A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Movie 179 – Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

Muppets’ Wizard of Oz – August 26th, 2010

Tonight I was sort of in the mood for something I’ve seen before, but then I looked at the list and thought, well, I keep meaning to watch this. It’s a Muppet movie! It’s based on The Wizard of Oz! Both things I know, so yay! I do have to admit that while I have yet to find a Muppet movie I don’t at least like, some of the newer ones just aren’t the same sort of fun as the old ones. It’s tough for me to put my finger on it, but it’s probably easy to blame it on the absence of Jim Henson. He was the Muppets. It’s entirely possible to emulate his style, but impossible to be him. Still, that doesn’t mean the new stuff isn’t fun. It just isn’t ever going to be the old stuff. But that’s true of just about everything.

I would like to commend the folks who made this movie for at least one thing: The movie is based largely on the original novel, not on the 1939 classic movie. Sure, there are some nods to the movie, in particular I noticed that the lighting in Kansas at the beginning is done so that everything feels washed out and harsh, echoing the black and white of the original movie’s Kansas. It’s subtle, but I think it works. But mostly there’s a lot of book references. The munchkins all in blue, the green glasses in the Emerald City, a magic cap, silver shoes, etc. On one hand, it’s not going to be quite as well known now as the movie. On the other hand, that works for it in my opinion. Trying to spoof the movie could have gone badly, but spoofing the book means less comparison to a movie classic. It presents the story in a new way, with new details. It comes off as part spoof and part homage. And as a librarian, I do love when movies make nods to book details.

Of course, this is a Muppet movie, so the story is adjusted to fit in the characters we’re all expecting. There’s Piggy as all of the witches (sporting different hair styles and taste in clothing for each), Kermit as the Scarecrow, Gonzo as the Tin Man, Fozzie as the Cowardly Lion, the rats as the Munchkins, some of our favorite monsters as the flying monkeys, Statler and Waldorf as the Kalidah (right out of the book), and, my favorite, Pepe as Toto. A bunch of others make appearances too, like Clifford, the Electric Mayhem and Bunsen and Beaker, and I’ve got to say, none of them feel out of place to me. Let’s face it, in the first movie the Electric Mayhem are just hanging around in an old church when Kermit and Fozzie happen upon them. Being the band in a poppy-based nightclub (and having a nightclub with a poppy theme in the first place) isn’t so far fetched. I got precisely the amount of identifiable Muppets I was expecting in this movie, though I guess I’d have liked more crowd shots with random Muppets too.

Seeing as the movie has this whole re-imagining thing going on, the plot is a modern spin on the story. Dorothy lives in a trailer park in Kansas and works at her aunt and uncle’s diner. She wants to be a big star and, in a bit of Muppet meta that’s straight out of the rest of the movies, she wants to audition for the Muppets’ big tour. Her aunt tells her no, she sneaks out, ends up late and doesn’t make it to the auditions and then an argument with her aunt and forgetting her pet prawn (a real prawn, who magically turns into Pepe once in Oz) lead to Dorothy ending up in Oz. Once there, Dorothy decides that Kansas sucked anyhow and she’s glad to be out of there, so she’s going to go to meet the Wizard and get him to make her a star! That right there is the biggest shift. Never mind the modernization and the flying monkeys being a biker gang and cameos from Kelly Osborne and Quentin Tarantino. That’s all just details and dressing. Changing the essence of Dorothy’s character and quest is the Big Ass Deal here.

Given that the lead role is played by a singer, Ashanti, and given that apparently other young female singers auditioned for the role too, I have to assume that the whole “I want to be a star!” plot was nailed down right from the get-go. I get it. I do. The story was supposed to be current and capitalize on young talent. And it’s not like the Muppets haven’t ever capitalized on current talent, right? The Muppet Show, anyone? Take a look at the guest star list. Current talent was the name of the game, mixed in with some established hits. So we’ve also got Queen Latifah and David Allan Grier as Aunt Em and Uncle Henry. Now, I love Queen Latifah, but David Allan Grier will always remind me of Don “No Soul” Simmons. Sorry. But there’s Jeffrey Tambor too, and so we’ve got three established names to go with our young starlet. Ashanti’s not a great actress, but she’s not bad and there’s a certain style musicians who aren’t super seasoned actors tend to have with Muppets, so I expect it. And the only other one who has to act with the Muppets is Tambor, whom we already know is awesome with them.

Now, I won’t get down on the modern references. Napster was dated ages ago, and Manolos are so Sex in the City, the Osbornes aren’t the cultural touchstone they were when the show was new and edgy, though I will give them Quentin Tarantino. He’s got staying power. But as with the musicians-with-Muppets style, I expect current cultural references in my Muppet movies. I expect current names and jokes about fads. It’s part of the style of humor that’s always been there. I laughed at them because even though they are dated, I know exactly what the references mean. And I won’t criticize the Muppets. I think they were all performed wonderfully and I found myself laughing a heck of a lot more than I expected to. I will say a couple of the racier comments and moments seemed a little more Muppet Show than Sesame Street, and if the movie was aiming at family fare, they needed to be more in the middle of the two, but eh, no big. I liked it. I liked it a lot.

If I had to make one criticism it would be the Big Ass Deal. Changing Dorothy’s goal is modern all right, but it struck me as wrong somehow. It’s obviously hardwired into the movie, not tacked on, but it sat uncomfortably with me, for all that they obviously worked hard to shift things in just the right ways to make it work. Maybe it’s that the goal itself, as pointed out by Aunt Em at the beginning, isn’t terribly well thought out and definitely somewhat shallow. Maybe it’s that the movie tries to simultaneously knock down and hold up the “be a star” goal. After denouncing it as fake, and realizing she really just wants to go home, Dorothy ends up getting to be a star anyhow. That’s awkward and undermining of the “message” part of it all. Which is really a pity, because if they’d somehow managed to write the ending better, my only complaint would have been the horrifying CGI chicken woman.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

August 26, 2010

The Muppets’ Wizard of Oz

I bought this movie way back in the days when I was still managing a Suncoast – back before those stores faded from existence. That would be more than five years ago now, and in all that time I haven’t watched this movie. It’s been sitting in our living room, still in its plastic wrap, waiting patiently for us to break it out and give it a view. I kind of had it in my head that this made-for-TV re-telling of the Wizard of Oz was a sort of second-rate rip off, and not a proper Muppet movie at all. Once again I’m glad of our movie-a-day project, because it gave me a chance to find out how wrong this perception was.

The fact of the matter is that this movie is both a very good Muppet movie and a very good adaptation of the original L. Frank Baum book. Or rather it’s an interesting melding of the Muppet universe with the original Wonderful Wizard of Oz story. As a Muppet fan who at one time devoured most of the L. Frank Baum books (back in second grade) I was intrigued and pleased.

Let’s start out with what has been changed. The story has been moved to the present day, and Dorothy works in her aunt Em’s diner. She dreams of being a big star and singer, but her aunt warns her that stardom is not all it’s cracked up to be and wants her to stay home with her and uncle Henry. (This is particularly witty, since Em is payed by Queen Latifah, who should know a little about super-stardom.) Instead of a cute little dog Dorothy has a pet prawn (and any Muppet fan knows where that is headed.) Eventually of course Dorothy is carried away in her double-wide pre-fab trailer park home to the magical land of Oz.

Interestingly there are a lot of bits from the book that are preserved in this adaptation which are not in the more famous nineteen-thirties version. The book has episodes where each character demonstrates that they already possess the characteristic they’re going to the Wizard to ask for, so there’s the Lion crossing a log and defeating some beasts (kind of tiger-men in the book I think.) Then there’s the scarecrow being forced to think of a way to rescue Dorothy and the Lion when they are overcome in the poppy fields. The wicked witch of the west commands the flying monkeys with a magic cap and has an eye that can see all. Everybody in the Emerald City must wear emerald glasses. Much of this is preserved in this re-telling. It’s just Muppefied. (For example the wicked witch’s cap is a magic biker’s hat because the flying monkeys are here a leather wearing biker gang.)

Toto is played by Pepe the Prawn, which is probably the biggest departure in the movie. Pepe, and Bill Baretta who performs him, is the break out star of the next generation of Muppets, so it’s a pleasure to see him. He acts to keep the movie light and current, not letting it ever become bogged down. Kermit plays the Scarecrow, the de-facto leader of Dorothy’s band in spite of his not having any brains. Gonzo is the Tin Thing. And Fozzie is the Cowardly Lion. Fozzie is another of the slight departures from the book – here he is afflicted by stage fright and must overcome his fears to become a great comedian. The creatures he must defeat when they are crossing the log are Statler and Waldorf, who try to heckle the group into falling. Miss Piggy plays all four of the witches, a nifty idea that I feel worked really well.

The performances in general are great. Ashanti, as Dorothy, is less irritating than some human stars in Muppet movies have been (in particular I’m thinking of the interminable human musical number in Muppet Christmas Carol, but that’s another review entirely.) At times she seems a little out of her element, but for the most part she holds her own. I was delighted to see Jeffrey Tambor as the Wizard (because I’m always delighted to see Jeffrey Tambor.) Scooter appeared with his first speaking role since Richard Hunt passed away (I believe) here performed by Rickey Boyd. Kevin Clash (best known as Elmo of course) got to reprise the role of Clifford from Muppets Tonight, which is always fun to see. Most importantly for me I noted in the closing credits that the torch had been passed for all of Frank Oz’s characters. I have suspected since the days of Muppets From Space that somebody new has been performing Miss Piggy, Fozzie, Animal, Sam the Eagle and all, and here I finally see his name. It’s Eric Jacobson, in case you’re curious, and he does an admirable job. And of course there’s Bill Baretta as Pepe and Johnny Fiama. I’m so pleased to see so many new Muppets coming into their own and old characters being passed on to a new generation of Muppeteers.

Oh, this isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t have the heart of The Muppet Movie or the originality of Muppets From Space. It does, however, do a good job at what it sets out to do. It provides a new interpretation of the book for all those who have only ever seen the 1939 musical, and it has a number of fun cameos. It could have been just a cheap made-for-TV attempt to wring cash from a pair of old franchises (the Oz books and the Muppets) but in the end it actually manages to entertain by finding a way to blend these two old franchises into something fresh and new.

August 26, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 178 – Time Bandits

Time Bandits – August 25th, 2010

We’ve got a bit of a problem. Or rather, we will, if we’re not careful. You see, I work two evenings a week. It’s in my contract. I don’t get out of work until 9 in the evening. And Andy works all days. So on my evenings we either have to watch a longer movie separately, or a shorter movie together after 9. And we looked through our movies and determined that if we go for another year, we’ve got just enough shorter ones to last us. But that means we need to not squander them on nights when we have more time. When I came up with this project I had no idea it would end up requiring this much planning. It makes things more complicated that we enjoy recognizing birthdays and holidays and the like sometimes. For example, today is Sean Connery’s birthday. We’ve already done The Rock and Zardoz, so we considered Highlander. But we own three Highlander movies (there aren’t any others and don’t try to tell me otherwise), so that would set us up to watch one tomorrow and another Friday. But Friday’s would be a short one! And we have time on Friday! Oh no! So, this tonight. A movie with Sean Connery that’s not too short.

Not that Sean Connery’s in the whole movie. But he does get a section. The way this movie works is rather episodic, which makes sense given the plot. A young boy, Kevin, ends up caught up with a group of bandits who’ve stolen a map that shows holes in time. So they all travel through different time periods and places, stealing stuff as they go, all the while trying to keep ahead of the Supreme Being, whom they stole the map from. He’s sort of like God, but the bandits do point out that they don’t know him well enough to really call him that. They meet Napoleon, putting on a stage act for him before robbing him. Then they meet Robin Hood, who nicks all their loot. Kevin spends some time in Ancient Greece, being proclaimed the heir to Agamemnon’s throne (that would be Sean Connery, once more wearing a loincloth and giving me Zardoz flashbacks). Then off they go again, this time to the Titanic, where they don’t meet Leonardo DiCaprio or Kate Winslet, so we don’t have to see anyone being king of the world. There’s an ogre and his wife, a giant who crushes a house where a very Gilliam-animation-esque character lives, and finally the Fortress of Ultimate Darkness, where the Evil Genius lives. He’s evil, you know. And played by David Warner (though no double role for him in this movie). There’s a big battle, of course. And a bizarre ending. Because this is Terry Gilliam we’re dealing with here.

Now, in the hands of anyone other than Gilliam, this would simply have been an adventure movie through time. Sort of like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure but British, and without Keanu Reeves, and with a main cast of little people. None of whom are Warwick Davis, by the way, so if you meet the man, remember, he wasn’t in Time Bandits. Anyhow, it could have been a fun adventure for kids. But this is Terry Gilliam’s movie. Gilliam and co-writer Michael Palin weren’t ever going to make a simple kids’ adventure flick. There’s a decidedly Pythonish flavor to the whole thing. Certain lines just felt like they could have been said in a Python sketch or movie. In particular, Shelley Duvall and Michael Palin as an ill-fated couple in two time periods, the barrel of arm wrestling arms in Robin Hood’s camp, Kevin’s family at the beginning with their obsession over kitchen appliances. And let’s talk about some of those things. I suppose some of it would go over kids’ heads, or strike them as funny for a different reason as they might strike their parents as funny. But it’s not all kid-level humor. It’s strange and tongue-in-cheek in places and just plain odd in others. But all in a good way, in my opinion.

Sadly, a lot of the effects show their age fairly clearly. The monster Agamemnon fights is pretty laughable, as are the Evil Genius’s henchmen, dressed in fake horns and what look like plastic bags. By today’s standards, it looks a little threadbare in places. But you sort of have to expect that. And it doesn’t really take away from the fun and inanity of it all. It helps that the cast is so fantastic. The bandits themselves are all excellent, and the kid who played Kevin was certainly well cast, but then there’s a whole host of rather famous actors playing what amount to bit parts. Sean Connery as Agamemnon, John Cleese as Robin Hood, Ian Holm as Napoleon, just to name a few. I rather like that these Big Name Actors played the Big Name Characters, but ended up with far far less screen time than the bandits. And I think they more than deserve credit. David Rappaport did a wonderful job as Randall, who is certainly not their leader! And of course Kenny Baker was awesome as Figit. But Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds, Jack Purvis and Tiny Ross were fantastic as well. I was saddened to read that Rappaport, Purvis and Ross have all since passed away. I’d have loved to see a sequel, but it’s a credit to the actors that I don’t think any others could have filled their roles.

Overall, it’s a film that wants to be fun, and in large part it succeeds. Yes, the ending is an odd one, and yes, the movie is too. But it’s funny and over the top and a great bit of fantasy that could all be in Kevin’s history-obsessed imagination or could really have happened. It’s never made clear and it doesn’t have to be. It’s not like the movie needs to make sense. It just needs to make you laugh. It’s fairly obviously a Gilliam movie, and so I sort of pity anyone who goes into it without prior knowledge of him. But if you enjoy his work, obviously you have to see it.

August 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Time Bandits

August 25, 2010

Time Bandits

For Sir Sean Connery’s birthday we decided to watch a movie with Sean Connery in it. But we’ve already watched Zardoz and The Rock, we don’t want to start yet on Highlander or Indiana Jones, and we don’t have any of the older James Bonds. But wait! Sean Connery had a small role in Time Bandits, that great Terry Gilliam fantasy film. (He is second billed behind John Clease.)

I have what might be a worshipful respect for this movie. I first saw it in theaters when it came out in 1981, and it left an indelible mark on my nine-year-old psyche. Which, of course, is exactly the reaction that Gilliam was going for I think. I was already a fan of his strange animations on Monty Python’s Flying Circus of course, but it was this movie that really introduced me to him and his wonderfully twisted worlds.

What’s so subversive, to my mind, about this movie is that it masquerades so well as a children’s movie. It’s an exciting tale of a young boy named Kevin and his adventures when a group of thieves break into his bedroom by way of his wardrobe and carry him off through a series of holes in time and space. They’ve got this map, you see, created by the Supreme Being that shows where all the holes in creation can be found. They’ve decided that rather than repair the holes in the universe (which is what the Supreme Being told them to do) they’re going to exploit them to steal treasures from all kinds of points in time.

The time bandits themselves are a colorful crew of little people. My favorite has always been Fidgit, played by Kenny Baker, who is sort of the kindest of the lot. He’s the one who most often sticks up for Kevin and shows some compassion. The self appointed leader is Randall, played by David Rappaport. Randall is the so-called brains of the operation, and tends to get his way by bossing the other guys around mercilessly. David ends up being pretty much the star of the movie, because it is his character who drives the plot, and because Randall has the most lines. There’s also Og (the dim one,) Vermin (who eats anything) and Strutter and Wally, who seem more sensible. (There’s a credit for Horseflesh, who actually made the map, but I don’t think he’s in the movie. Relegated to the cutting room floor I guess.)

As the group goes about their quest through space and time they traipse through a variety of historic moments and encounter a range of eccentric characters, which allows Gilliam to bring in a big ensemble of wonderful actors to play them. Ian Holm’s role as Napoleon defined him for me for years after I watched this movie. Seeing him in Brazil or Fellowship of the Ring I found myself constantly thinking “Oh! It’s the guy who played Napoleon.” The truth of the matter is that he’s a wonderful and eclectic character actor who makes every role he plays fresh, but this was the first thing I saw him in and it stuck with me. As a Python fan of course I was happy to see John Cleese (who plays Robin Hood as a fairly dim upper-class twit with a very silly hat) and Michael Palin (who plays a pair of guys who are besotted with Shelly Duvall in different time periods.) There’s David Warner (who just keeps cropping up in unexpected places in our collection) as Evil incarnate. And there’s our birthday boy himself, Sean Connery, as the dashing and charismatic hero who completely fails to save Kevin on more than one occasion.

What sets this movie apart from the vast majority of cinema aimed at youths is the slightly warped and unsettling nature of the way things play out. I’m not just talking about the way that the movie ends so unresolved, but about the general tone of the whole film. Kevin and the bandits are surrounded by violence and death much of the time. And throughout the film things very rarely go well for them.

It could have been just a cool adventure story for kids, had it not also been a Terry Gilliam film. Particularly when the band goes into the time of legends, with its ogres, giant, invisible barrier and fortress of ultimate evil, you can feel yourself falling into Gilliam’s fevered imagination. He fills the movie with vivid and unforgettable images, cool miniatures, and strangely human monsters. This is one of those movies that I just love watching. It’s unsettling and creepy, but entertaining and humorous as well. The perfect vehicle to twist a young nine-year-old’s brain for life.

August 25, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 177 – Unleashed

Unleashed – August 24th, 2010

I should apologize right now, because I’m about to get all serious in here. Serious about an action/martial arts flick. I know that’s not usually how these movies are meant to be watched, but watching it I found I couldn’t help but think serious thoughts about the plot. When we put it in tonight, I thought I’d be getting mindless action, some cool fight scenes with Jet Li, and all in under two hours so we could finish in time for me to write my review. No problem! And instead I’m thinking about child development and present-day slavery.

None of the coursework I did in grad school covered this sort of stuff. We mostly talked about literacy. So let me start by saying that the alphabet book Danny’s got near the beginning? The one he’s fascinated by and spends so much time looking at? Well, it makes a great prop for the movie, but a shitty alphabet book. An abstract concept like love? Tough. I don’t doubt there are books that have used it, but still. It prodded my librarian brain. It said “Cute idea, but not realistic!” Which sort of sums up a good portion of the movie for me. Oh, I enjoyed it, let me assure you, but like I said. I’m getting serious.

See, the movie takes this plot, with a loan shark, Bart, who’s got a fighter he’s trained up to be his muscle. And the fighter is Danny, who’s been with Bart almost his whole life. And he’s well trained to attack on command. You know, the alternate title of this movie is Danny the Dog. All Danny knows is to be quiet until his collar is off and when the collar’s off, attack on Bart’s command. And he’s lethal. Ruthless. Emotionless and efficient. The perfect tool. Not a human being at all. And as the plot goes, Danny escapes and meets a man named Sam who tunes pianos and lives with his step-daughter, Victoria, and they take Danny in and show him what a normal life is like until, of course, Bart shows up and wants Danny back and then there’s lots of fighting. Look at that plot. Look at it hard. This is slavery we’re looking at here, and while I’m sure we’d all like to think slavery’s a thing of the past, it would be painfully ignorant to believe it.

Slavery, the owning and using of another human being, is the gimmick that drives the movie. Danny hasn’t been free to make his own decisions and live his own life since he was seven. I know I’m taking this far more seriously than some, given that this is an action flick, but then there’s the whole middle section with Sam and Victoria. The writers wanted to show the effects Bart’s abuse has had on Danny, from his ignorance of cutlery to his total disregard of violence happening nearby. We’re supposed to see the bad stuff. And I think this is what bothers me, even though I did enjoy the movie. It’s presenting this horrible situation, with a man being kept as an animal and made to fight, and I know that slavery exists in the real world, and then it also asks us to accept that this unspeakably hideous damage done to the main character can be undone in a matter of weeks or months. Maybe I am taking it too seriously. It would be nice if some cooking and music lessons could undo decades of abuse. Maybe it’s better to just think of the movie as a fantasy. It’s rooted in reality. Painful and ugly reality. But it’s not real.

So, fantasy it is. And as a fantasy it does just fine. After all, the fight sequences are almost magical themselves. They’re full of slow motion cuts where near misses are lovingly captured for the viewer to admire from several angles. Jet Li as Danny spends every fight sequence doing moves that defy belief, bouncing from one enemy to the next and back again until they’re all gone. The movie starts with him up against a group and that’s really a thing for this movie. One on one fights are just so boring! We need multiple assailants to really spice things up, so every fight has a couple of people for Danny to beat on. And if the fights had been the whole movie it would have just been a very nicely done martial arts action movie. But then there’s that plot.

Now, I’m not going to complain about Morgan Freeman as Sam. I love Morgan Freeman, and he does play a good fatherly figure. When we review Batman Begins I’m sure I’ll get to wax rhapsodic about him and Michael Caine overloading the paternal wisdom intake in my brain. And I’m not going to complain about Kerry Condon as Victoria. She’s got an odd quirky character to play and she manages to make Victoria endearing instead of annoying. And I rather like their little family, brought together by tragedy and loss and kept together by music and compassion for one another. It’s a nice theme. It just strikes me as so oddly unexpected in the middle of a movie that starts with a fight sequence.

I guess what my problem is, is that while I enjoyed the movie, I was too aware of all of the nitpicky stuff. When I let go of all of that, it was a fun movie to watch. The performances are great, especially Bob Hoskins as Bart, and the fight scenes are a treat for those who like that sort of thing (and I do). So I’d suggest not doing what I did and getting bogged down in the particulars and realities unless you really want to do some serious thinking. If you want to enjoy a fun action movie, just let it go. Pretend it’s set fifty years from now or something. Because it’s an unexpected sort of movie. An action movie with a heart. And while it’s worth thinking about, it’s also worth just watching.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Unleashed

August 24, 2010

Unleashed

It’s a Tuesday today, which means that we needed a shorter movie if we were to review it before the day was out. Amanda was in the mood for an action movie, preferably one she hadn’t seen yet. So we settled on Uleashed (A.K.A. Danny the Dog.) As I was putting it into the DVD player Amanda asked me if this was likely to be a movie she’d have to pay close attention to. I told her that it wasn’t likely to be.

I figured that this was a movie that could be summed up in about three sentences. “Danny is a killing machine raised by an English mobster to kill anybody on command. Eventually he is freed by circumstances from his life of violence and taken in by a kindly blind piano tuner and his daughter. Eventually his new life must collide with his old.” It’s not exactly deep or new in any way. But even so, it is a cool movie and one I’m glad I have in my collection.

For one thing this movie came out at a time when the name Yuen Woo-Ping was just beginning to resonate on this side of the world. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had won a bunch of Oscars, and his distinctive work had been featured in the Matrix and Kill Bill movies. Nobody knows better than he how to choreograph an impressive fight scene. And choreograph is definately the correct word, because the fights in a Wo-Ping movie are intricate dances, always with distinctive movements and intricate design. (For the Jackie Chan fan in me he’s always been the fight choreographer for Drunken Master.) So his name alone in the credits is enough to assure you that a fun movie lies ahead.

Add to that some really big names. Jet Li plays Danny. He gets not only to fight against crazy odds and do all kinds of cool stunts, but do it with this hang-dog look of bewilderment. Danny has known nothing but death and destruction and has almost no human feeling left in him. When he’s wearing his collar he shambles about completely disconnected and only comes to life when his master removes the collar and commands him to kill. It’s fun to see Danny as he emerges from this world and starts to discover what happiness can be, and what has been missing from his life.

The two opposing forces in Danny’s life are represented by Bob Hoskins as “Uncle Bart” the nefarious and thoroughly loathsome gangster who made Danny what he is and Morgan Freeman as Sam, the man who takes Danny in and gives him a new life. Both take their roles to the kind of extreme that only seasoned actors can without quite descending into caricature. Hoskins is wonderfully evil. His character is full of angry bluster and clearly out of his depth much of the time. And Freeman takes a role which is basically an extension of the kindly blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein and manages to almost make him seem plausible. Almost.

If this movie has a flaw in my mind it is that the bright new life that Danny stumbles upon is so blissfully and completely perfect. There’s Sam and his daughter Victoria. They take in the wounded and clearly mentally unhinged Danny without ever a second thought. Sam is a font of well meaning home-spun advice and gentle encouragement. He teaches Danny how to shop for fresh produce and how to cook. And Victoria gives Danny lessons on how to play the piano. Neither of them ever pressure Danny as to why he was stumbling about with a gunshot wound, no social skills, and a strange collar on. It’s like two kindly people taking in Leatherface when they find him dying in the street and providing him with nothing but love and affection. It lends a slightly dreamlike quality to the whole movie.

As I wrote this review I noted that the movie was written by Luc Besson and it was as though a light had gone off in my head. “Of course!” This is like a kinder and gentler version of Leon. It has that Luc Besson trope of a unique individual who suddenly finds a reason to live and then has to face impossible odds to keep the new life they’ve found for themselves.

So if you had a movie written by Luc Besson, choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, and starring Jet Li, Bob Hoskins and Morgan Freeman… well there’s nothing else it could be but this. A simple but fun to watch tale of a man facing impossible odds to gain a new life for himself. It’s not a movie that requires a lot of attention, but it’s a movie that you find you WANT to pay attention to. It’s gritty but light. A simple and enjoyable way to spend a Tuesday evening.

August 24, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , | Leave a comment

Movie 176 – Spirited Away

Spirited Away – August 23rd, 2010

This movie came out the same year I graduated from college and I admit, I never saw it. I often avoid animated films in the theater (I’ve made a few exceptions recently, for the sake of Andy and friends) and eh. I just never got around to it. I wouldn’t say it got hyped to me. I heard great things about it but no one was labeling it as a religious experience or anything. I just didn’t make time to put it in. For one, it’s got subtitles. I’m not fond of dubbed movies but I’m not fluent in any language but English, so subtitles are how I roll. So it’s not like I could be doing anything else while watching it. And for two, even dubbed I knew it would be something I wanted to focus on. And it just never happened.

I admit, I’m not really in a writing mood tonight, which is a shame I know, because this movie was lovely and certainly worth writing about. It is very solidly a coming of age story, wrapped up in folktale trappings and beautifully animated. It’s got symbolism and meaning and subtext jam packed into every inch. I’m sure there are film studies, folklore and comparative lit students still writing term papers on this movie even nine years after its release. It’s that sort of movie. And don’t for one minute think I’m saying that as a negative. It’s a movie that has a lot of love and care in its making and it shows. Which is why I feel poorly about not really being up for a big in-depth review tonight.

Part of my reticence, I know, is that I’m simply not familiar with Japanese folklore. Bits and pieces gleaned from here and there, some other anime, some manga, friends and aquaintences in college, yes. But I just don’t feel like I have nearly enough background knowledge to really talk intelligently about some of the things in this movie. Sure, on the surface I can talk about the coming of age stuff and some rather obvious themes of greed and selflessness, modernity and tradition, but I know I’m missing things when it comes to the specifics. Not to mention anything that requires knowledge of the Japanese language. I feel bad about that.

So I’ll be sticking to the larger themes in the story. Good thing they’re well done and enjoyable. We meet Chihiro and her parents on their way to their new home in a new town. Chihiro’s unhappy about the move and generally acting sullen and annoyed. When the family gets lost and ends up in a mysterious place, Chihiro’s parents break the first rule about visiting a magical land and eat. That’s a common trope in all sorts of mythologies. I’m sure someone’s written a dissertation on it by now, talking about food as a means of binding someone to a place and the sociological implications. I am not that someone. I just like seeing it pop up. Anyhow, Chihiro’s parents get trapped in this magical land and she stays behind to help free them, managing to befriend a mysterious boy and get herself signed on as a helper in a bath house where the clients are all gods and spirits. The bath house is run by a cranky old witch Yubaba, and she and the rest of the staff think Chihiro’s terribly out of place, what with being human and all. And so Chihiro is faced with daunting tasks and manual labor while she tries to figure out how to save her parents. Who have turned into pigs. Gee, where have I seen that before?

I feel like it would be silly to recount each and every detail of Chihiro’s quest. And it is a quest. We’re not talking the sort of quest where you go and find a magical sword and use it to kill a monster, here. We’re talking a quieter sort of quest. One you might not know you’re on until you’ve accomplished your goal and realize just how far you had to go to do it. But the point of the quest here isn’t so much the goal as the journey. In some ways, there’s a Wizard of Oz or Labyrinth feel to it all. There’s even a bit near the end where two characters are informed that a spell binding them has long since been gone and they could change back any time. Very similar to the “You could go home whenever you wanted!” or “You have no power over me!” themes. And those movies aren’t so much about the goal either. They’re about the journey too. They’re about the obstacles and tasks and puzzles. They’re about learning about yourself and that you can accomplish things on your own if you have to, but asking for help isn’t a bad thing either. And this movie does a wonderful job taking that idea, that theme, and presenting it in a magical way.

I don’t know if I can adequately describe the animation and visuals in this movie. They’re what makes the story truly come alive. Yubaba is a fantastic crone, looking somewhat like a cross between old-lady-Sophie and the Witch of the Waste from Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle. She’s all exaggerated features and oversized face. The proportions on the people in the magical world are all off in bizarre ways, looking normal in some respects, and then utterly not. The spirits and gods are a mix of strange and wonderful and there were moments when I wanted to pause just to see everyone in the bath house. This is where I wish I knew more about Japanese folklore. I feel like I might be missing things. Little nods and references. Is six-armed Kamaji a reference to something or someone? What about the big guy who gets in the elevator with Chihiro, with the things that look like daikon radishes? Is that it or is there something more? Is the river spirit something traditional or unique to the movie? And what about No-Face? I just don’t know. But I enjoyed it regardless.

I probably could write more. There’s a lot to the movie and a lot to explore. But if I tried, I’d likely make a mess of it. And besides, even without all the thinky bits it’s still a lovely movie and fun to watch. You can pick it apart, but you really don’t have to in order to enjoy it. There’s drama and a love story and humor and danger and what more could one ask from an animated adventure tale?

August 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Spirited Away

August 23, 2010

Spirited Away

I didn’t even start my review for tonight’s movie until we had reached the closing credits. With most movies we put in I’m at least jotting notes, looking away from time to time, or nipping out to grab a cup of tea during the movie. But this film is so mesmerizing, so beautiful and so captivating that I found, even after having seen it before in the past, that I couldn’t look away. It’s the magic and power of Hayao Miyazaki at his very best.

I’ve always been fascinated by fairy tales. They can be magical and wondrous, but also dark and frightening. The lands of farie are not places to be traveled lightly, and they are full of subtle traps. If a person isn’t careful they can easily be drawn in and stuck there forever. Just as Pan’s Labyrinth is Guillermo del Toro’s homage to the twisted farie realm, this movie is Miyazaki-san’s. It’s a fabulous piece of world-building that borrows tropes from traditional tales but adds a typically Miyazakian flare.

Young Chihiro is moving with her parents to a new home. At the start of the film she is petulant and upset, not wanting to move and sad that she’s having to leave her old life behind. But when her father takes a wrong turn they happen upon a mysterious building with a long tunnel running through it – a tunnel that leads to another land. Chihiro’s parents break one of the cardinal rules of most farie lands and gorge themselves on a fabulous feast they happen upon. She chooses not to succumb to the feast and explores further, discovering a huge mysterious building. There she is met by a boy who warns her to flee – to escape back the way she came before night falls. But as she tries to run away she finds that her parents have been turned into pigs by their piggish behavior, and that a vast river has replaced the little stream she and her parents crossed earlier. She is trapped, a lone human among mysterious creatures in a strange and magical realm.

There are a lot of references to folk tales I’m familiar with. The not eating in a mystical realm. The power of names. Curses and witches and dragons. But there’s also a strong Japanese influence throughout. The giant building Chihiro first came upon turns out to be a bath-house for the gods of the land. It’s a very shintoist world, with gods and spirits associated with the rivers, rocks and skies. And it is very much a product of the fertile mind of Hayao Miyazaki. The gods catered to by the bathhouse are a motley crew of lumbering but also charming beasts. There are giant chicks, strange masked ghostlike figures, a bulbous rotund man-thing that appears to be a root of some sort… There’s no way that in one viewing you can see them all. It’s just wonder piled on top of wonder and strangeness piled on top of strangeness.

Of course all of it is brought to life with the most amazing hand drawn animation ever accomplished. It’s a Studio Ghibli thing. Look, for example, at the oozing “stink god” with its organic flowing ichor. Look at the many-armed Kamaji who runs the boilers beneath the building. Look at all the many vast crowds of bizarre creatures throughout the movie. As you would expect given its pedigree this movie is an absolute feast for the eyes.

What I love most about the film, however, is its gentle heart. This is another trademark of Miyazaki. Every conflict in this movie is resolved through the steadfast and unswerving resolve of Chihiro, and by her constant kindness to everybody. She treats even the most frightening beasts with compassion and respect, and the result is that she experiences kindness in return. It’s a message that I truly appreciate. Something that resonates powerfully with me, and something I aspire to in my daily life.

I’ll admit that when I first saw this movie I was not as moved by it. I was contrasting it, at the time, with Princess Mononoke, which is a movie with a much darker and sadder tone to it. I don’t know quite what I was thinking. Maybe I thought that this movie was more childish. But looking at it now I realize that there’s a distinction between childish and child-like. That something doesn’t have to be dark and bleak to be moving. And that nowadays I’m more attuned to movies that present a world-view where optimism and kindness can really make the world a better place.

August 23, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 175 – White on Rice

White on Rice – August 22nd, 2010

This movie went through a bunch of film festivals a little while back, and when it did a friend of ours from high school was talking about it on Facebook. Turns out he’s got a producing credit, which is pretty cool. We were curious about it and asked him when we could get a hold of it on DVD so we could add it to the collection and to this project and he said he’d send us a copy. So this marks the first time we get to do that disclaimery thing and say that one of the producers gave us a DVD copy of the movie. A pretty cool milestone and a pretty cool movie.

I’ll warn up front, there’s a good deal of awkward and embarrassment-based comedy in this movie. It was never so bad that I felt like I had to leave the room, but it’s in there. Mostly because the main character is such a walking disaster. A cheerful walking disaster, but a walking disaster nonetheless. That’s the point. That’s what the movie’s about. It’s about 40 year old Jimmy and his life and his family and how incredibly badly he messes everything up even when he’s trying to do nice things. He means well, but his goof-ups are impressive. The movie could just have been a series of those goof-ups, each one out-doing the last. And to an extent, it is. But that’s really just the framework for what is a fun and oddly endearing movie.

You see, Jimmy lives with his sister and her husband and son. He had a bit of a hard time after his wife left him (she cooked him three months’ worth of meals so he wouldn’t starve – Jimmy’s that sort of guy), so he’s been living with them, sharing a bedroom with ten year old Bob. Jimmy’s really much like a kid himself. He’s all eagerness and misunderstandings and tremendous effort pushed in the wrong direction. His sister, Aiko, is incredibly understanding of Jimmy’s foibles. Her husband, Tak? Not so much. Bob doesn’t seem to care one way or the other. He’s got more important things to worry about than Jimmy.

The movie begins with Tak’s niece, Ramona, coming to stay with the family for a little bit and Jimmy latching onto the idea that Ramona will be the new love of his life. You can imagine how well that goes. I’d go so far as to say that Ramona having a boyfriend already is the least of the obstacles in Jimmy’s way. But really, the movie begins with a clip from a samurai movie Jimmy was an extra in when he was younger, shown while Jimmy, Aiko and Tak watch (Jimmy makes Bob leave the room). It’s a cute little moment and some fun foreshadowing for the eventual climax of the film. To be honest, I’d totally watch Ambush at Blood-Trail Gate if it really existed. I’d probably laugh just like Aiko and Jimmy do. Tak isn’t so amused, and that pretty much sets the stage for the rest of the movie.

A lot of the things Jimmy does make me wince. His obsession with Ramona is so transparently one-sided and he’s the only one who doesn’t see it. He hates his job and pays no attention to it, he’s got no money, no skills, no life. All he has is his love of dinosaurs and the top bunk of his nephew’s bed. It’s kind of sad. Except he’s relentlessly optimistic about it all. He’s going to find the girl of his dreams and a great job and everything’s going to be awesome! Hiroshi Watanabe, as Jimmy, really does a fantastic job of taking a hang-dog look and turning it right around into a hopeful grin and making you want that hopeful grin to be right this time. It’s tough to like Jimmy. I found myself sympathizing with Tak a lot, though I also sympathized with Aiko. Jimmy’s thoroughly infuriating. All the more so because he seems so clueless about how badly he messes things up and gets things wrong. But then he’s such a genuinely nice guy.

I don’t think I need to explain the details of how Jimmy crashes and burns with Ramona. This isn’t so much a love story as a coming of age story, except the age is 40. It’s almost a midlife crisis story, except you never get the impression that this is a new phase for Jimmy. It’s more that he’s never quite found his purchase in life. He’s never figured out what he wants to do, let alone how to do it. And yet it’s also not a triumphant story of a man learning how to cope after his wife leaves him. Jimmy remains a disaster to the end.

But it’s also the story of a family needing a little bit of a bump to get back on track. In between all of Jimmy’s messes is the story of Aiko, Tak and Bob, who seem to all be off in their own worlds. Aiko and Tak are both working a lot, and so is Bob, who’s got his own deal going on. I knew a kid who was just like Bob once. He used to come to my book club at work. It’s almost eerie. If I hadn’t been certain that the kid I knew is high school age by now, I’d have been tempted to check the credits. Let me just say, Justin Kwong does a great job with the role. He’s the straight man to a lot of Jimmy’s lines and does it excellently. Jimmy’s presence in the household doesn’t really help things between Bob and his parents, but it does make for a fun dynamic and a great conversation between Aiko and Tak where whether they’re talking about Jimmy or Bob isn’t quite clear. The two stories could have felt uneven or disconnected, but they don’t. They fit just fine and end up complimenting each other.

Towards the middle I felt like things dragged a little bit. I’m not sure if I can pinpoint what it was, but before one plot point that takes place on Halloween, it got a wee bit unfocused to me. Fortunately, once the Halloween crisis happens, things pick back up and we’re moving right along again. There are a couple of moments that are scenes from Jimmy’s imagination that I’m not sure if I liked or not. It happens maybe twice. Not enough to establish it as a stylistic choice but enough that it made me wonder if it would be incorporated more. But aside from those and the bit of slowness, the movie flows very well. The cast is great and there were a few laugh out loud moments for me. Given that most of these “What am I doing with my life?” type movies are either about 20-somethings or about folks in their 50s who are definitely adults in all senses of the term, this is certainly unique. And you might not really like Jimmy at the end, but I couldn’t help but hope he landed on his feet. With no broken legs.

Just to make it clear, we were given a copy of this movie on DVD by one of the producers. While our self-imposed rules of the project do state that we’re watching every movie in our collection, we reserve the right to not include gifts if we don’t want to. This protects us from having to watch things we didn’t want and also means we make no guarantee of a review in the case that something is sent to us.

August 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

White on Rice

August, 22, 2010

White on Rice

This is a special treat for us here at A and A. Because of the runaway success of our blog and our extensive Hollywood insider contacts we have scored a preview copy of a movie that hasn’t even been released on DVD yet. Well, okay, we got a pre-release preview copy because our high-school friend is one of the producers, but that counts as insider contacts, right?

I’m not kidding about this being a treat though. I’d like to think that if I were still working at a video store, and if this movie showed up on my shelves I’d have seen it then and enjoyed recommending it to those of my patrons who enjoy simple, amusing, and well made independent films. I just happen, through fortuitous circumstance, to have a chance to discover it a little bit before the rest of the world.

White on Rice is the story of Jimmy, a twelve year old trapped in the body of a forty year old man. His wife has left him and he’s been forced to move in with his sister and her husband, living on the bunk-bed with their son in the basement. Jimmy is, for the most part, a bumbling idiot full of good intentions who, in spite of his enthusiasm, is completely incapable of ever getting anything right. His sister Aiko finds him fun, even with all the trouble he causes. His brother-in-law Tak thinks he’s an unbearable nuisance (and to be fair, Jimmy has been responsible for a fair number of disasters.) Jimmy tries to be an adult role model for his nephew Bob, which is ironic because Bob, at all of ten years old, is the most adult person in the whole family. All the time Jimmy is trying to find a new woman to fill the hole left by his wife, with very little luck.

As the movie starts Tak’s niece Ramona is preparing to visit the family for a while, and Jimmy gets it into his head that she is the perfect woman for him. The only problem is that she already has a boyfriend; Jimmy’s suave and cool co-worker Tim. So if he is to convince Ramona that he is the man for her he will have to overcome not just the objections of Tak and Tim’s coolness, but his own bumbling ways.

Hiroshi Watanabe, as Jimmy, has a very difficult tightrope to walk here. Jimmy is a complete fool almost all of the time. Even his best intentioned efforts to do things right tend to backfire, and it’s easy to see why Tak desperately wants him out of the house. When he tries to be clever or duplicitous in his attempts to woo Ramona it is almost cringe inducing. It would be easy to over do this and end up with the lead character being so destructive and oblivious that the movie would suffer for it, but Hiroshi manages to play him with such wide-eyed enthusiasm that you can’t help having a soft spot for the character. He can’t help being what he is, and you do sort of come to appreciate that he’s trying to do his best.

The rest of the cast does a great job as well. Particularly delightful is Mio Takada as Tak, Jimmy’s long-suffering brother-in-law. At first his whole purpose in the movie is to disapprove of Jimmy, with a series of grumpy and dour glares, but as things progress he has a side-plot that adds a lot more depth to his character. Tak is worried that his wife, too, might lose interest in him and as their twelfth anniversary is almost upon them he is trying in his own quiet, desperate way to show her that he still cares. Meanwhile both he and his wife have sort of lost touch with their industrious but lonely son. There are some good laughs in this side-plot and also some touching tenderness.

Indeed I’d say that that is true of most of the movie. It combines laugh out loud moments of brutal honesty with a kind hearted message of familial love. Sure there are bumps along the way, and sure Jimmy almost inadvertently ruins everything he touches, but ultimately the real heart of the movie wins out.

Writer/Director Dave Boyle does a great job too. You never get the feeling that this is a small film made on an independent film budget. The actors are all fully committed to their parts, and if there were corners being cut it’s not easily seen on film. There are even some clever innovations that come out of the budgetary restraints. (My favorite shot in the movie is one of a car speeding off with one of the lead characters in peril, and the camera bounces and bobs as the cameraman literally runs after it. It’s not a POV shot, but the harsh camera movement really imparted to me an urgency that a dolly shot or a simple zoom would have lacked.)

This movie was just fun to watch. From its fantastic cinematic opening to Jimmy’s fun dreams to his every awkward attempt to interact with normal human beings there were honest and simple laughs throughout. And of course as a twelve year old boy in a forty year old body myself I can’t help sympathising with Jimmy’s plight. I somewhat regret not working in a video store any more so I can’t recommend it to anybody when it does eventually make its way to DVD (after its whirlwind tour of the indie film circuit is done later this year.)

August 22, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment