A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

The Last Samurai

August 14, 2011

The Last Samurai

I honestly cannot remember what possessed me to buy this movie. I am not a huge Tom Cruise fan and I didn’t particularly need to see him starring in a movie about a white man learning the ways of the samurai – the whole “great white savior” trope is one that doesn’t sit entirely well with me. (I’m sure that Amanda will be exploring that in some detail in her review – her hatred for this condescending cliche of a white man who goes native is the main reason we do not own Avatar.) I suppose it must be down to my general obsession with Japan in general.

When I was in college I took a couple courses specifically about Japan. Not because thy were part of my major or a requirement for me but because the idea of learning about Japan appealed to me. One was an introduction to Japanese culture in general (remember that this was before the days of the world wide web so I had not heard the term Otaku and there was no 4-Chan for all your Japanese pop culture needs.) The other course was on Japanese art history, and was one of the best courses I took in all my time at Occidental. It tied Japanese art through the years to the history of the islands and the influences on it – and it included visits to local museums to see gorgeous scrolls and silk screens. The funny thing is that I don’t ever remember making a conscious decision to study Japan – it just happened. When I was applying for courses I knew very little about Japan except that all the coolest cartoons came from there but these classes just appealed to me on some level.

This movie has a feeling like it was custom made for that younger version of myself. It’s a sort of ode to feudal Japan couched in a fictional tale about an American soldier hired by a faction in the Japanese government to train soldiers in modern combat to put down an uprising by a rebellious Samurai warlord. It seems as if it’s a movie aimed at people who think Japan is pretty cool but who don’t know an awful lot about it and need to be carefully shown how this tradition-steeped ancient culture would appear to a westerner. It also appears to have been heavily influenced by James Clavelle’s novel Shogun, which I remember reading one summer around the time I was taking those classes at Oxy and which touches on many of the same themes.

The protagonist of our story here is Nathan Algran, a soldier who was in Custer’s employ and who has descended to alcoholism to staunch the nightmares brought on by his campaign to slaughter innocent Native Americans. When he’s hired to train a new and more modern Japanese army it is very much implied that the Samurai he is sent to defeat are noble savages like the American tribes he helped to destroy. I can see the parallels I suppose, but it sometimes feels strained and somewhat condescending.

Algran is captured during a disastrous attack on the Samurai, and kept alive by their wise leader, the Samurai Katsumoto who once trained the Emperor in combat. From there it’s a fairly predictable tale of the modern man going native and learning to love the primitive but honorable people he has been sent to subdue. It’s all portrayed as a struggle to preserve the traditional ways in the face of the advance of the new modern world at the end of the nineteenth century. All very melodramatic and all pretty well travelled territory.

What saves this movie for me from being just another Dances with Wolves re-make is the gorgeous cinematography and direction. That and Ken Watanabe. Watanabe plays Katsumoto with such dignity and passion that I instantly loved him. Of course it’s a prime role – Katsumoto is the driving force in the movie and its most important figure – but it also takes a great actor to bring a role like this to life. Ken Watanabe is a fantastic actor – even when he’s working in a language that’s clearly new to him.

Okay, I admit it, this IS just a re-make of Dances with Wolves. That was such a good movie though that I can stand to watch another one. I love Japan – old and new – and this movie is a big gooey love note to Japan. Sure it was filmed in Middle Earth (a.k.a. New Zealand) but it looks enough like a sort of idealized Japan to work. It has great epic battle scenes reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. It has a big samurai vs ninja fight scene. It has gorgeous scenery and a sort of picturesque longing for a lost time of honest simplicity which in all likelihood never existed. I hope that someday, when I do finally go to visit Japan as a gawking tourist that the expectations raised by movies like this and a hundred others don’t leave me wanting more.

August 14, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 509 – Newsies

Newsies – July 22nd, 2011

Several years back, when Christian Bale was announced as the new Batman, I remember being immediately excited. I stated at the time that I thought he was an excellent choice and I was looking forward to seeing him in the role. And, at the time, Andy looked at me and wondered where he should know Christian Bale from. My incredulous reply was “NEWSIES!” Which didn’t really help him, because he had never seen it. I, on the other hand, had it memorized and had entertained a brief early teen crush on Bale based solely on his performance in it. I stand by my 12 year old self on this one. Bale was a cutie even at 17/18 and he dances in this!

Given my antipathy towards both Disney and musicals, one might wonder just how in hell I came to watch this movie so many times that I know it by heart. One would have to know my family’s history with cable for that. We didn’t have cable when I was younger. Most of my friends and classmates did, but we didn’t. For the most part, while I knew that in theory there were many things to watch that I was missing, I was content with what we had on broadcast television. And then my family spent two weeks renting a house on Cape Cod one summer. And this house had cable. And on A&E, for two hours every evening – just at the right time for dinner – The Avengers was on. Two hours of Steed and Emma or Steed and Tara(raboomdiay) that we hadn’t seen in ages because no broadcast channels were airing the show and the episodes we could buy on tape were limited. We lasted about four days when we got home. The cable guy was called in before the week was out. My mother had him lock out MTV and VH1 and subscribed to Disney as a “wholesome” channel for myself and my brother. Of course, she never changed the default code on the remote so I unlocked MTV whenever I was home on my own, but I did watch the Disney channel every so often as well. And they played this movie over and over and over and over and over.

Eventually I taped it off tv so I could watch it whenever. Inexplicably my brother also enjoyed it enough not to complain when I put it in. We’d sit and watch it and I’d make jokes about it (I was a born riffer) and make him laugh and somewhere along the line I memorized every line, every song, every stage direction. Everything. It was hard-pressed not to sing along with it watching it now, but I thought Andy would likely look at me funny. I’m sure he was laughing at me when I couldn’t help but mouth the words. Really, I should have been watching this with a couple of friends from college who love it like I do, so we’d have outnumbered him and been able to sing along. I mentioned on facebook that I was watching it and immediately one friend posted “I’M DA KING OF NEW YAWWWK” and we discussed the upcoming stage musical opening in September (why yes, I will be going). So what I’m saying here is that this movie is full of nostalgia for me.

Oh, it’s not perfect. I have to wonder what the impetus was for this movie, to be honest. It’s the story of the Newsies strike in 1899, which was a real thing that happened and was part of the whole labor reform movement in the US. And I find early labor reform really fascinating. So I’m all for a story about children organizing a strike to demand fair treatment. But what an odd choice for Disney to make a movie about. For children. I mean, it’s about kids, but it’s about a period in US history that’s rarely touched on. I mean, who covers the Spanish American War and its domestic consequences in depth at the age at which this movie is targeted? The late 1800s and early 1900s aren’t really a time period that gets a lot of kids movies made about it. Apparently it was originally conceived as a drama without musical numbers. And yet here we are, watching Christian Bale and David Moscow leap and kick and tap their way through Seize the Day, King of New York and several others. It’s a truly bizarre combination that to this day I can’t quite wrap my head around. No wonder it was a theatrical flop.

Despite all that, however, there is something about this movie that I find irresistible. I’m not sure what it is, specifically, that draws me to it because if all I wanted was to see Bale dancing I could just watch clips of this movie set to songs by Lady Gaga (yes, this is a thing, and it is wonderful) but that’s just not as satisfying. I do like the story, which follows Bale as Jack “Cowboy” Kelly and new friend David Jacobs (played by David Moscow) as they urge their fellow newspaper-selling peers to strike in protest of a price increase they can’t pass on to their customers. Jack’s an orphan with a history he’d like to forget about, sings about going to Santa Fe and is generally considered the best of the best by his peers (except the kids from Brooklyn, who have their own leader) where David gets into newspaper selling at the beginning of the movie to help out his family while his father is recovering from a work injury. With David’s smarts and Jack’s charisma and connections they manage to rally all the newsies in the city.

Of course the movie needs a villain and we get two good figures: There’s Joseph Pulitzer, played by Robert Duvall – the man who, in the movie, introduced the price hike that spurs the strike. And there’s Warden Snyder, who runs a juvenile detention hall where he stiffs the kids their meals and pockets the money that should be spent on their care. Snyder is after Jack since Jack escaped from the hall several years back. He goes to Pulitzer and identifies Jack as an escaped criminal, giving the city cause to send in the police to break up the strike. Of course you know that the newsies will prevail here. Regardless of any actual historical events this movie wouldn’t be getting a negative ending. It’s certainly going to be triumphant and involve singing and dancing because that’s how it works. But before it does there are threats and betrayals and people get beaten up and the reporter who’s been helping the newsies gets reassigned and just when you think it’s all going wrong the newsies print their own newspaper and distribute it to all the working kids in New York. Who are, of course, literate.

Not that I’m complaining about widespread literacy! But I highly suspect that this movie is embroidering the truth just a bit in terms of how many dock workers and laundry girls could read. One would expect the newsies to, but not necessarily everyone else. Still, it makes for a good crowd and a good feeling at the end, seeing all these child laborers standing up for their rights. This isn’t a movie that’s trying for verisimilitude. It’s trying to give a little bit of a history lesson, dressed up with song and dance. And some cute male leads. The acting isn’t fantastic and the script is somewhat predictable. But the songs are catchy (I’ve had King of New York in my head since watching it) and the dancing is fun to watch and really, it is a time period and subject I’m interested in. I still think it was an odd choice for Disney to make a movie for but it’s become a favorite of mine. And judging by the response I got from every friend I mentioned it to online, I’m not alone.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Newsies

July 22, 2011

Newsies

Now here’s a movie that I probably never would have watched if it were not for our project. I know Amanda has an abiding love for the movie, but it’s not really one that I had any interest in seeing. Indeed this film has been somewhat of a running gag between us ever since Batman Begins came out. I was trying to remember where I had seen Christian Bale before and Amanda declared – as though it were obvious to any simpleton – “He’s in Newsies!” So, yeah, Christian Bale is that guy from Newsies – a movie I had never seen until we watched it for our movie-a-day project.

As with several of the movies that Amanda has introduced to our collection to balance out the fact that a very large majority of the films were purchased by myself without her input I am clearly not the target demographic for this movie. What I find unusual, however, is that Amanda fell so very much in love with this movie in the first place. Before we started this project she often said that she was not a fan of musicals, and she has never been a fan of Disney either. (We’ve both been somewhat surprised to discover just how many musicals we own, given her supposed dislike for them.) But here this film is – a Disney musical – an it’s one she’s been really looking forward to having me watch for a long time.

I fully understand exactly what the appeal of this movie was for Amanda. It’s full of cute boys dancing and being cool and she saw it for the first time when she was twelve or thirteen years old. It is, as she points out to me, a very strange film in that it is a historical drama about the newspaper boy strike of 1899 but presented as a musical full of teen heart-throb type guys for young girls. I found it even more strange to see Ann Margret – the Kitten With a Whip – as a burlesque dancer. How does that fit into this movie?

After a brief voice-over introducing us to the historical period we join the young boys who will be our heroes in a orphinarium. There’s a kid with an eye patch, a kid who fancies himself a ladies man, a kid with a crutch (called “Crutchy”) who is doing his very best Eddie Deezen impersonation, and our hero Jack ‘Cowboy’ Kelly. They are newsboys. Every day they get up at five in the morning, half an hour before they went to bed, and go out onto the streets of New York City to hawk papers for a penny a piece. They pay fifty cents for every hundred ‘papes’ they buy, so there’s the potential to make fifty cents profit per hundred – if they can sell them all. Sure their lot is not great, but it’s no “Hard Knock Life.” In fact they seem pretty happy with their lot, singing and dancing and tricking the rubes in the street into buying their papers.

Jack teams up with a couple new kids, a fellow named David and his precocious little brother, and decides to show them the ropes. (His reasoning being that David’s kid brother would be an asset to work with because of his age and David clearly has a good head on his shoulders.) No sooner have the three of them become friends, however, with Jack being invited to have dinner with David’s impoverished family and singing afterwards about how he dreams of an escape from his own lonely life, than the megalomaniacal newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer decides to increase his profits by forcing the newsies to pay 60 cents for every hundred papers instead of fifty cents. Oh no!

The newsies will not stand for this – being forced to pay an extra ten cents threatens to destroy their livelihood – so they decide to strike. All the newspaper selling underaged children of New York band together to insist that this injustice be corrected. Of course things do not go smoothly. They have to crack down on scabs attempting to sell papers in their stead and a mob of older kinds hired as strike busters. They have a lot of trouble getting the word out about their strike because of course the papers themselves don’t print stories about them. (As a sympathetic newsman points out – if it’s not in the papers it didn’t happen.) There’s friction in the ranks as they have to convince all the kids in other boroughs to join them – such as the tough slingshot wielding guys from Brooklyn. There’s a corrupt warden who is hunting for Jack because Jack has escaped from his state-sponsored refuge for wayward boys. And there’s Joseph Pulitzer ranting and raving and attempting to corrupt jack into joining his side.

As an aside – Robert Duvall’s wild-eyed and generally insane portrayal of Pulitzer is one of the stranger things in this movie. I have to wonder just what inspired him to deliver this performance. Was it an attempt to inject some levity into the primary villain? Was he trying to live up to the evil villains of the Disney animated films (who do tend to chew a little scenery?) Whatever the case, it’s very strange to have a historical figure depicted as such a raving lunatic.

Still, I suppose it makes sense. This isn’t a movie about historical accuracy. It’s a movie about scrappy kids joining together and proving that they can stand up to corrupt adults. It’s about performing big synchronized dance numbers in the streets of nineteenth century New York. It’s about Christian Bale singing with a hilarious accent and floppy hair.

The movie has an undeniable charm. I am not the target audience (being the wrong gender and about three decades too old) but I can understand why the mention of this movie makes just about every one of Amanda’s friends swoon. Who doesn’t like a story of children winning out against the unfairness foisted upon them by adults? And clearly it helps if they’re dreamy.

July 22, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , | 2 Comments

Movie 472 – The Illusionist (2006)

The Illusionist – June 15th, 2011

I’m feeling a great deal better tonight than I was last night and so we opted for something neither of us had seen. Something we would likely need to pay rather close attention to, given that the conceit involves stage magic and illusion and a mystery. And I did want to pay rather close attention to it, though it wasn’t as intricate as it appears to be on the surface. Which was good, because I’m feeling better but not that much better. Still, this was the perfect sort of “new” movie for me to watch this evening.

One thing I’d like to lay to rest right away is the comparison of this movie to The Prestige. Yes, they’re both period pieces focused around a stage magician performing impossible tricks. Yes, there is a romance involved. But they’re not telling the same story and they’re not telling their stories in quite the same way. The lead characters aren’t the same sort of person and neither are the villains. I can see why comparisons are made, but I really don’t think they’re entirely fair because the movies themselves are doing different things. And with different mechanisms. And I greatly enjoyed The Prestige, but I also greatly enjoyed this movie and I don’t want to spend this review poking one in favor of the other or vice versa. So I won’t be.

And besides, this movie deserves a solo review. It is a gorgeously filmed movie with an excellent cast. The plot is somewhat predictable, but given how it’s executed, that didn’t seem to matter to me. The twist here isn’t the point so much as how the main character pulls it off. This is the story of the son of a cabinetmaker and the daughter of an aristocrat and how they fell in love and were parted. And it is the story of how the two managed to come together again, despite obstacles in their ways. It is the story of determination and cleverness and ruthlessness, which I thought was far better done than I expected.

It helps that I love Edward Norton and feel that he’s got a Gene Wilder quality to him in that he’s normally composed and contained but with an intensity that could erupt at any moment. And he never does here. As Eisenheim the Illusionist he is thoroughly under control the entire time. Even when he appears to be broken, he is under control. He is the master in this movie. Eisenheim shows up in Vienna, playing his show to mostly full houses. He performs illusions and stage magic along with a bit of mysticism and talk about the soul and the nature of time and the like. It infuses his show with a dream-like quality that clearly helps build his audience. When he gains the notice of the Crown Prince, he also re-meets his childhood sweetheart, Sophie. But Sophie is set to be engaged to the Prince. And the Prince has a nasty reputation with women.

I hesitate to explain the specifics of what happens next because telling too much reveals the trick to the plot. But the trick isn’t really that tricky. So look away if you hate spoilers please. Because I’m going to go into a little bit of detail.

The thing here is that Eisenheim knows straight away that the Prince will never allow Sophie to go and certainly not with him. It’s obvious. And the movie begins in the middle of the story, with all of these things having happened already. Sophie is apparently dead and Eisenheim is apparently raising her spirit. The Prince is already out to get Eisenheim and Inspector Uhl is already stuck in the middle of it all. And what the movie tells you is how they all got to this point. It seems clear to me right away that Eisenheim is using some form of illusion trickery to present Sophie’s “ghost” to the audience. And it is equally clear to me that he’s out to break the Prince. It’s the emotional build-up that’s important here.

Now, while I love Edward Norton and I loved him as the determined and enigmatic Eisenheim, two other stand-outs are Rufus Sewell as the Prince and Paul Gaimatti as Inspector Uhl. The Prince is the obvious villain from the first moment he appears on screen and Sewell has that gaunt and empty-eyed look that lends itself so well to either desperation or cruelty (and I’ll likely mention this again when we do the Harry Potter movies but much as I love Gary Oldman, I still think Sewell could have played an amazing Sirius Black). Inspector Uhl, on the other hand, is a man caught between what he knows is right and what he is bound to by law. He has to obey the Prince, but he admires Eisenheim and knows full well that the Prince is a dangerous man. And Giamatti plays him excellently, going between the two and trying to find a way to both help Eisenheim and stay true to the Prince, which is impossible. In the end he has to realize that it isn’t the Prince he must be true to, but the Emperor. By the time the reveal has happened and Uhl has realized the scale of the sleight of hand Eisenheim has managed to pull off, well, he can’t help but admire the skill. The Prince, after all, was a nasty piece of work and plotting to overthrow his father. So the orchestration of his downfall is hardly something to regret. And Uhl is shown from the start to be a man who appreciates a good trick, even when he’s the one who’s been tricked. And that’s when you (and Uhl) realize just how in control Eisenheim was the whole time. Like any good magician, he was misdirecting onto something flashy while the trick was performed in plain sight.

What really completes the movie for me is the cinematography and soundtrack. It would have been a lovely movie anyhow, but there’s a sepia-tone quality to many of the shots that puts it right in the time period for me. There’s a blurring and darkening around the edges in some shots, as if the film itself is old. A bit of a conceit, but it suits the feel of the film so well. The lighting is soft and warm and the music is haunting, which only makes the mood later on, when Eisenheim is performing his spirit routine, that much eerier. It’s very recognizably Philip Glass, but not in a bad way. My one complaint here would be that the film clearly prefers the stylized look of the illusions to making it clear that they are illusions, leaving it unclear as to how Eisenheim was performing the tricks. But I like it better to believe that it was all tricks. Done with mirrors and smoke. Because it makes it that much more interesting to have it all be for real and for Eisenheim to be that talented. That skilled. That clever and determined. It makes him a fascinating character and an equally fascinating center for the movie.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Illusionist

June 15, 2011

The Illusionist

In the same way that Deep Impact and Armageddon came out in the same year, or Bug’s Life and Antz, this movie came out in the same year as The Prestige. It’s a phenomenon that puzzles me. Is it that rival studios rush to steal each other’s thunder by releasing similar movies or is it because marketing focus groups say that this is the year that a movie about a magician would be a success this year so they rush to produce that script they bought a while back. Or is it simple coincidence? I don’t rightly know the answer, but then again – I really enjoy a mystery.

So naturally I enjoy this movie. It’s a mystery with an illusionist at its center, and it’s absolutely gorgeous.

What’s interesting about this movie is that the plot is almost inconsequential. It’s predictable and telegraphed, and maybe even tired. In the eighteen hundreds there’s a low-born boy with a knack for slight of hand in Vienna who, in his youth, had an illicit love for a young high-born girl. The heartless world forces them apart and years later the boy has returned to Vienna and started a show as an illusionist whose trick mystify everybody from the common peasants to the local chief inspector. The crown prince of Vienna is a cold-hearted cynic who wants only to understand how the illusionist’s tricks are done and by odd coincidence his soon-to-be fiance is the long lost love of the illusionist. It’s a clash between the illusionist and the prince for the future of the countess, with the inspector stuck in the middle.

That doesn’t even begin to capture what the movie is about though. This movie, like the stage shows put on by Eisenheim the Illusionist, is a carefully crafted work of art. This is apparent from the very start of the film. The performances of Ed Norton, Paul Giamatti, Jessica Biel, and Rufus Sewell are all deadly ernest. Norton is the enigmatic Eisenheim whose single minded devotion to the countess drives the entire movie. His passion and his emotion permeate the film. Just the power he can put into a simple glare is astonishing. Then there’s Giamatti as the hapless inspector. His character is the narrator and the audience stand-in, the easiest character to sympathise with. Like the audience he is skeptical, wants to understand how Eisenheim pulls off his tricks, and almost wants to believe that they’re real. Jessica Beil is the countess, and although her role is largely that of an object to be fought over by the illusionist and prince she also manages to have some backbone and attempts to take her destiny into her own hands, which is impressive. The engine behind the plot is Rufus Sewell as the cold prince who dispises trickery and wants the countess to further his own ambitions. He manages wonderfully to give his character, who is reprehensible in most ways, a tinge of humanity, especially near the end of the movie when he begins to show how frustrated he is with the gullibility of everybody around him.

In addition to the astonishing performances there’s the very look and feel of the movie. This is one of those films that shows just what the medium is capable of in terms of setting the mood and creating an atmosphere. Director Neil Burger and cinematographer Dick Pope have crafted a very specific look to the film which captures the imagination and helps convey the other-worldly feel of the entire project. The movie is presented in a manner reminiscent of old nitrus based film stock from the earliest days of movies. It has a grainy look, with faded and out of focus edges (particularly during flashbacks or scenes representing the speculation of the inspector.) It uses old timey iris-out ends to scenes. It’s often lit practically with lamps and flames. In short it feels antiquated and aged. It’s as though it’s a restored film from bygone days simply uncovered by Burger.

The Philip Glass minimalist soundtrack also helps to set the mood. Indeed I’d say that much of the object of the whole film is to capture your imagination. Like the inspector you want to believe as you watch that some of the impossible things that Eisenheim accomplishes are real within the world of the movie.

My one complaint would be that the film makers cheat so much with the magic. There are some illusions shown that are very real slight of hand performed live in front of the camera, but there’s an awful lot of CGI special effects as well, which muddies the plot and confuses things. The power of a true illusionist is that he shows you something impossible that you somehow want to be true, but does it with clever trickery and misdirection. Part of the fun is trying to figure out how these things are done (although knowing the trick is often a let down because the answers are sometimes too simple and straight forward.) I felt cheated by this movie because the impossible things on stage were so clearly fake.

Still, I came away at the end awed by the craftsmanship displayed. It’s a gorgeous movie filled with powerful performances and with a truly unique look and feel to it. I’ll admit that it made me want to watch The Prestige again when I was done with it, but they’re very different films. It also made me want to see some true masters of the craft at work. Maybe we need to get Penn & Teller Get Killed now.

June 15, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , | Leave a comment

Finding Neverland

May 19, 2011

Finding Neverland

I love a movie about the power of imagination. Which is very much what this movie is. In the spirit of Shakespeare in Love this is a fictionalization of the creation of a well known popular work. In this case it is a slightly more modern tale from the turn of the 19th century with the subject being the writing of Peter Pan.

Who better to play the author of Peter Pan, J.M. Barrie, than that eternal man-child himself Johnny Depp? It seems to be the role he was born to play. Barrie is portrayed as a man who takes great delight in childhood games and wild adventures of the imagination. When his latest play is a colossal flop and critical failure he finds solace in the companionship of a group of young brothers who have not lost the ability to dream. He spends more and more time with the Llewelyn Davies boys and their mother and finds in playing with them the inspiration for his next play – a mad fantasy about a boy who doesn’t ever want to grow up.

Much of the charm in this movie comes from the deft direction of Marc Forster. He wonderfully blends the world of imagination and play with the real world and shows us how these fantasies have a reality of their own. I would say that it has a very Gilliamesque feel to it, and that’s high praise coming from me. For the most part the magic in the film comes from simple tricks like inter-cutting between two viewpoints of the same dialog, or flying out parts of the set to show us the land of fantasy behind and around the mundane world. At one point in the fantasy world there are some gorgeous waves done in a sort of cut-out style which I assume to be the only CGI effects in the film. There are also a couple wonderfully creative camera tricks (like the kite POV shot) and one particular sweeping, soaring, absolutely impossible camera move that flies around the theater during the opening night of the play Peter Pan which completely blew my mind.

I was also mightily impressed by the very, very young Freddie Highmore who here plays the second youngest of the brothers, the practical Peter. It’s a great character – acting as a sort of foil to Barrie’s man who wants to play like a boy there’s Peter as the boy who doesn’t want to believe in childish things. It’s a demanding role, and many of the movie’s most emotional moments hinge on him, and Freddie is more than able to give it the power it deserves.

I do not, as a rule, spend time with children. Maybe it’s that I have too many bad memories of how awkward and painful it was to be one. Maybe it’s that I don’t like being cast in the role of an adult. As such it is difficult for me to sympathise with a character who chooses to spend most of his time playing with this brood. On the other hand, I do have wonderful memories of playing with my friend Randy in Narnia and Middle Earth and Xanth (all of which were somehow encompassed by a small stretch of fence and a rope swing in his back yard.) So I know what it is to see entire other worlds in this one.

I knew going into it that this movie would make me cry, and I was right. But it’s okay because there’s a hopefulness to the film. There’s a (very heavily beaten home) message to the movie about the wonder of dreams and the power they have to bring us hope in times of trouble. No matter how blatant the point may be I still find it to be a valid one. Me, I always wanted to escape to the 100 Acre Wood as a child and not to Neverland, but the gist is the same. This world we live in is only one aspect of our lives, and the worlds we imagine and play in are no less valid. I firmly believe that.

Now back to my video games.

May 19, 2011 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Movie 238 – The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen – October 24th, 2010

Watching this movie tonight I was put in mind of Emperor Norton. Now, Norton was a real person, but he created a persona and a world around himself where he was the star. And for some reason, people went along with it. His personal currency was accepted by businesses in trade for goods and services. Tens of thousands of people showed up for his funeral. Yes, he was delusional, but there was something about him that made people willing to run with his delusions, at least for a bit. And so we have Baron Munchausen, a real historical figure with a wealth of tall tales built up around him – many of which are apparently at least partially based on tales Munchausen himself told. And in this movie he manages to charm a number of people into believing in him, pulling them along with him for a series of fantastic adventures.

We begin in a theater, with a troupe of players performing a version of Munchausen’s adventures. The city the theater is in is under siege, with the sounds of battle clear from outside. Munchausen himself appears, striding on stage and denouncing the performance before commandeering it to tell his own version. And here is where the movie makes a departure. This is the point where we go from slight magical realism to full-on fantasy. It’s a little difficult to describe, mostly because the ending leaves it to the viewer to decide just how much was real and how much was imaginary and whether it matters in the long run. Because it seems to me that the whole point of it is that the power of one’s imagination is greater than anything else.

Much like in Time Bandits there is a child at the center of this movie. Yes, it’s all about the Baron, but it’s also about young Sally Salt, the daughter of the lead player. Sally is played by a very young Sarah Polley and is the driving force behind much of what happens. She’s determined to save her father and friends and the town and prods the Baron into helping out even when he’s more interested in other pursuits, like sex. Or death. Sally, as the child who hasn’t yet lost her imagination, insists that the Baron not give up. In the movie it’s literal in that the Baron sometimes gets carried away with a woman, or allows himself to be drawn into a game of cards with the grim reaper. But it’s also figurative in that at the beginning Sally demands the rest of the story. And she continues to demand that, even as the story happens around her.

The adventures in the story are suitably outrageous. The Baron and Sally head off out of the town in a hot air balloon made of ladies’ undergarments. They go to the moon, fall into a volcano, get swallowed by a giant fish and eventually – after meeting up with all of the Baron’s old friends – defeat the army besieging the town from the beginning. What’s fascinating about it all is how it begins close to home, in the theater, with a battle raging outside, then travels far away, and then pulls back again. Making things go from realistic, to semi-realistic, to fantastic and then back in reverse. While defeating an army with a small group of elderly adventurers is certainly unlikely at best, traveling to the moon and climbing down from it on a braid of the Queen of the Moon’s hair is an entirely different level of unlikely.

There’s a sort of layered reality going on here. Yes indeed, the town is under siege and ends up saved, with the besieging army mysteriously destroyed. Was it the Baron, who appeared to have been telling a tale all night? Did the act of telling the tale transport everyone in it, putting some of the players into dual roles within the story (like Uma Thurman playing both one of the players and the goddess Venus) and affecting the reality a level below? Or was it something else? The movie doesn’t really bother to tell you. The movie doesn’t seem to want you to know. And the movie doesn’t seem to want you to care. It happened. The how and the why aren’t as important as believing in the story and in the extraordinary.

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

Movie 129 – Back to the Future III

Back to the Future III – July 7th, 2010

Last time, on Back to the Future! Seriously, that’s pretty much how it starts. We get the entire last scene of the last movie, repeated for our viewing pleasure. But I won’t gripe too much because it’s a great little scene from both Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd. And then Marty recaps the plot (it sounds pretty convoluted even in one run-on sentence) and we pick up with the modern version of Doc stuck in 1885 and Marty stuck in 1955 explaining to 1955 Doc what’s happened. Which turns the entire first movie into a nice big paradox, doesn’t it? Yeah. Whatever happened to not knowing about your own destiny? Whatever.

Now, given that they uncover the DeLorean, hidden by used-to-be-modern/now-old-west Doc and fix it up and then find Doc’s grave and decide to send Marty back in time to save future/past Doc, one might think this movie is more confusing than the last one. But really, it’s only the beginning. In keeping with the whole series, Marty meets up with his family, this time the first McFlys in America, and sees the Hill Valley of the time, a tiny little logging town that’s just beginning to build what will eventually be the clock tower. His mission is to save Doc’s life and you know the drill really. Marty goes to an unfamiliar time period, shows how out of place he is, gets wrapped up in whatever trouble the Biff Tannen of the time (Mad Dog Tannen in this one) is up to, and has to fix what’s wrong in order to make time all pretty again.

This time the mess Marty gets into involves Doc and a financial dispute with Mad Dog Tannen. Doc would have gotten shot but then Marty might get shot and Doc’s fallen for the new school teacher in town and is considering not going back with Marty. Oh, not to mention that they’ve got the get the DeLorean working again with only 1885 technology. It’s really pretty straightforward. Even more so than the first movie. The vast majority of the movie takes place in the old west and the most time travel enters into it (aside from how they got there in the first place and how they get home) is Doc’s conversation with Clara – the school teacher – about Jules Verne. Yeah, sure, Marty and Doc have the usual wrangling over messing with the timeline and whether the time machine should be destroyed. But it’s pretty much just a Western dressed up in sci-fi bookends.

Not that this is a bad thing! It’s just as goofy as the others, but with the more straightforward plot and all, it’s a lot easier to watch and not feel totally jerked around. I’m a big fan of time travel and paradoxes and all, but while this one isn’t as heavy on that front as the first one is, it’s still got enough of a dose of it to keep it fun. And while Doc does suffer from a case of love-based stupidity mid-movie, it makes for some good tension. Goodness knows the whole shoot-out with Mad Dog isn’t super tense. I mean, come on. Did you ever really think these movies would kill off Marty?

No, the tension is all in the end and the final rush to get the DeLorean up to 88 while Doc deals with Clara and they’re all speeding towards an unfinished bridge and a gorge that was named after a school teacher who fell into it in the present. Or, rather, it was named that in the original timeline anyhow. I’ve got to say, I do like the sort of neon colored markers of the timeline changes. Sure, the photo gimmick is silly, but things like the first movie changing the Twin Pines Mall to the Lone Pine Mall, that’s fun. Since the whole conceit of the movies involves mucking with the timeline and making alternate histories, obviously things will be different, but the movies don’t want you to make any mistake about that whatsoever. It could be cheesy, but it’s not. It’s clever. In fact, a goodly portion of the movie is full of clever jokes and nods. Especially the end. I want that damn train.

July 7, 2010 Posted by | daily reviews | , , , , , , | Leave a comment