A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 184 – Monsters Inc.

Monsters Inc. – August 31st, 2010

I’m going to lay this out at the start: I don’t think I have a heck of a lot to say about this movie. Sure, it was cute. It’s a Pixar movie. I think I’ve made my feelings about Pixar rather clear. They make cute movies that tug at heartstrings. It is their bread and butter and they do it incomparably well. Go back and take a look at my Finding Nemo review if you want to know what I have to say about Pixar. They’re great, okay? The thing is, where some of their other movies, such as the Toy Story trilogy and Finding Nemo and certainly Up are all very clearly sending Important Messages About Things Like Growing Up, this one? Not so much. It’s just fun.

Not that that’s a bad thing. It’s funny. I won’t dispute for a moment that watching big scary monsters freak out about a toddler is funny. It is. And I’ve met kids like Boo. I work with kids like Boo. That disappearing trick she does where she’s through the door before you know it? Yeah, that’s a half-hourly occurrence at my workplace, if not more frequent. Don’t for one second think that’s an exaggeration, people. Kids can teleport. I’m sure of it. So yeah, it’s funny. The whole movie is based on the gimmick of monsters both needing to scare kids for their power source (screams being somewhat potent, apparently) but being terrified of them themselves. That’s for laughs. Oh, I’m sure one could try and build parallels between the “scream shortage” in this movie and fuel supplies here in the real world, but let’s face it, beyond it being a joke for adults to laugh at? There’s not much there to connect. It’s all on the surface. It’s for shits and giggles.

The movie is really one long gag. From the start, when we meet Mike and Sully – Monsters Inc.’s top scare team, pulling in more scream-power than anyone else at the company – we’re meant to get the joke. Every monster they pass on the street on the way to work, every comment they make, everything that builds the whole alternate world of monsters, is a joke based on the world we live in. And as soon as a little girl, Boo, makes it into that world? It’s a joke. Even the tension of Sully’s competition, Randall, and his plan to use Boo to end the scream shortage? Well, it’s not that tense. Or it wasn’t for me. Of course Sully and Mike will save the day, right? Right. The chase scene through all the bedroom doors in the factory? Fantastic Escher-esque stuff. But not terribly tense. It’s fun! It’s a joke! For every five seconds of tension there are ten of laughs. The ending is, literally, built out of jokes. Jokes within jokes.

Like I said, it isn’t a bad thing that the movie is in it for the laughs. It succeeds admirably at what it set out to do, which is, I believe, to give both adults and kids something to enjoy. I’m sure most adults who either have kids or have ever been left in charge of one can recognize pretty much everything Boo does, and the monster-in-the-closet thing is pretty pervasive. And for the kids there are funny looking monsters who are scared of humans. There are great voices like John Goodman as Sully, Billy Crystal as Mike, Steve Buscemi as Randall, and Frank Oz as Fungus, to name just a few. The monsters are expressive, the world is well built, the jokes are funny and what’s not to like, right? Right!

Really, when you come down to it, there doesn’t need to be any more tension than there already is. Sure, it’s tempered by laughs and all, but that works for the overall mood of the movie. If it was too scary, it would sort of defeat the point, you know? Really, I’ve got nothing negative to say about it. I’ve just not got anything super deep to say about it either.

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August 31, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Monsters, Inc.

August 31, 2010

Monsters, Inc.

When this movie came out I was concerned about Pixar. I had been disappointed by Bug’s Life, and I thought that Pixar was descending into a lesser level of Disney-style film making. For all I knew at the time Toy Story was a fluke, and from here on out the films of Pixar would be technically fun to look at but wouldn’t have any of the emotional clout or creative spark that made Toy Story so much fun. This movie, therefore, surprised and delighted me and reassured me that Pixar really was something special.

Monsters, Inc. is one of the most original stories I can think of for a feature length animated film. It tells of a universe near ours where all the monsters who live in our childhood closets come from. These monsters aren’t bad folks. They need to scare children because the screams of kids are used to power everything in the monster world. So there are highly trained professional “scarers” who burst through closet doors and terrify children. The most successful and driven of all these monsters is Sully, a big furry purple teddy bear with horns. With his partner Mike (a round green creature who is mostly a single huge eyeball) Sully is on the verge of breaking the all time scream record.

The irony is that the monsters of Monstropolis are terrified of children. They think that children are toxic and can kill a monster with a single touch. So the action of the movie really gets going when a little girl is accidentally let into the monster world one evening. Sully ends up trying to conceal her and the first half of the movie involves his and Mike’s attempts to get her back through her closet door to her own bedroom. But there’s more going on than just a lost girl. There’s a nefarious plot, an evil monster, and a scream shortage brought on by the jaded and unflappable kids of today.

Really this movie is a showpiece for what Pixar does best. It’s full of technical wizardry and impressive computer graphics, and it has a creative and at times touching plot. It tugs at the heart-strings in a very Pixar way (such as when Sully begins to realize just how his profession makes him appear to the children he scares.) It also has one of the greatest chase scenes in a film with the fantastic door-room scene near the end of the film.

I love the performances from John Goodman and Billy Crystal. I love that the film makes got Frank Oz and Steve Buscemi involved in the project. I love that the animators were able to rise to the challenge of making these strange monsters seem so human. Especially impressive is the performance they get from Mike – it must have been really hard to get an emotional performance out of a giant green eyeball. They “cheat” a little with his extremely expressive brow, but it’s a fantastic feat of animation nonetheless.

Pixar showed me once and for all with this movie that as a company they had more up their sleeve than just Toy Story. They proved that they were the modern masters of CGI and that they could create entire worlds in the name of entertainment. I won’t say that this film changed my life or anything, but it’s a good movie with a kind heart and a creative premise. It was enough to cement the name of Pixar as a film studio to be watched, and as I look back on it they have only gotten better as the years have gone by. I look forward to seeing what else they have in store.

August 31, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 183 – The Dark Knight

The Dark Knight – August 30th, 2010

Andy and I first saw this in IMAX. It wasn’t our first feature film in IMAX experience. We’d seen one of the Matrix movies at one of the two Boston IMAX theaters. And we weren’t strangers to IMAX even then, since the Mugar Omni theater at the Boston Museum of Science has been doing documentaries for ages now. Unfortunately, when we saw this we were running late and the only seats were at the extreme front of the theater or a row this jackass claimed he was saving for friends (who turned out to already be seated behind him) So we ended up seated in either the first or second row. I do not recommend watching a 150 minute movie in IMAX from the front rows. It is an unpleasant and neck pain inducing experience.

All that being said, I did enjoy the movie itself. It has a whole host of flaws, but I enjoyed it (as much as one can when one is practically staring up Christian Bale’s nostrils). This is a movie that, for the most part, knows its roots and knows its characters and is, like Batman Begins really very character driven. Even though we never get the Joker’s true backstory (a conscious decision on the part of the writers, making him a force instead of a person), his character serves to illuminate the others. He’s a catalyst, driving others to act. And as a study of the characters of Bruce/Batman and those around him, the movie does well to use this enigmatic figure who has no past and no clear motivation other than wanting to poke things to see what happens. It’s just that he likes to poke things with knives. Or pencils. But I’ll get back to the Joker. I’ve got more to say about him later.

The other big character plot is Harvey Dent. Comic fans or anyone who’s seen the 1995 Batman Forever know that Harvey Dent ends up a villain. Two-Face is a classic Batman enemy from the comics, dating back to the 40s. First an ally of Batman, a Gotham DA who fights the good fight, then disfigured and sent mad, one side of his face a scarred mess, one side of his mind evil. And his coin gimmick is how he determines which side wins in any given scenario. The character of Harvey Dent/Two-Face is a difficult one not to make too gimmicky, really. The coin thing takes it right to the edge on its own. But in this movie Aaron Eckhart does an excellent job showing a good man pushed so far that he’s hit his breaking point and gone past, but still looks back at what he was. He doesn’t get the luxury of a mask and a dual life where he can be the good guy at parties and the vigilante in the streets. He has both right on his face, all the time. I think the movie was certainly setting up Harvey and Bruce as two sides of a coin – to use a gimmick myself – even going to far as to have Harvey take the fall for Bruce, then Bruce return the favor later on. It works when I stop and think about it. The problem is that no matter how good Eckhart played the part, the movie doesn’t really let you stop and think.

There is a fuck-ton going on in this movie. Seriously, this is a movie that is packed to the gills with plot points and character points and explosions and gadgets and capes and maniacal laughter and growly snarls and tough moral decisions and mob bosses and the press and foreign businessmen and romance and corrupt cops and I could keep going and going. This movie does not let up for two and a half hours. And I think that’s a major flaw. In a movie that’s trying to do all sorts of interesting things with chaos and duality and morality and parallels between everything, it doesn’t ever really let you stop to get your bearings because as soon as you get a tiny quiet scene for Alfred to dispense some wisdom or Lucius to deliver a kindly smackdown or Rachel to be, um. A plot device? Anyhow, as soon as there’s a moment, it’s over and the Joker’s killing people or threatening people or blowing something up. Or lots of somethings.

Don’t get me wrong for one moment. I love the Joker. Heath Ledger captured something amazing in his performance in this movie. Or perhaps he didn’t capture it. He flaunted it. He took every broken and wrong and twisted and incomprehensible thing about the role and reveled in it, producing a villain to end all villains. When other movies have bad guys who are bad for the sake of being bad? This is what they’re aiming for and missing. This is the only one of those characters I really truly buy. It’s just that I think the script didn’t really trust Ledger to display the Joker so well. I get that each new threat and plot and display of depravity is meant not only to show us who we’re dealing with but also how high the stakes are and the tension in the city at large. It just feels like the movie’s swatting flies with C4 when Ledger brought thermite and fireworks to the party already. I don’t need half a dozen crises. I just need Ledger as the Joker, detonator in hand, nurse outfit on, giggling as a hospital explodes behind him.

There are a few other problems with the movie. It takes a little bit to really feel like it’s moving, which is bizarre, given the kick-ass opening scene. The plot, involving the Joker’s takeover of the city’s criminal organizations and assassinations of various public figures, moves at an oddly sluggish pace. There’s a whole bit in the beginning where Bruce takes off for China and it feels like the same end could have been achieved through other more efficient means. The city doesn’t quite feel right to me in this one. It’s supposedly only been six months since the first movie and yet the whole city feels cleaner and less gritty. I realize we’re supposed to feel like change is happening in Gotham, but six months is a short period of time. There’s one particular bit of tech that’s as close as you can get to a deus ex machina without having an AI involved. It doesn’t really suit Batman, though it does perform a bit of character development in that it requires a difficult moral choice. And then the movie misses a fantastic opportunity to show Oracle as a little girl, putting the focus instead on Jim Gordon’s son, Jim Jr. Fine, do the whole father and son deal, I get it. Hark back to Bruce and his father, blah blah blah. I would have preferred to see Babs as the focus as a nod to her later role in the Bat-family, but then I’m biased. She grows up to be a super librarian.

But the thing is, even with those flaws, it’s still a great movie. Lucius and Alfred are still awesome, showing themselves to be more level-headed and ruthless, respectively. Alfred gives a little speech to Bruce mid-movie, about a bandit he helped track down and how some people just want to see the world burn. Later on, when Bruce asks how they caught the bandit, Alfred tells him they burned down the forest. That there isn’t just a little plot device. Read further into the story and it’s not just that everything had to be destroyed to catch the bandit. It’s that the bandit got what he wanted. The world burned. And he got the self-proclaimed good guys to do it for him. Personally I think this is a telling tidbit about Alfred himself, but it also gives good insight into not just the actions of Batman and the Joker, but their psychology. And the inner workings of Bruce/Batman and how he deals with this threat that is so alien to his way of thinking and working is really what’s at the core of this movie for me. It’s what I enjoy about it. Which is why I can get past the flaws, because what I enjoy was done so amazingly well.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

The Dark Knight

August 30, 2010

The Dark Knight

Let me start out by saying right up front that I don’t believe that this is as good a movie as Batman Begins. Its plot is convoluted and inconsistent. It gives the impression of being written by committee and perhaps re-written as well. The deus-ex-machina super tech device Batman uses in the movie’s conclusion is not only a cop out because it gives Batman powers he never had in the cannon but it contributes nothing to the end of the movie.

Oh, the movie has its great parts. Plenty of them. It just gets it a bit muddled.

Let’s start with the good bits. The greatest of which, naturally, is Heath Ledger’s Oscar winning portrayal of the Joker. As I said in the conclusion to my review last night The Dark Knight is about villains. It’s about what breaks a man and drives him to unspeakable acts. What’s funny about this is that we get no real insight into what created the Joker. He bursts onto the scene fully realized as an unpredictable force of nature. What’s so delightful about Ledger’s Joker is that he’s such a simple character. I am reminded of Don John in Much Ado About Nothing: “though I cannot be said to be a flattering honest man, it must not be denied but I am a plain-dealing villain.” The joker is an odd mix of impulsive acts of random violence with meticulously planned schemes. At one point he claims to be “a man of his word,” which is pretty much true. No matter how brash and insane his ultimatums may appear he does follow through on them.

The way Heath portrays the Joker, with his twitches, his gravelly voice and his strange mannerisms, is mesmerizing and horrifying. The Joker of the comic books uses “laughing gas” to kill people and leave their faces in a taught grin, but this Joker isn’t scarred by chemical burns, he is just scarred by violence. (It’s never explained where he gets his scars, and it doesn’t really matter.) So he mutilates his victims in a much more hands-on way; with knives. It’s more real, more direct, and lends a lot of tension to scenes in the film.

The other primary character introduced in this movie is Harvey Dent. Aaron Eckhart portrays Harvey and has to embody his tragic tale. I do appreciate the tone that Chris Nolan has chosen to take with the story of Two Face. He’s always been a sort of sad figure, what with his fall from grace and descent into madness. Nolan here removes a lot of Dent’s obsession with duality and concentrates instead on his transformation from a steadfast crusader for justice into a madman who relies on chance to remove any responsibility for the atrocities he commits in his insanity. Once he gives up on the notion of justice it’s not Harvey Dent that does any of the killing – it’s the coin that commands him and absolves him.

If anything I kind of wish this aspect of Dent’s tragedy could have been explored in greater depth. One of the problems the movie has is that once it has meticulously spent a couple hours bringing Harvey to the breaking point and pushing him over it then has to quickly resolve his plot in double time. This is symptomatic of a greater problem that plagues the entire movie; it is very strangely paced. The meat of the movie is in the Joker and his schemes and Dent and his fall, but there’s a whole lot of superfluous stuff padding out the first half of the film. There’s a plot about all the remaining mob bosses in Gotham pooling their money and having it stolen by a bookkeeper from China which is entirely unnecessary. You could cut everything having to do with the mob and Lau and it would leave the movie much streamlined and tighter. Maybe it would have allowed for more time resolving Dent’s plot.

Another problem is the Joker’s wildly changing attitude towards Batman. At the start of the movie he tells the mob mosses that he’ll kill Batman for them in exchange for money. Then he tells the people of Gotham that he’ll kill people every day until Batman gives himself up and removes his mask. Then in a sudden and complete 180 he declares that he DOESN’T want Batman’s identity revealed after all and will blow up a hospital unless somebody kills the one person who claims to know Batman’s identity. On the one hand it makes little sense to expect consistency from a madman like the Joker, but on the other he is portrayed as somebody with simple tastes for chaos and violence who knows what he wants and will hesitate at nothing to achieve it, so this strangely morphing attitude towards Batman feels wrong.

My final problem with the movie is the entire final act with the Joker. He has this moment of absolute triumph where he has succeeded in corrupting Harvey Dent and created Two Face, and blown up a hospital besides (by far my favorite scene in the movie) and then he goes off on this complete tangent. Rather than concentrating the end of the movie on Harvey Dent and what the Joker describes as a battle for Gotham’s soul there’s this silly extrapolation of the prisoner’s dilemma with a bunch of people trapped on a pair of ferries. To top that off there’s the sonar technology that Batman uses to battle Joker’s minions and a couple SWAT teams, which doesn’t actually contribute to the resolution of things in any way and is just an excuse to have a bunch of swirly blue and white computer animation during a fight scene.

Part of what made Batman Begins so wonderful was the way that the story was told on so many levels and was so cleverly threaded through the whole movie. This movie has a deeper and darker story to tell, but it loses the plot and ambles off into generic action movie land in the later half. Still: I enjoyed watching it again in spite of its flaws because Heath Ledger’s Joker is so compelling, terrifying and entertaining. I could wish that it were more, but I do appreciate it for what it is.

August 30, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 182 – Batman Begins

Batman Begins – August 29th, 2010

A few words about Batman movies, before I go launching into my love for Michael Caine. First, we’re watching the Christopher Nolan movies before the older ones. This is because we don’t own the older ones. Any of them. We don’t have the Adam West cheesefest and we don’t have anything featuring a batsuit with nipples on. This and The Dark Knight are it. Kind of odd, since I do have a fondness for the Adam West movie and the 1989 movie with Michael Keaton. But we don’t own them. When we talked about watching this today we couldn’t recall if we owned any of the others and decided it didn’t matter. We’d treat the Nolan movies as a separate set from the others if we did own any of them. So. Yeah. Maybe some day we’ll buy one or two of the others and I’ll discuss them. For now, we’ll stick with these. And I’ll squee over Michael Caine.

You see, I love Alfred. Adore him. He’s really my favorite character. He saves Batman’s ass and delivers some excellent wake-up call lines throughout the movie. He helps set up the batcave, organizes the ordering for the pieces of the suit, etc. He holds on to Bruce’s wealth while Bruce is off learning how to be a bad ass in the mountains of Asia. He keeps the kitchen tidy. Alfred Pennyworth is more awesome than awesome. And in this movie he’s played by Michael Caine, who is doubly awesome. Also awesome? Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, a multi-faceted genius who can lecture about body armor and memory fabric and then synthesize an antidote to a previously unknown hallucinogen overnight. Add in Gary Oldman as Gordon, who really saves the day at the end while Bruce is engaging in fisticuffs with Ducard, and you’ve got a fantastic trio of older men who kick ass. I love that about this movie. But of them all, I love Alfred the most.

Of course Bruce Wayne/Batman is the hero. He’s the one in the title. He’s the iconic figure everyone knows. He’s the superhero. And as superheroes go, Batman’s always been on the edgier side. In this movie, that holds quite true. Christian Bale as Batman is rough and tough and not pulling his punches. It’s made clear through the movie and then explicitly stated in the end that Bruce Wayne is more an act than Batman is. This is intentional here. One of the things I like about Batman as a character is that he is so very flawed. No normal everyday person could do what he does, and I’m not just talking about the feats of strength or expenditures of money. I’m talking about the determination and single-mindedness.

A goodly portion of this movie is an origin story for Batman, showing how a seemingly normal-but-privileged child grew up into a man not only trained to fight crime but determined to do so through drastic means. The deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents are always cited as a reason for his focus, but this movie goes several brutal steps further, truly driving home the workings of Bruce’s mind. When he confronts the mob boss who pulls so many of the criminal strings in Gotham, and gets his naivete thrown right in his face? That right there is motivation. And when Bruce trains in the mountains with Henri Ducard and is told his father’s inaction was his own downfall? That’s more. It makes Batman and Bruce Wayne into a well built dual character. The theme of fear only serves to underscore everything else happening in the movie. Bruce’s fear of ignorance, uselessness, powerlessness, the inability to do what needs doing. That is motivation. And his focus on that is both his strength and his weakness. Just as it should be.

I almost feel like I don’t need to bother with much plot recap. This is a Batman movie, people. This is about Batman’s origins, which we’ve covered, and then a villain or team of villains threatening the good people (and bad people and in-between people) of Gotham, and Batman has to save the day. Isn’t that how it always works? What makes each story different is which villain or villains Batman needs to fight and what the plan is. The origin story here makes for some good plot fodder too, since a prominent figure in Bruce’s training comes back later. There’s lots of talk about justice and right and wrong and morality, which is interesting in the context of Batman essentially being a vigilante himself. There’s Scarecrow, played by Cillian Murphy, and he’s in league with the big name villain, and Falcone, the local mob boss (played by Tom Wilkinson), who’s gotten himself in a little over his head by the end. And there’s a big plot to take down all of Gotham because it’s a festering cesspool of immorality and corruption. No argument there. But I don’t want to poke the specific means to that end too hard. There’s one really huge obvious hole in the plot already and this movie’s too good in so many other ways and I don’t want to make more holes.

They did a good job, really, building up the whole Bruce/Batman thing and making this movie largely character driven in a way. And they set up the corrupt city and Falcone and Scarecrow and the shady stuff they’re both up to. Gordon is introduced well, and the tension feels good. Even the blatant use of flashbacks works nicely when we get multiple stages in Bruce’s development and life. And then there’s fancy tech holding up the villainous plot to take down Gotham. Sure, on the surface that works fine. After all, Batman isn’t a hero because he’s got super powers like Wolverine or Superman. He’s got gadgets and the money (and Lucius Fox and Alfred Pennyworth) to buy and develop them. So having his opponent use not super powers but a gadget of his own should work. Except the whole thing hinges on vaporizing all the water in Gotham. All of it. On the streets, in the pipes, everywhere. Except, apparently, in human bodies. They never address that, even. Not even a throwaway line like it only working on large bodies of water or something. Nothing.

But why am I looking for logic behind comic book tech? Like Batman’s gadgets really work anyhow. The Mythbusters did a whole episode on that. I just think it best if I don’t go poking the specifics any more than I have. Next thing you know I’ll be on about how Gotham needs to add billionaire vigilante insurance to its villain and meta-human insurance policies. And that’s not really what I take away from this movie (even though they totally do need that insurance, pronto). What I take away from it is the amazing job the movie does setting the stage that is Gotham and introducing its hero. A flawed and dangerous hero for a flawed and dangerous city. And that’s how it always has been and how it always should be. The movie gives us an excellent Batman and his amazing support network and lets him and them loose on a flawed and dangerous villain. It’s well done and well presented and captures everything I love about Batman except for the Joker. Whom we’ll see plenty of tomorrow.

August 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | 2 Comments

Batman Begins

August 29, 2010

Batman Begins

As a comic book fan I was delighted by this movie. It takes Batman and treats him with deadly seriousness, with none of the camp that is associated with him. Oh, sure, Tim Burton did a couple Batman movies back in the early nineties, and they were a major breakthrough in their own way, but they were still silly in places, and Batman is a deep enough phenomenon that he can support being re-invented in this way once in a while.

Chris Nolan (of Memento fame) heads this adaptation and does a stellar job. He borrows several major moments and parts of the character arc from Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, but he makes them his own while he does it. His Batman movie tries to find a way to make Gotham a real modern-day city and tell the story of how Bruce Wayne could actually exist. Every kid knows the story of this movie, of course, how Bruce Wayne witnessed the murder of his parents and swore to eliminate all evil from the city of Gotham, and how he chose to dress as a bat to strike terror into the toughs of the underworld. It works well as a comic book premise, but how do you go about making it fit into the modern world?

Chris has chosen to do it by stressing a couple character themes throughout the movie. One is the nature of fear. Batman employs fear as part of his arsenal. It’s why he dresses the way he does. Early in the movie there’s a flashback to young Bruce falling into the caves beneath his family mansion where he is attacked by bats. It’s an incident that shapes his character. He is terrified of bats (something which is woven into the movie cleverly and worked into his origin story with a great deal of care. To reinforce the theme of fear and overcoming it one of the two comic book bad guys Batman faces in this movie is the Scarecrow, aka Dr. Jonathan Crane, who uses drugs to induce fear in his victims.

The other foe Batman has to deal with is one of my favorite Batman nemeses – the Ra’s Al Ghul. He’s an immortal warlord and terrorist who tries to bring the world into balance, mostly by attempting to wipe out the decadence of modern man. What this movie cleverly does is present the Ra’s as one of Bruce Wayne’s trainers. It’s long been known that Bruce trained in every martial art to become the greatest fighter ever known, but this movie is the first time I’ve seen that actual training shown. Al Ghul has always been a more sympathetic bad guy – it’s his methods that are abhorrent, he actually has noble goals. So to have him training Bruce as a sort of father figure is a great notion. (In the comics he even was Bruce’s father-in-law at one time since Bruce married his daughter.) It allows the movie to bring forward another of the themes that drives the plot throughout – which is the nature of justice. It’s only a natural question when your chief protagonist is a vigilante who attacks criminals in the night with no regard for the law. Is Batman a just figure? He’s the goddamned Batman!

So you have a couple serious themes and a really great script, but without the cast you’d have no movie, so how is the cast? Oh. My. God! I was skeptical when I read that Batman himself was to be played by Christian Bale – the wiry guy from American Psycho. (At the time my wife did point out that he was in Newsies, which seemed like recommendation enough for her.) When I think of Bale I do not think of an action movie blockbuster star. He’s an introspective and methodical actor. Which, it turns out, is exactly the right thing for this movie. Nolan needed a Bruce Wayne who was vulnerable, and a little broken. Then he surrounded him with an a-list cast of huge Hollywood names: Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy, Rutger Hauer, Ken Watanabe, Gary Oldman, Liam Neeson… it’s a cavalcade of talent.

What’s great about the casting in this movie is that these actors all are so invested in their parts. You don’t get the feeling, which you got in some of the earlier Batman movies, that they are hamming it up and vacationing in comic book land for a quick paycheck. These are powerful actors steeped in their craft who understand how all these characters fit into the story that Nolan is trying to tell. Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman and Liam Neeson all act as sort of father figures of one kind or another for Bruce Wayne, all influencing his evolution into Batman. Cillian Murphy is just fun to watch as the cynically manipulative and slightly out of touch Dr. Crane. Gary Oldman is one of my favorite actors because he is such a chameleon, able to play psycopaths, geniuses, vampires and mad wizards all without breaking a sweat. Here he’s Captain Gordon, the Elliott Ness of the Gotham police force, which is a simple sort of upright every-man role and Oldman plays it brilliantly. It says something about the caliber of film being made here that they can have a big name like Rutger Hauer or Ken Watanabe in a little bit part. It lends gravitas to the whole project.

So taken all together this is a great accomplishment in comic book adaptations. It manages most of the time to play as though it is not a comic book at all. Yes, it has some big action set-pieces and a hero who dresses up like a bat, so it’s solidly in the territory of summer action blockbusters, but it plays everything with a gravitas that belies its origins. Comic books are often ridiculed as being less serious reading matter than un-illustrated prose, and it warms my heart to see Batman treated with such care and honor. He’s always been one of my favorite comic book heroes with his complex and self conflicted nature (he’s a man who behaves as a criminal to fight crime after all) and this movie is one of the best movies based on his mythos. I’d say that this is probably the best movie we own about what it really means to be a super hero.

Tomorrow we get to review the best movie we own about what it really means to be a super villain.

August 29, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 181 – The Wiz

The Wiz – August 28th, 2010

After watching the Muppet version of The Wizard of Oz this week we decided we really should own this version. We both enjoy it and it’s been ages since I saw it last. I think it was my mother who first introduced me to it, telling me she couldn’t hear the iconic Ease on Down the Road without singing along. And who can? I’m thrilled that the DVD we bought has a CD with it with that and a few of my other favorites, so I can get them nice and stuck in my head whenever I want. It’s the sort of movie I’d dance to if I had any dancing ability at all, but I don’t, so I just enjoy the people who do.

This is a fascinating movie to watch, having seen both another version of The Wizard of Oz and another stage-to-screen musical recently. It’s an entirely different creature from both, which I find really pretty cool. It’s far more expansive than The Producers was, making good use of huge sets and some impressive filming locations (like the World Trade Center plaza and the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island). There’s a real feeling of scale, which suits the alternate New York version of Oz really well, but also makes it clear that no, we’re not on a theater stage here. But then contrast it to the Muppet version of the story and the differences in the tone come out in full force. For one, the settings are vastly different, and for another that links to a huge difference in the character of Dorothy. Where Ashanti’s Dorothy was dying to get away from home, there’s nothing Diana Ross’s Dorothy wants more than to stay home where she’s comfortable. It leads to a very different journey.

One thing I noticed watching this now, there were definitely a lot of callbacks to the book. The Munchkins might be graffiti-themed in this version, but the dominant color of the set for the number, the lighting of it and the costumes, is blue. The Winkies, once they’re out of their red sweatshop costumes, wear yellow. The slippers are silver. They’re little things I suppose, but given how big a shift in setting this adaptation does, the details like the colors of the costumes really do make me smile. And they make the urban setting more Oz-like. I like this skewed version of New York City, adapted into Oz like an alternate universe, and I think I’ve mentioned my thing for alternate universes. The changes to the Oz portions are fun too. The Scarecrow is made of garbage, the Tin Man is a carnival barker, and the Cowardly Lion is hiding out in front of the New York Public Library. Instead of the Kalidahs, the group faces a subway where even the walls turn against them (in a scene that haunted me for years). Instead of a horrible castle the Wicked Witch has a sweat shop. It’s a great blending of two worlds that results in a fantastic setting for a quest.

Now, the story itself is pretty similar to any given adaptation of the book. Dorothy, transported to Oz, finds herself needing to get to the Wizard in the Emerald City. She gets a pair of magic shoes, follows the yellow brick road, meets up with three companions and eventually gets to her goal only to be given the task of dealing with a wicked witch. After defeating the witch she finds out the Wizard’s a fraud, then clicks her heels and heads back home. Oh, and everyone had what they needed all along! It’s the specifics that change. For the most part, the story is told well. Certainly they hit all the necessary plot points, and they created a great world to set it all in. Add that to the fantastic musical numbers and you’d think it would be flawless, right?

Sigh.

I do love the vast majority of this movie, but this evening I found myself noting a few flaws and then realized that what bothered me most ended up being part of a single problem. I’ve got a minor issue with the characterization of Dorothy, but it’s not that she’s twenty-four in the movie. And it’s not that she’s timid and nervous and introverted. I get that characterization. It’s her first song. There’s this whole thing about how she can’t share in the emotions of the people there at her aunt’s home for the holidays. The song doesn’t make her out as shy, it makes her out to be emotionally stunted. She’s set up to be thoroughly glued to home, while singing about how she can’t form emotional connections. That’s bizarre to me, and the song itself doesn’t feel like it fits the rest of the movie. And then I started paying attention to that. There are a few songs that don’t quite fit. And at the end? When I looked them up? Wouldn’t you know, they’re almost all additional numbers added to the movie. They’re the meandering schmaltzy numbers that seem to be trying to add character development to Dorothy but ended up boring me and making me tune out. And they take up what feels like an enormous amount of time that I think could have been better used in other ways.

Another issue connected to the pile’o’schmaltz and the time it all takes is that there are moments that seem to lack the impact they should have. For example, while I love A Brand New Day, the lead-up to it seems so truncated. Dorothy and company leave the Emerald City, get chased around a parking garage, and then they’re in Evillene’s sweat shop. It’s a great set and she’s got a great number to introduce herself prior to the garage scene, but once Dorothy gets there? Her friends get threatened, she breaks down and says she’ll give up the shoes, she pulls a fire alarm and hurrah! Dancing time! There’s no real tension there. It takes about five minutes to go from oppressive threats to jubilant dance number. It’s great that the Winkies (eventually wearing yellow bikinis) get freed and dance around, and it’s a great number, but the ratio of tension to celebration is oddly tipped to the celebration side. I think that’s true of a lot of the movie and I blame the meandering added numbers.

It’s really a pity that the movie gets bogged down in places. It takes away from everything the movie does well and gets right. I think it’s telling that when we put this in, I was super excited to see the meetings between Dorothy and her friends, and hear Ease on Down the Road and A Brand New Day and see the bizarre nightclub-like Emerald City sequence, and I’d totally forgotten the slower bits. Did I fast forward through them as a kid? The melting sewing machines in the sweat shop stayed with me, but not Dorothy singing about feeling. I’ll probably do the same now. I’ll remember the awesome singing and dancing and let the rest go.

August 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Wiz

August 28, 2010

The Wiz

This movie makes me miss my friend Tez from grade school. Way back in the seventies when this came out Tez was one of my best friends. He and Kenny and Kim and I would spend every recess together (when the teachers forced me out of the loft in the library where I used to hide) climbing about on the jungle gym behind our school. We were “The Monkey Men.” (I may still have one of the cards we made for our little club.) In addition to being the coolest and the most athletic kid in our class Tez was a fantastic dancer and a huge, huge fan of Michael Jackson. He was the first one in our class to own the Thriller album (although of course we all owned it eventually.) I first saw this movie with him, probably around 1981 or so, and although almost everything in the movie that is cool and unique went right over my nine-year-old head I couldn’t help being infected by his enthusiasm for the movie.

My memories of that first viewing are full of confusion. I knew nothing of New York, so the Oz depicted here was totally alien to me. It was more frightening and strange than ever the Oz in the 1939 version was. Neither was I familiar with Motown or funk or anything to do with black culture in the seventies. I was at that age only just discovering that other families lived in ways different from mine. I remember being baffled and frightened by this movie with all its completely unfamiliar imagery. Even so I couldn’t help loving the music and excitement of the movie. How can you help but bop along to “Ease on Down the Road” and “Brand New Day?”

This movie is an amazing contrast to yesterday’s. As with The Producers this is an adaptation for the screen of a stage play, but this movie is so extravagant and such a thrilling spectacle that it overwhelms you. The big dance numbers featured here are bigger than anything that could be held by a mere stage. The sets are gargantuan – colossal. When Dorothy first arrives in Oz Munchkin Land is a big playground and the Munchkins are trapped by the Wicked Witch of the East in graffiti. The playground set dwarfs the dancers with their hula hoops and skateboards as they dance for joy at being released from their curse. The Emerald City itself is represented by a vast set on the World Trade Center plaza with hundreds of extras. Everything in this movie is a celebration of New York City and filmed on a scale that boggles the mind.

Let’s look at the Oz of the Wiz and how it is linked to New York. In this version of the story Dorothy is a young woman living with her aunt who hasn’t ever left the ghetto where they live. Aunt Em encourages her to go out and live, but Dorothy is a timid little thing and afraid of the big city. When she is whisked off to Oz she has to find that courage in herself as she has a grand adventure that travels through NYC landmarks. She finds the Scarecrow in a garden amongst the rubble in an abandoned lot in the ghetto (complete with crows which I don’t feel qualified to talk about with their clear reference to minstrelry.) The Tin man is in Coney Island. (I made a comment as we reached that part of the movie about Dorothy running into the Warriors, what with this being Coney Island in the seventies.) The Lion is one of the statues outside the New York City Library. The wild forests where the Lion proves his courage are the subway tunnels. The poppy fields are the decadent Times Square of the seventies, all sleaze and sex shops. And so on.

As a magical land for an epic adventure this sort of twisted and idealized New York City is a thrilling notion. It reminds me a little of the Dark Tower books of Stephen King. There’s this alternate world which has so much in common with our own and which actually tells us a little about the world that we live in.

Diana Ross as Dorothy is perfect. She is so fragile and terrified at the start of the movie that even a friendly family get-together practically sends her into a panic attack. By the end of the movie, with her final song “Home” she has become a powerful and self assured woman with such strength that even the Wizard himself begs her to help him. Diana is able to make this transformation entirely believable, and the way she completely commits herself to “Home,” belting it for all she is worth, really works for the whole arc of the movie.

Supporting her are Michael Jackson as the Scarecrow (the reason I first saw this movie, as I suspect it was for many people my age t the time.) Nipsey Russell as the Tin Man is a treat, particularly with his soulful “Slide Some Oil to Me.” Ted Ross fills out the bass in the quartet as the Cowardly Lion with a fun jazzy feel.

From start to end this is a thrilling, magical, overwhelming spectacle, with a great and important message about self confidence and the courage to live your own life. I’d like to thank Terrance Lawrence, wherever he is, for introducing me to it.

August 28, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 180 – The Producers (2005)

The Producers (2005)

A few years back my mother called me up on a Friday night when Andy was working late. A friend of hers had gotten a couple of comp tickets for The Producers in Boston and given them to her and did I want to go? I said sure, because hey, a show that had gotten great reviews, based on a movie I loved, on stage for free? Why the hell not, right? So I changed out of my jeans and into something decent, met my mother and headed into Boston. It wasn’t the original cast, and we had these horrible seats up on like, the third balcony, and I spent most of the show sitting on my coat because the guy in front of me was about seven feet tall, but I also laughed my ass off. We all did. The entire theater. It made me wish I’d been able to see Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick on Broadway, but then they went and made a movie of it, so this combined with seeing a truly excellent stage production is the next best thing.

It’s an odd movie, to be honest. Funny as hell, but odd. It’s a movie based on a Broadway musical based on a movie about a Broadway musical. About Hitler. That’s a couple of levels of meta beyond the norm, plus, you know, Hitler. We don’t own the original movie (I know, I know, we’ll have to buy it tomorrow or something), but we’ve both seen it, and as I mentioned, I’ve seen it on stage. So I’m really looking at this as the offspring of the two. And as offspring of a stage show and a movie, it’s still odd. After all, the very nature of the original involves a stage show, so to put it on stage in the first place was going to be somewhat self referential. Like I said, levels of meta. And I do enjoy a stage show made into a movie. We’ve already done a couple, and I like looking at how things were changed between the two. But this isn’t a simple one way trip here. It’s a roundabout. The movie isn’t so much a movie based on the musical as the musical done on a movie budget and set. I’m not sure how I feel about that.

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure how to write a review about this other than to keep talking in circles. There’s a lot to mention, but every time I try it feels like I’m just making a list of things I like, and that doesn’t address the oddity of the movie’s feel. But I think I’ve worded that as well as I can manage and don’t want to just go on and on about it. Of course Nathan Lane is hilarious as Max Bialystock. I love Nathan Lane anyhow, and he plays his role, from songs to lines to movements to facial expressions, with a spot-on combination of ham, sleaze and charm. Of course Matthew Broderick is fantastic as Leo Bloom, though I will say that while he brings a lot of himself to the role, there were a few deliveries that were pure Gene Wilder (one shout in particular made me look up sharply because I could have sworn it was Wilder’s voice). This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just something I noted as I watched. I enjoyed seeing Uma Thurman as Ulla, and while I’m not a big Will Farrell fan (I don’t dislike him, but he tends not to do the sorts of movies I enjoy) he did a bang up job as Franz. But I also liked seeing smaller roles like Michael McKean in the prison scene at the end, and John Barrowman on stage in Springtime for Hitler. And they all did good jobs. The entire cast did. They put on a wonderful stage show! On screen!

See, having seen the musical, I’ve got to say it feels somewhat oddly confined on the small screen. I think it would have felt oddly confined on the large screen too. Because it should be on a stage. This isn’t like Frost/Nixon, where the stage show is so drastically different from the movie, with the movie attempting to make the viewer feel like the sets aren’t sets where the play used the obvious and minimal sets to focus the action. And this isn’t like Jeffrey, where the more obvious stage show aspects of the script were mixed in with more film-friendly scenes. This is a stage show where the stage has been put in front of cameras. Sure, they don’t have to clear the stage and change the sets in moments between scenes. They had time to change costumes and makeup and you don’t get the same feel that live theater (even recorded and viewed on a screen) has. But it is theater. It’s not the musical numbers (which are great, and catchy, and my mother and I had to consciously not hum Springtime for Hitler on the train on the way home from the play), and it’s not the performances, and it’s not the sets. There’s nothing wrong with the movie. Nothing at all, in my opinion. It’s just not quite completely a movie.

I had a lot of fun watching this tonight, despite its odd nature. I laughed out loud, I enjoyed Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, I envisioned the stage performance, and I remembered the original movie. I like this movie. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, though there is that pesky thing about the plot and all. I mean, the original almost didn’t get released. It’s about two Broadway producers who, in trying to make a guaranteed flop, produce a lighthearted musical about Hitler winning World War II, complete with swastika dance formation. It balances right on a razor’s edge of taste and does some fake-out dips to the wrong side every so often. It’s certainly got that in common with the original movie. But what it’s also got in common with the original is that it manages to stay funny. And that the humor was kept through the transition from original to musical on stage to musical on screen is fantastic. And if you like that sort of thing, the movie does a great job. So since Lane and Broderick aren’t performing it on Broadway anymore, the movie really is an excellent stand-in.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

The Producers (2005)

August 27, 2010

The Producers (2005)

I wish we owned the original Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder Producers. I’ve seen it before of course, but it has been many, many years since I last did. I see the echo of Wilder’s performance in Matthew Broderick here (particularly when he’s shouting) but I can’t really address how this show works as an adaptation. Neither have I seen the musical on the stage, so I can’t even review it as an adaptation of the stage show. Maybe I can summon some thoughts on it as a film musical in general instead.

The plot of the musical echoes that of the movie it is based on. Max Bialystock is a down on his luck Broadway producer whose productions are famed for being unbelievably bad. Leo Bloom is an accountant who shows up one day to examine his books and comes to the realization that given a sure-fire failure a producer could raise all the money he could want and just keep the extra when the play flops. So the two of them find the worst play they can find, the worst director and the worst actors they can. The play, of course, is Springtime for Hitler, an ode to Nazi Germany during World War Two, and the rest is history. Probably the most memorable part of the original movie is the big Springtime For Hitler musical number, so it almost makes sense that Mel Brooks would re-visit the movie thirty years later to create a huge Broadway hit musical about making Broadway hit musicals.

What’s odd about the movie is that it’s a strange kind of hybrid of a stage show and a movie musical. It clearly has a much bigger budget than even a Broadway show would, but it also has a sense a lot of the time that it would rather be a stage play than a movie. For example: Max’s office, where a great deal of the action takes place, has the feel of a stage set. There is no fourth wall. Director Susan Stroman makes an effort to move the camera around and cover the room from several angles, but it never really feels like a room, because the side opposite the window is never shown. (Because it never existed in the set, I suspect.) All the furniture in the room is arranged facing towards that non-existent wall.

Some of the bigger dance numbers in the movie also feel as though they would be better on stage. In particular Bloom’s big “I Want To Be A Producer” number with the chorus girls emerging from file cabinets in his work place and the transition to the brightly lit Broadway of his daydreams is cool, but would have been cooler live.

Another example: Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick play their roles with the well-oiled ease of people who have read these lines and crafted these performances over the course of hundreds of shows. If you listen to Susan Stroman’s commentary you hear about how some of the gags in the movie evolved from flubs and ad-libs on stage that the actors chose to keep because they got a laugh. One result of this is the way they play to the camera, breaking the fourth wall to encourage a laugh. It’s a very live theater thing, and it feels odd and out of place sometimes in a movie format. Another result is that their timing is sometimes strangely… off. It was only as I was watching it again tonight that I realized that this is because they are pausing from time to time, probably subconsciously after months of practice getting the maximum audience response to their portrayals, for laughter or applause that are not there in a movie.

On the other hand you have clear attempts to make the show more Hollywood. There’s a big soundstage set of Broadway and the theater marques which is used in the opening and closing numbers and the “Break a Leg” number. And of course a few of the larger parts in the movie have been given to Hollywood talent. Will Farrell hams it up wonderfully as Franz, the author of Springtime. Uma Thurman looks to be having a terrific time playing the oversexed Ulla. Both of them are so very, very tall. Susan Stroman also tries to make the movie more movielike by shooting a couple scenes outside in the real New York and Central Park.

The end result is a movie that feels strangely fractured. At times it’s almost as though they brought a camera onto the stage at a performance of the play. At other times it feels as though it’s trying to be something bigger. I found the mix of styles distracting, which is sad because the musical itself is so much fun. I almost wish they HAD just filmed a stage show. There’s more wonder in cool practical props and mobile scenery than there is in special effects and clever editing.

I cannot find flaw with the play itself though. I can clearly see why it won all those Tonys. I bought the soundtrack right after watching the movie for the first time, and it lives on my iPod. It’s funny, irreverent, silly and basically an ode to everything Broaday. If you need more proof of Mel’s love of the theater you need look no further than the number sung over the movie’s closing credits about how there’s nothing like a Broadway show. (And once more I must admonish viewers to stay right to the end of the credits because Mel has a fun little ditty in there after the credits are over and a cameo appearance for himself.)

As a movie I can’t say if this is truly a success. It’s an odd mix of styles and at times I wished that I could have seen real Broadway performers in the roles that were given to big name Hollywood folks in an effort to make the movie more commercial. (It was a little bit like watching Ellen Degeneres dancing Alex Wong’s part in the last episode of the most recent season of So You Think You Can Dance.) If, on the other hand, this movie is intended as a love letter to Broadway and it’s supposed to make me want to turn of the DVD player and go buy a ticket for a live play or musical, well then it succeeded in that.

August 27, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment