April 30, 2015
The Avengers: Age of Ultron
Another Marvel movie, another opening night, and at long last another review for my long dormant review blog. I went in to Age of Ultron fairly confident that it was a good movie because people whose opinions I trust had already seen it and confirmed that it was in the top four or five marvel movies with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy and the first Avengers movie. At the same time, however, there was this nagging worry at the back of my mind that perhaps the weight of the franchise is getting too great for any movie to hold it up. As is almost the refrain when reviewing a Marvel movie at this point though it was true once more: there inevitably must be a film in this universe that disappoints, but this one is not it.
There is NO WAY that this movie should work. It is the result of an enormous production machine with so many moving parts that it’s hard to even conceive how vast the enterprise is. It was in pre-production before Winter Soldier was done filming. During the closing credits I stopped counting after the 7th or 8th FX production house was listed. Many of the action beats must have been mapped out and already in production long before the plot was finalized. The Marvel Cinematic universe as a whole is the filmic equivalent of the pyramids at Giza: an edifice so intimidatingly huge that it’s almost impossible to believe it was crafted by human hands.
Beyond all of that though there’s the scale of this movie alone to consider. The MCU has reached a scale where its tentpole movies have tentpoles. This Avenger’s film caps the second wave of films bringing the crew back together for another round of world-saving, sure, but it also has to lay the groundwork for the third wave. We have plenty of returning heroes. There’s Iron Man, Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Black Widow and Hawkeye. The first Avenger movie established that this team could work in a film, so it’s no surprise that for this movie they are a joy to watch as they battle foes and banter amongst each-other. But add to all these folks several other bit players from previous films and three new super powered individuals and you have a formula for disaster. How can you possibly have so many characters in one film, providing each with at least a couple well-timed quips and a chance to show off their powers, and not have it simply collapse under its own weight?
Part of it is that the movie doesn’t give itself time to sag. From the in-media-rez opening battle (which feels like it contains more action in one scene than the entire first Captain America movie – particularly since it so deliberately echoes the tone of some of Cap’s escapades) to its far larger than life city destroying ending there’s hardly a moment when some kind of adventure isn’t going on. Even the more quiet moments serve double duty moving the plot forward and giving us some greater insight into the Avengers as a team and as individuals to better set the stakes for the inevitable big showdown.
The one exception is a vital piece of quiet before the storm just before the start of the third act that provides some of the best character development so far for a couple of the least utilized parts of the team. The surprising heart of the movie is the non-powered Clint Barton/Hawkeye who here shows that he’s perhaps more of a hero than most of his companions because he’s not super at all – just pretty damned good with a bow and arrows. Black Widow also gets some much needed backstory during this lull and shows herself both to be more human and more frighteningly competent at her particular skillset.
The other thing that saves this film from itself is the titular villain. Ultron has many of the best moments in the film because he’s such a surprisingly human foe. He’s such a startlingly honest, simple, and almost literally broken character that it’s hard not to feel some degree of sympathy for him. All this for a character that is entirely CGI. Add him to the list with Groot, Rocket, and Golem of startlingly touching characters rendered almost entirely in a computer.
I only just saw the movie a couple hours ago so I’m not going to make any sweeping statements about its lasting merit or how well it will hold up with time, but on that first viewing I was not disappointed. It has references for Marvel fans that hint at things to come. It has plenty of amazing action. It has touching moments of character development. Ultimately it did its job and left me wanting more. Oh, and it left me wanting that “hulkbuster” Lego set. I wish that wasn’t sold out.
When I was in second grade all the children in the yard during recess were Jedis, Smugglers or Princesses. This year I predict that every second grader at recess will be a Jaeger Pilot. Fantasy/horror artour and filmic visionary Guillermo Del Torro has wonderfully crafted the perfect fantasy adventure for this generation, and it was a delight to see what he can do with a truly big budget summer blockbuster.
Like Star Wars back in my youth this is a familiar feeling fantasy adventure that takes fondly remembered tropes and vividly re-creates them with a giant budget and the best visual technology of the modern day, except that whereas Star Wars was an homage to the sci-fi serials of bygon days (particularly Flash Gordon) with a smattering of Samurai thrown in (mostly The Hidden Fortress) this movie takes its inspiration from the Japanese Kaiju monster movies that I so loved as a child and the many Mecha anime that came from that same country. It’s easy to see Godzilla, Rodan, Neon Genesis, Big O, and so many other familiar things that contributed to this movie.
The whole project has a familiar and well worn feel to me. The plot (involving a dimensional rift under the Pacific Ocean that unleashes giant monsters on the world and the giant mechanical warriors the world builds in response) offers nothing particularly revolutionary or new. The one gimmick that really sets it apart is a clunky bin of whimsy that has it established that piloting a giant robot (a Jaeger in the world’s parlance) is too taxing a job for a single human being so two or more pilots must work in tandem to fight effectively. This makes no logical sense, but it drives the plot and stresses the whole “only together can we win” feel of the film. Really, if to demand logical sense from a movie about giant monsters and robots beating each-other up this might not be the movie for you.
It IS, however, the movie for me. For anybody who wants a simple summer smash-em-up with a kind heart and a familiar tone. It’s very appeal to me lies in its simplicity.
Amanda and I have a large collection of “comfort movies” that we can turn to after a stressful day. Films like The Princess Bride or Buckaroo Banzai that we can put on any time and watch again and again. So simple and familiar are the plot and characters of Pacific Rim that I felt as though it was a comfort movie on my very first viewing. All these people are so instantly familiar. The hard-nosed military commander with a heart. The capable but insecure co-pilot with a mysterious past. The head-strong young pilot who fights with the protagonist but will come to depend on him. Even the characters themselves at times seem to know exactly how the world they inhabit works, as when the disillusioned pilot who is Earth’s last hope flat out asks his commander why he is not paired with the candidate that is CLEARLY most qualified.
Even on that first viewing this movie felt like coming home. It’s like Del Torro drifted into my mind and made a movie for that seven year old kid who used to try to use the force to move rocks on the playground. A riotous delightful celebration of everything that epitomizes cool and awesome. I mean. Giant monsters fighting giant robots. What more do you need?
August 19, 2012
Malibu Shark Attack
According to Marian Call it is Shark Week again (just try getting that song out of your head!) Even though we’re not doing our movie a day project any more we couldn’t let this special week go by without watching a cheesy shark movie. It’s an annual tradition.
Today’s movie is one we actually wanted to watch last year, but it wasn’t out yet on DVD at the time. Amanda had tuned through part of it one morning and called out to me from the living room. “Andy! You’ve got to see this fake CGI wave!” It quickly became apparent as she watched that this movie was an almost perfect amalgam of all the shark movie tropes we’ve come to love after all the awful movies we’ve watched.
Paper-thin two dimensional characters that nobody cares about? Check. Badly computer animated pre-historic sharks released by a natural disaster? Oh, yeah. Sections of the score and even some of the action blatantly ripping off (or paying “homage” to) parts of Jaws? You’d better believe it. In fact I don’t think there’s an original moment in this entire movie – which is why it made such perfect viewing tonight.
Our shark attack victims are the workers at a lifeguard station on a beach in Malibu. There’s the hunky young guy (who look like Casper Van Dien and Neil Patrick Harris had a baby and sounds like he struggling not to let his Australian accent creep through.) There’s an annoying and prone to hysterical screaming teenaged girl who is doing community service cleaning the beach. There’s the ruggedly handsome ex-Navy Seal, his ex-girlfriend with the gravelly voice, and her new ruggedly handsome beau who is doing an overhaul on some beachfront property. There’s the gruff foreman in charge of the home update team. There’s the Science-minded lifeguard who is working on her doctorate (in marine biology of course) and her brand new fiance. And a few other pieces of shark-food who hardly even have names much less characters.
During the opening credits we are treated to a computer animated underwater volcano (which puzzled me greatly because you wouldn’t think it would be hard to license some stock footage) and inter-cut with all the establishing our characters stuff is a series of shots that imply some sharks are going to attack. Oh, and a whole lot of young women in bikinis. (Apparently this all takes place in a Logan’s Run style dystopia where nobody is allowed to live past thirty years old, and for some reason most of the male population of the planet has been wiped out because there are probably five women on this beach to every man.)
The character establishing stuff drags on a little too long – especially given how little there really is to establish – but soon enough we get to the actual movie as a couple divers and a para-sailer are gruesomely killed by the dreadfully animated sharks. Soon the poorly animated sharks are joined by a hilariously poorly animated tidal wave and our gathering of survivors are stranded in their life-guard shack and half-renovated home with water all around and no hope of rescue. Then it’s just a matter of waiting to see who gets eaten first and how many poor souls make it through the night alive.
This movie is embarrassingly awful. By the end I was feeling bad for the actors trapped in the movie far more than for the characters they were portraying. They give it a really good try, but there’s just not much to work with here – even by made-for-TV disaster movie standards. The sharks (which we are told are fast enough to overtake a jet ski) move slower most of the time than their prey who are hip-deep in water. The animation looks laughable and is frequently recycled.
I will take back, though, my earlier comment about there being nothing original in this movie. I don’t think I have ever seen a movie where people chop up sharks with power tools – that was hilarious and fun to watch. I won’t say this movie was as wonderfully awful as Sharks in Venice – or that it was as fun to watch as Sharktopus – but it is, at least, exactly what we were expecting to see when we put it in. A low budget by-the-numbers shark attack movie. Perfect for Shark Week.
One might notice, having looked at the most recent posts here, that while Andy has posted a few reviews of things he’s watched since we finished the main collection, I haven’t even put up placeholders. This is because of two things: 1. I am still somewhat burned out on review-writing (working on the old ones though, so I will finish) and 2. I do not plan on watching everything he’s bought since we finished the main collection.
In fact, I will admit here that there’s a handful of movies we owned already that I finally flat out refused to watch. A couple were things I simply had no interest in. One was something I knew would make me horribly depressed and one was something I had already told Andy I never wanted to see, but then he bought it anyhow. By the time we were nearing the end of the original list, we’d gotten to the point where we were watching a number of things I’d never have otherwise put on my television screen. Depressing movies about sad people, for the most part. Apparently Andy went through a phase of buying depressing dramas. Given that I know I won’t enjoy watching them, why put myself through that? Sure, I’ll appreciate the artistry of a good drama, but that’s not always enough for me to justify spending two hours watching it if the end effect is me feeling like crap for a few days afterward. So when Andy then bought a couple of things I knew I wasn’t interested in, I decided to just let it go. I’ve seen an enormous number of movies. We certainly don’t own every movie I’ve ever watched and we own a lot. I accomplished my original goal of justifying the vast piles of DVDs stacked in our apartment and I’ll get the rest of my reviews written eventually. I’ll post a review of the Lou Ferrigno Hercules and I’ll likely review some of the other things we buy in the future, but no, I won’t be watching or reviewing Scott Pilgrim and in his review Andy pretty much hit the nail on the head as to why.
And I’m okay with that.
June 9, 2012
There is nobody on the planet who knows how to make a better action movie than Robert Rodriguez. He has a very pure sense of the melodramatic zeitgeist of low budget gorefest good times. His half of the Grindhouse film he made with Quentin Tarantino was a prime example. Planet Terror was a rollicking good time filled with over-the-top moments and with a fantastic sense of self-aware humor. In the middle of Grindhouse, as part of the faux seventies flavor of the film, there were a couple of make-believe trailers for films that didn’t exist – and one of them was for the gore filled revenge film “Machete.” Let’s start there: that trailer absolutely rocks.
The trailer played out the plot of a formulaic grindhouse action film that seemed instantly familiar. It was a Charles Bronson style revenge film. A “They should have made sure he was dead” plot about a deadly man with nothing to lose hunting down the men who set him up as the fall guy in an assassination attempt. It was was filled with awesome action and humor moments. Machete leaping out a window of a high rise hanging from a rope and smashing through the window beneath that. Cheech Marin as a vengeful priest. Machete on a motorcycle with a minigun mounted between the handlebars riding out of a giant fireball. I don’t know anybody who saw that preview who didn’t immediately want to see the actual movie (which, of course, didn’t even exist – which was the whole joke.)
The challenge Rodriguez had when he decided to expand that ultra-awesome trailer into a feature film was to find a way to put all those iconic story beats from the trailer into a coherent whole and deliver on the promise of the preview. Unfortunately I have to admit that in many ways it doesn’t feel to me that the film is as much fun as the trailer. It’s clever and entertaining but it also feels watered down, burdened by its own plot and constrained by the compromise of trying to work within the restraints of what was already established about the film by the faux-preview.
What appears to be the biggest problem is that Rodriguez hasn’t made the movie the preview was about. The preview was for a totally cliche seventies revenge film. That’s what I was gleefully anticipating when I bought this DVD. The movie starts out really strong in this mode with a hilariously gore-filled pre-credits sequence showing Machete as a federal agent in Mexico on a one-man rampage against a local drug lord as he storms a hideout in an attempt to rescue a girl (who it is implied is maybe his long lost daughter?) She betrays him and he has to watch helplessly as both she and his wife are killed by the drug kingpin (played fantastically by Steven Seagal attempting a Mexican accent) and Machete is left for dead in a burning building. Everything about this pre-credits bit delivers on the promise of the preview – perfectly catching the feel of the Grindhouse aesthetic from the deliberately poor editing to the cheesy blood spurting special effects to the gratuitous nudity. This was the movie I was looking forward to watching.
After the credits, though, it becomes an entirely different beast. The movie becomes one about the plight of Mexican immigrants in the southwestern US. The bad guys are not so much the evil Mexican drug lord (though he does still play a part) but are a corrupt senator, a group of racist redneck militiamen, and an evil political adviser. I can totally see where Rodriguez is going with this movie – and I respect it and want to see that film. It’s almost a companion piece to Once Upon a Time in Mexico – with its populist uprising against entrenched corruption theme. It just never quite works with the premise laid out in the pre-credit sequence or the trailer. It’s as though Machete got somehow transported out of his own movie and inserted into a completely different film. The real hero of this movie is the revolutionary leader Luz who by day helps immigrants get papers and jobs from her taco truck and by night runs the “network” to give a better life to the downtrodden. Michelle Rodriguez Is fun to watch in the role, and the real pivotal moment of the film for me is when she finally takes up the role of the mythical “She” – a legend she has created to inspire the people. I would totally have watched THAT movie – a kind of female Zorro film. But instead it has to be contorted to fit all the moments from the Machete preview into it. There’s a clash between these two movies that are trying to co-exist, and as a result both are weakened.
Another weakness of the movie is that it feels a little worn out in places. There are some scenes that feel as though they are recycled and re-purposed from other Rodriguez films. There’s the shootout in the girlfriend’s home that cribs from El Mariachi. There’s the assault on the church that feels as though it’s the same scene from Once Upon a Time in Mexico. Even the climactic battle in the redneck compound feels like a watered down version of the populist uprising that caps Once Upon a Time. It was always fun to see Machete finding new ways to stab badguys (and there are a couple great moments – like when he steers a car from the back seat by twisting the machete he’s stabbed into the driver) but that’s not quite enough to really make the movie work.
There’s also the matter of Machete’s supposed love interest. Jessica Alba plays a good hearted but misguided immigrations and customs agent who is investigating Luz and the network. There is much talk of how she is “betraying her own people” and she has a sort of smeared in shoe-polish look that is meant to imply that she’s Mexican but it really, really didn’t work for me. Okay, so Amanda informs me that she does have Mexican heritage, but in the film she appears about as Mexican as Charlton Heston. Some of the stunt casting in the movie is a lot of fun, like Steven Seagal as the drug lord or Robert DeNiro as the southern senator (one of my favorite bits of his is when he drops his southern drawl and admits that he’s not even from those parts and doesn’t even like it there) but Alba never worked for me. There’s also no chemistry whatsoever between Alba and the always awesome Danny Trejo. One of the recurring jokes of the plot is that all the women in the film fawn over Machete and throw themselves at him. He, in turn sort of stoically and resignedly gives in to their advances. I like the humor of a hero who is not so much a womanizer as cursed with irresistible animal magnetism – and I see potential there for some pathos even since he’s lost everyone he ever loved, but it does not make for any kind of romantic sub-plot. And yet the movie tries to imply that there is a romance there. Very odd.
Ultimately my biggest complaint about this movie is that it shows so much promise but can’t deliver on it. I see so much here that I really WANT to love. Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin have been almost running gags in Robert Rodriguez’s work – appearing in cameos and supporting roles in almost every one of his films. Here, finally, they get big leading roles, and I was all ready to cheer and gloat. That the movie doesn’t provide the thrills I was expecting based on the trailer and even based on the first ten minutes of the movie almost feels like a betrayal. In the end I didn’t feel that Machete got his revenge for the death of his wife – even if all the bad guys ultimately did end up dead. Maybe my expectations were set too high – or were mis-directed by the promise of the trailer. Maybe it’s an impossible task to take a minute and a half of awesome iconic moments and build an hour and a half long movie out of them. This is not the movie I was hoping it would be though, and that left me feeling a little sad.
May 13, 2012
When Amanda and I attended Pax East last month we were treated to a new episode of Moviebob’s Big Picture that featured a movie we desperately needed to add to our collection. Go ahead – watch it for yourself. Before we even left the theater I had gone online to order this movie so it would be waiting for us when we got home. Today we found the perfect opportunity to watch it while visiting our friend A.
Even with Bob’s summary we found ourselves overwhelmed by this movie’s cheesy glory. As the movie began we were astonished and delighted to discover that the Peabody Award winning MST3K episode “Outlaw of Gor” blatantly stole its soundtrack from this movie. It adds so much to the experience of watching this when the music reminds you constantly of a Mystery Science Theater episode. Indeed I think a familiarity with MST Hercules movies in general enhances the viewing experience. As does a modicum of knowledge about the actual Greek myths that have virtually nothing whatsoever to do with this movie.
I’m used to movies playing somewhat fast and loose with mythology to make them more cinematic. I enjoy things like the Clash of the Titans movies for example. This film however only uses some names from Greek mythology and sticks them in a silly Italian Eighties sci-fi fantasy.
This film takes a long time to get going. Mostly because there’s so much unnecessarily silly mythology to explain. The prologue explains at length about the creation of the universe from chaos and the gods who live on the moon manipulating the world of men.
Lou Ferrigno stars as the mighty Hercules, who in this version of the tale is not son of Zeus but a kind of avatar of godly power transported into a human child and raised by adopted mortal parents. (I think it is cribbing from the very successful Superman movie there.)
When Herc’s parents are killed (one by a bear and one by a giant robot locust) he sets out into the world to find out why he is cursed with super strength and hunted by monsters. He eventually wins the love of the princess Casseiopea, who is promptly kidnapped by Areana, daugher of nefarious King Minos of Atlantis. Minos and his minion, the sexy alien Daedalus, are trying to overthrow the gods with science – or something.
One fantastic trait of this movie (one of too many to individually highlight) is the delightful level of acting on display. Lou is not by any stretch of the imagination a great actor, but his pure enthusiasm for the role is infectious. The collection of scantily clad Italians he is surrounded by deliver exactly the kind of heavily dubbed over-acting I’ve come to expect from such films. Add to the crazy wide-eyed capering some wonderfully Eighties costumes (some of which the ladies barely fit into) and some of the most delightfully cheesy “special effects” and you have a magical wonderland of a movie. The monsters Herc fights are all stop-motion-animated robots clearly designed for their appeal as toys for children. Everything in the movie sparkles and flashes with effects added in post. There’s a heavily over-used electronic synthesiser foley effect that is meant to imply that something magical is happening but which gave our friend A flashbacks to Xanadu. You can almost hear producers Golan and Globus in the meetings that the movie came from. “Superman is popular – let’s make our movie look like that. And have lots of Star Wars stuff in there too – like a glowing sword fight. The kids today love robots – lets have some of those in there and we’ll make a fortune selling little plastic toys!” The result? Hilarity!
Honestly I am astonished that until this year I didn’t even know this movie existed. It is so astonishingly and hilariously bad. Everything from the writing to the acting to the design to the effects is laughable. It has instantly become one of my favorite movies ever. Thank you Bob.
March 27, 2012
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
At Amanda’s request I held off on buying this movie until our daily movie project was concluded because she had no particular interest in watching it. Her primary objection at the time that it came out was that it was a Michael Cera movie, and there’s really no way to deny that. Michael Cera has a set character he plays that grates on Amanda (sort of like jack Black) and this movie is no different in that regard. He plays a whiny, introverted, passive aggressive bumbling idiot, and she just really doesn’t want to watch that for a whole movie. I, on the other hand, feel no particular ill will towards Cera or his persona and was intrigued by the advertising for this film, so I went and saw it in the theaters when it came out… alone.
I’m glad I did see it, too, because it’s a really great movie that is aimed with laser-like precision at me as a target demographic. It’s a slick, well put together and entertaining film about the awful things people in love do to each-other. Of course it’s based on an indie comic book, so you know I was obligated to buy it eventually. (I had not actually read any of the books until after seeing the movie, but I did buy a couple and read them post-film and found it astonishing how closely the film followed the books – at least for the ones I’ve read. I understand they diverge near the end.) The movie is also heavily steeped in the lore of video games, something that it less true of the books but something which is, in the parlance, “relevant to my interests.”
The plot concerns Scott Pilgrim, a Canadian twenty-something guy who is between jobs and plays in an indie band (called Sex Bob-omb which will make sense to anybody with as much grounding in the lore of Nintendo as me.) He’s a bit of a douche and has a lot of baggage from some traumatic break-up he went through about a year ago. The movie doesn’t shy away from the fact that it is due to this trauma that he’s not particularly nice. His rebound relationship is an innocent fling with a starry-eyed high-school girl named Knives Chow (she’s Chinese) and much is made by other characters in the movie about how inappropriate this fling is. It seems that only Scott himself doesn’t realize just how wrong it is (though it’s hinted that even he has misgivings.)
Scott is surrounded by a crowd of fun characters who like him are adrift in life. There are his bandmates – Stephen and Kim. There is Young Neil, who hangs out with the band and plays DS games. (Actually – it looks like he’s playing classic Game-boy games on his DS – there’s no cart in the DS slot and at one time you can see the game cart jutting out of the bottom. Either that or he’s a FILTHY PIRATE with a ROM cart!) There is his sensible older Sister and his gay roommate. All of them are pretty much foils to talk him through his angst when he finds himself falling head-over-heels for a mysterious American girl with cool hair who roller-blades through his dreams one day.
This girl is Ramona Flowers – sort of a younger hipper version of Clementine from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She, too has baggage from past relationships. Rather more dramatic baggage than Scott is quite prepared for. In fact her seven exes have banded together into a league of evil exes whom Scott must battle to win her love.
The videogame iconography in this movie is plentiful and amusing. From the chip-tunes re-rendering of the Universal studio intro to the boss battles with the league to the Nintendo soundtrack (you have to love that Zelda music) this is a movie that knows its gaming lore. At the same time it’s a movie that revels in its comic book roots. There are written sound effects, cartoon interludes using the art style of the original books and a feel at times of looking at comic book panels. Both of these themes are things that I revel in.
Add to the game and comic style a bunch of great cameo appearances. It’s not surprising, of course, to see Chris Evans in a comic book movie, but then there’s Thomas Jane in a short appearance which I hadn’t spotted the first time I watched the film. Then there’s Jason Schwartzman in a prominent role near the end that I don’t want to spoil because it’s one of the many cool twists and reveals throughout the plot. I loved seeing these folks hamming it up and clearly having a great time.
How did they get these great cameos in what is essentially a big budget indie film? I’m guessing that the influence of director Edgar Wright had something to do with it. Yes, this movie is directed by the maker of Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead. His distinctive quick editing style and fondness for clever cutting and misdirection is all over this film. It’s a movie that loves to catch you off-guard and tweak your expectations. It’s also perfect for the source material. If you mashed up High Fidelity, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 300 this is the movie you’d end up with. Gorgeous.
What’s more – I think I enjoyed it more the second time through. I’m so glad I own the film so I can watch it now whenever I want to (when Amanda’s not around that is.) My first impressions (posted here to my Live Journal) were that the characters were somewhat shallow and that especially Ramona was more a prize to be won than a character in her own right. On my viewing tonight I got a very different impression. This is a movie about how we hurt each-other and how we deal with baggage from past relationships. I went through a period of being lost and alone back in the early nineties and I remember the ill-advised romantic decisions I made at the time. This film is played for humor but has an honest heart that acted to remind me rather well of those times and emotions. Indeed it’s almost too close to comfort in some ways. Maybe in real life we don’t get in cataclysmic duals that punch holes in walls and tear the roofs off of buildings, but it can feel that way.
Like I said, this movie almost feels like it was made specifically with me in mind. Maybe that’s why it didn’t do as well as it might have deserved in the theaters. How many video-game and comic obsessed middle aged men are there out there who have the time on their hands to see a funny, touching and kind of poignant reflection on the foolhardy nature of young love? Not as many as you might think I suppose. If it sounds like that might be your kind of thing, however, I can’t recommend this movie highly enough.
March 13, 2012
The Adventures of TinTin
When I saw the early previews of this movie I was unconvinced. I have fond memories of reading the TinTin books as a child. My friend John in grade school had many of the books (probably all of them) and I remember waking up early whenever I spent the night at his house and devouring them in the silence before any of his family woke up. I loved the crazy characters and the high adventure. I loved the slapstick humor, the exotic locales and the great illustrations. When I heard that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were teaming up to make a pair of motion capture based animated films based on Herge’s books I was intrigued. I figured they would try to make the movies look like an animated comic book, and I wanted to see what it would look like.
Then I saw the previews and the character designs and I was filled with despair. What the film makers have created is a photo-realistic world with characters inhabiting it that are some kind of strange hybrid of realistic human and comic book caricature. They looked, to my eye, more creepy than funny and it made me fear that the film itself would be unable to capture the spirit I remembered of the books.
What amazed me when I put the movie in to watch this afternoon is how almost instantly I was able to become accustomed to the strange characters and accept them as the well remembered friends from those childhood days. Part of it is the opening credits, which are much more along the lines I at first imagined with an animated adventure that looks almost like the books come to life. Part of it is the clever way that Spielberg and company insert Herge himself into the film at the start, showing us clearly that the odd looking mutant with the hair horn and wide eyes really is the European boy reporter and adventurer from the books. Most of it, however, is seeing the characters in motion.
It’s in the performances and in the motion capture and in the animation. There’s a whimsy to this movie that is so very true to the source material. From the first moment Jamie Bell begins to speak I completely bought the character. There’s also some inspired casting here. I would never have spotted Thompson and Thomson as being Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (they completely inhabit the characters and are utterly unrecognisable) but knowing that it’s them adds something to the strangeness of the film.
The thing it took the longest for me to get used to was Andy Serkis’ performance as Captain Haddock. I never pictured Haddock with a Scottish accent, for one thing. For another it almost feels like Serkis is too good an actor for the role. Captain Haddock is a big, blustery caricature, but here Serkis manages to make him a nuanced, almost tragic figure at times. It’s a combination of the writing, the direction and the portrayal I suppose. It seems odd to me to make a drunken and bombastic tough guy the emotional core of the film, but that’s the way the film makers have gone. Perhaps if I were not familiar with the books at all I would not find it so jarring.
The plot itself is a mish-mash of familiar moments from several books. It involves a lost treasure, a mystery from the past and of course a lot of globe hopping adventure. There’s a nefarious bad guy, clues to be discovered and figured out, and it’s all somehow related to Haddock’s family history. A family history he cannot remember because of his constant drinking.
It’s not a terribly complex plot, nor does it need to be. It’s swashbuckling adventure, and in the deft hands of Steven Spielberg that’s enough for a fun adventure. There are some truly astonishing action pieces in this film. Indeed I want to go back and watch the motorcycle chase scene again because I think it is one long insane swooping, flying shot from the establishing areal view of the car and motorcycle leaving the palace to the eventual arrival at the port below. This is of course much easier to do in an all digital realm, but choreographing such a monumental action scene into a single shot really shows off just how astonishing Spielberg is as an action director.
I watched this in 3-D on Blu-Ray and found myself often distracted by how absolutely gorgeous the film is. It is just so technically amazing and full of intricate detail. Compare this with even a recent Pixar film like Up and you get a sense for just how quickly the world of digital film making is jumping ahead. (I got much the same sense from watching Rango.) The environments, designs, effects and animation are all astonishing. I’m so glad I got to see it in 3-D too, because although it doesn’t have the level of storytelling through filmic technique that Scorsese brought to Hugo it is nonetheless far more immersive for me to see it leap and dive in and out of the screen.
In the end I found that I really enjoyed this movie. I loved seeing these familiar characters re-created in such a dynamic way. I loved the animation and the performances. I absolutely loved every scene with Snowy, who completely stole the show for most of the movie – which is exactly as it should be. Most of all it made me look forward to seeing what Peter Jackson will do with the sequel. Would it be too much to hope for Professor Calculus to show up? He was always my favorite comic foil when I first read the books about thirty years ago.
March 10, 2012
Okay. It’s about time to get back on the horse and start reviewing some movies again.
I have to admit that as we limped to the conclusion of our six hundred and forty six day movie marathon I was fairly burnt out on the whole project. As evidenced by the mass of placeholder reviews that still populate the last three moths of our blog as I’m writing this. (I promise – someday I’ll get those placeholders filled with complete reviews – there are a lot of movies in those last three months I’m looking forward to watching again without the rigorous constraints of daily movie viewing.)
I haven’t stopped buying new movies for my collection though. I’ve slowed down an awful lot, but I’m still picking up movies I want to see as they come out, and Amanda and I have a big list of movies we want to buy and watch (and review) as we move forward. We just haven’t watched any movies in the past couple months that we hadn’t seen already. (Mostly re-watching the Lord of the Rings movies lately really.) I had promised myself though that if I watched any new movies I’d throw a review up for those movies when I did. This week I got several films to add to the collection – and today I had some spare time and figured it would be a nice time to see something new. What a perfect choice this movie was, too, as a way to ease myself back into the project.
Oh, movies, I could never stay mad at you.
I had carefully avoided spoilers for this movie until I watched it tonight. I knew from the buzz around Oscar time this year that this was a film that paid homage to the cinema, but I wasn’t really sure how. From the previews I knew this was a movie about an urchin living in a train station who had some kind of magical adventure involving a clockwork automaton. I knew there was some big twist in the film. I knew it was based on a childrens’ book that I haven’t read. I wasn’t really sure what genre the film fell into though. Due to the clockwork man angle I somewhat thought it was a kind of steampunk fantasy film. Maybe, I speculated, the big twist was that young Hugo – our rapscallion orphan protagonist – was a robot himself. I kind of figured there were hidden worlds in the walls of the train station. Maybe time travel. Who knows?
Well on most counts my predictions were way off base, but it IS a movie about fantasy and dreams. In a way. It’s also a big warm loving piece of cinematic wish fulfilment. The more I think about it the more amusing I find it how subversive this movie is. Especially with its deliberately unrevealing marketing campaign. It is only masquerading as a childrens’ adventure film when in point of fact it is a love note to early silent cinema and the magic of the movies. What must those families who went in to see it all unsuspecting on opening night have thought? It makes me grin to think on it.
The nominal plot of the movie involves the young waif Hugo who lives alone in a train station in Paris sometime after the end of the great war and before the second world war. His great passion is finding cogs and gears to repair a mechanical man that is all he has to remember his father by. Of course he has no money so he has to steal these mechanics and his victim is a crotchety old man who runs a toy store in the station. When the old man (played marvelously by the ever wonderful Ben Kingsley) catches Hugo in his thefts and takes from him a notebook containing details of the automaton. Hugo then enlists the help of the old man’s god-daughter Isabelle to attempt to save the notebook. There’s some kind of mystery regarding this mechanical man that is ties in some way to the old man in the toy shop.
That’s just the hook of the movie though. The mystery and adventure is mostly resolved by the end of the second act of the movie and then it morphs into something between a love letter and a history lesson. I don’t know that it’s a particularly smooth transition. I find it hard to review the movie for itself as a whole because I am so squarely the target audience. There’s a strangely disjointed feel to the film with its first act fantasy and second act history lesson, but I was so enraptured by the message of the movie that I was easily able to gloss over that as I watched it.
The movie also has a tendency in the third act to resort to flat out info-dumping. There’s a scene of Action Research (assisted by a kindly old book seller played by Christopher Lee) where the two children read aloud from a book on cinema history while we are treated to a montage of iconic moments from classic silent films. I loved it as a fan of such films, recognizing some that I wish were in our collection (like Buster Keaton’s “The General”) and movies we actually already own and have reviewed for the project (like the silent “Thief of Bagdad.”) It’s preachy and somewhat blunt, but as I said I don’t mind so much because I so enjoyed the subject matter.
I remember being puzzled when I first saw the previews for this movie that it was directed by Martin Scorsese. Why was this iconic cinematic heavy-weight making a childrens’ adventure film. Clearly it is because the movie he actually wanted to make is the bit in the latter half, and he poured his heart and soul into that reverential effort. The whole movie is steeped in filmic lore and for a fan of the cinema such as myself it’s a special kind of treat. It’s not just all the archival footage of classic films either. The movie is peppered with side characters that feel like references themselves. Hugo’s primary antagonist, the bumbling train station security officer has a distinctly keystone kops feel to him. There’s a side romance involving Harry Potter’s evil uncle as a mostly mute patron of a cafe in the station that reminded me of nothing so much as the films of Jaques Tati’s Monsieur Hulo. The entire introduction of Hugo and his world is an extended exploration of the station and its occupants with no dialog whatsoever for about five minutes. It would not surprise me in the least to hear that all the actors were immersed in reference material by Scorsese as preparation.
It must have been a treat for Scorsese to work on this. He got to re-create a lot of fantastic silent movie moments near the conclusion. He also got to play with a lot of the fanciest and highest tech effects available in modern movies. I bought this in 3-D Blu-Ray and watched it in stereoscopic 3-D on my computer and it’s great to see how a true virtuoso of the medium handles the new tools available in 3-D. He seems to enjoy using a kind of 3-D push in for emotional impact – it’s like a zoom in but it pops a character out of the screen during dramatic moments to add emphasis. I’ve talked before about the new toolkit that directors are exploring today as they work with 3-D film making. It’s like using different camera lenses for deep focus or the advent of the steady-cam. There are all these new tricks to be discovered to help drive the story and we’re getting to see these first steps now.
Watching this movie this afternoon rekindled my love of film and made me want to get back to watching more movies. For that alone I love it. Uneven pacing, info-dumping, awkward storytelling and all.
Amanda and I have, over the course of the last six hundred and forty six days, watched every movie in our shared collection. This marks the end of the daily movie project. We have about a two month backlog of reviews to write for movies we’ve already seen but which do not have reviews in our archive yet, and we’ll be filling that in over the coming days.
Fear not however, loyal readers! We will continue to periodically add new movies and reviews to the site as we continue to expand our collection. We already have a lengthy list of films we want to purchase, and people keep on making more – so even if we are no longer daily we will still be adding constantly to the blog.
Take a look at the spreadsheet of completed reviews we have linked over on the right-hand side of the page there. If your favorite movie isn’t listed there maybe you should comment to us and recommend it – we’re always looking to broaden our cinematic horizons.