's government are now beginning to believe that MI6 is incompetent, outdated, and no longer necessary- and it doesn't help that 007, by far their best agent, is believed to be dead after a mishap during his last assignment. Things get worse when Silva, a former agent of MI6, begins blackmailing, exposing, and killing other operatives in a personal attempt to humiliate M, the head of the operation. But, of course, James Bond is alive and well, and he returns just in time- but Silva is a manipulative villain, and to stop him, Bond will have to confront his own past in addition to M's.
A common complaint of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, Daniel Craig's first two outings as Bond, was that their gritty tone and emphasis on realism & character development clashed badly with the fun-filled formulaic stories of their predecessors. Well, I believe those critics have now been satisfied. Though Skyfall still has the successful tone, style, and personality of the prior films, it also brings back a lot of the fun, and resurrects some the Bond franchise's clichés with fresh twists that work very well with the Craig films' style. Silva is very much the wisecracking supervillain that we expect from a Bond bad guy, but he's got some depth to him: his backstory, where he was abandoned by MI6 and tortured to the point of attempted suicide, is incredibly tragic; and he has the deformity that's required of most Bond villains, but it's far more hidden, and far more horrific, than anyone who's come before him. As for other classic tropes, like Q, Moneypenny, shaken (not stirred) martinis, "Bond... James Bond", the Aston Martin, the distinctive MI6 headquarters, that iconic inside-the-gunbarrel shot... well, without spoiling too much, I can definitely tell you that you'll have seen them all return by the end credits.
The cast of Skyfall is made up entirely of pure talent. At this point, we all know that Daniel Craig is a great Bond and Judi Dench is a great M, but this film is the first to show the true depths of the characters and, by extension, the way their actors portray them. Bond is noticeably warmer in this film than in the last two, more prone to quips & smart remarks, and showing genuine caring for some people- quite a bit closer to the James we all know and love. Again, I don't want to spoil anything, but the location of Skyfall's denouement - and the source of the film's title - has a personal connection to Bond, and it reveals a deep side of him that we have never seen before. M, so long before a stern and imposing figure, has more tenderness to her here, with a heartrending scene in the beginning where she tries to write Bond's obituary, and a climax that she spends injured and in pain- giving her some rare vulnerability.
The villain, Silva (Javier Bardem), is one of the most entertaining bad guys of any movie released this year. He's devilishly clever, even more witty than Bond himself, and is somehow able to be both creepy and funny at the exact same time. Witness a scene where he suggestively comes on to Bond, opening up his legs, putting his hand on Bond's knee, and remarking, "There's always a first time for everything, isn't it?" It'd be disturbing, but his behavior makes it funny, and Bond's response ("What makes you think it's the first time?") defuses it into hilarity. And when Silva's not funny or scary, he's... sad. Throughout the film, Silva tells several stories of his past, and they are uniformly depressing, showing a lonely and abusive life. The fact that he describes them with the same passive, mildly amused expression as always makes them all the worse.
Bond's less alone than usual, as he has a wide array of other MI6 members backing him and M up (CIA member Felix Leiter is a no-show this time around). Eve (Naomie Harris), another agent and Bond's partner for the movie's first half, is a great character, showing just as much fortitude as Bond in the field, but displaying a lot more enjoyment and humor in her work. Once you find out just who she is, Eve becomes even cooler. Q makes his debut in the new series with Skyfall, and rather than the foppish old man of the prior continuity, our new Q is a young and handsome geek (Ben Wishaw), with lots of enthusiasm but also some inexperience and naivete. Neither he nor Ralph Fiennes' character, Mallory, show up much, and thus they don't have much depth, but they do make up an interesting, important part of the plot.
You wouldn't expect Sam Mendes, who has previously directed only quiet dramas, to be particularly skilled at directing action movies, but he sure as hell is. Every big scene in Skyfall is memorable, from a fight atop a collapsing train, to a fistfight inside a Chinese gambling ring, to a massive shootout on the grounds of... well. You'll see for yourself. The scenes are filmed well, giving us enough time to understand what's going on while still keeping us on the edge of our seats. Just as importantly, every one of these scenes also has a tinge of humor to it, which adds a ton of personality and keeps things from getting too gritty, even if danger's at its peak.
Special mention ought to go to Adele's theme song for the film, also called "Skyfall". Ordinarily a film's opening credits aren't really something important to mention in a review, but Bond movies have always prided themselves on far-out, psychedelic openings with superstar singers, and "Skyfall" ranks among the absolute best of the entire franchise. If there was anyone out there who was born to sing a James Bond theme, it's the soft, sultry Adele, and wow! She pulls it off! The cryptic and vague lyrics, combined with some astounding visuals (such as guns turning into gravestones or some remarkable images created from "blood" moving through "water"), put this Bond song (this "Bong"? ...no, let's not) right up there with "Goldfinger", "Live and Let Die", "A View to a Kill", and Casino Royale's "You Know My Name".
I've spent nearly all of this review comparing Skyfall to its 22 predecessors. That was inevitable. Everyone has seen a James Bond movie, or at least seen a parody, homage, or summary, and there's no way to look at any new ones without also looking back on one's memories of the old. In that respect, Skyfall succeeds wonderfully, blending classic Bond with a brand new style, but the really interesting thing is how well the film succeeds on its own. You could sit through all of Skyfall without having ever seen another James Bond movie, and you would never be lost or confused. So, basically, this is a movie for absolutely everyone. So go see it!