Month: September 2011

The Wild, Wild Best: Review for Rango

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I may have mentioned before, but I don’t like Westerns. As time has gone on, I have begun to, maybe unfairly, loathe them for the most party. Their predictability and overall conventionality has always irked me like no other genre. Their pace was always obnoxiously inconsistent, where it’ll be really talky one moment, really slow for a half hour, and then they’d expect to rouse the audience with a short, bad filmed fight scene. So, the wild, Wild West never caught my interest.

Until now, that is. Gore Verbinski’s extremely clever and marvelous film Rango has done what few films can do; catch my attention and not let go for the length of the film. This is film escapism at its very best. You know what else is cool about it? It’s animated. Though the animated film is unfairly the province of kid stuff, animation is less a genre than a method of storytelling. And if anything, Rango succeeds on a level that transcends all animated films before it. Yes, even Pixar is left a little in the dust in my mind after I saw this. (DreamWorks was really no contest.)

Johnny Depp portrays a reptilian thespian, whose sheltered and deluded life is made up of him practicing method acting in his terrarium. When thrown unceremoniously from the car, he is brought to a local town in the Mojave Desert called “Dirt” and, in fine actorly form, assumes the position of a rough, tough outlaw who is then assigned the duty of sheriff. Stop me if you’ve heard this one. The water is nowhere to be found, and he is supposed to help find it, et cetera.

Yes, the “I’m not who I really am” story has been done a dozen times before; even the “I’m an actor” thing has been done before (Galaxy Quest, A Bug’s Life). But with Johnny Depp’s totally insane sensibility and manic voice acting, the film comes off as doing it better. It’s more fun and more believable. Depp sounds like he’s so at home playing a lizard and his voice acting is truly incredible.

The rest of the cast is equally impressive, with Bill Nighy as a deadly snake; Isla Fisher as Beans, the heroic, catatonic love interest; Ned Beatty as the Mayor of Dirt, who most definitely is suspicious; and Abigail Breslin as a cute, deeply sarcastic, painfully pessimistic little kid.

If a film is about feeling and aura, the deeply Western appeal and textual look is outstanding. The most noticeable and amusing inclusion is a quartet of owls who narrate the story. Singing very traditionally written songs about legends and playfully hinting at Rango’s death in every song, like any good pessimist, the quartet completes the amusing feeling of watching a true western. Even Hans Zimmer’s nuanced and flexible score adds an incredible, irresistible element to everything.

It’s not wrong to say that this can be considered a “true Western”. All the elements are there. The archetypes and conventions of a Western are all there. The difference, for me at least, is that they’re heightened, more entertaining, self-aware, and just funnier and more fun to watch and experience. That constant repetition of story element isn’t weighing the story down, and the characters and setting really bring it to life. The film has enough allusions to real westerns as it is, with specific call backs to High Noon and The Magnificent Seven, as well as a surprising guest appearance from the Man with No Name, ahem, I mean the Spirit of the West. Timothy Olyphant dutifully voices the Eastwood-ian character, and nails every line, the scowl and disdain in his voice extremely palpable. It’s a wonderful surprise for any film buff.

One of the things I really enjoy about the movie, besides the film itself, is really how the film was made. Isla Fisher mentions on the Blu-ray bonus features that recording for an animated film is normally “a very isolating experience”. You stay in one room and record your lines against the director. There’s no sense of real acting going on, since you’re not playing against anything or anyone, which has always bothered me. It’s a wonder that not all animated films sound unrealistic and droning, which is where one must congratulate the sound editors. Rango is a different case. The acting ensemble got together on a set and acted out the scenes, in light costume, and recorded together, making it feel like a true acting experience .Thus, all the dialogue and reaction, and even facial expression (which was incorporated later when the film was being animated) is included and it just seems more natural; more right. If only more animated films were born this way.

The guys who animated this film are part of an elite club, in a way. Industrial Light and Magic animated this film, and they were a team first created with the task of creating the visual effects for a little film in 1977 called Star Wars, directed by some almost-nobody named George Lucas, whose previous film was some nostalgia trip entitled American Graffiti. Anyway, ILM has been responsible for nearly every exhilarating scene of visual effects in Hollywood today, notably the behemoth projects of Jurassic Park and King Kong. So, it seems a little odd and intriguing that a visual effects company who’s never made a feature film by themselves would set out and make an animated film. Needless to say, their expertise in all things visual paid off.

ILM brings an astounding amount of detail to the film, a sense of such photorealism; you will not believe your eyes. You won’t believe that it’s animated for one, except that chameleons don’t normally talk, but the minute and meticulous attention that is paid to every object, landscape, character design, setting, etc. is awe-inspiring. The subtle refractions of light in glass; the expert distortions of reflections in water; the painfully realistic scales on Rango; and the meticulously designed eyes of nearly every creature…they all come to stunning life. I’m not one for 3D movies, and I am normally prone to ranting and raving about it, but this film I would have loved to see in 3D. That is something I will probably never say again, mind you.

What Rango does successfully, besides creating a less than loathsome attitude in my mind towards the Western genre, is create such fun and excitement and exhilaration that you can’t help but stare. It’s the most visually arresting film I’ve seen in ages, and the most impressive looking animated film that will probably be released for the next few years. The acting is superb, and Johnny Depp’s crazy persona perfectly inhabits and brings to life the equally crazy, reptilian thespian Rango. Rango is a total delight for anyone, and works wonderfully as a movie lover’s movie as it subtly explores acting and archetype, as well as investigates the wonderful existentialist dilemma. Rango is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, and Verbinski and Depp are at their wild, wild best.

Grade: A

Pure Imagination: Review for “Fanny and Alexander”

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Fanny and Alexander is certainly Bergman’s most joyful film, as well as the most accessible. Though its pace is glacial, and nothing technically happens in the first 90 minutes of the five hour behemoth of an art house masterpiece, every moment in it is worth cherishing. Its long running time is not something to be derisive about, and saying “nothing” happens isn’t technically true. Like an intricate character study, the 90 minutes provide the viewer with an inexorable amount of depth and understanding to the players within the film. The nuance in every scene, the bright colors, and the general jocularity is delightful.

Bergman once said “The stage is my wife and the cinema is my mistress.” Bergman worked frequently on the stage, almost as much on the screen, and every setting and lighting piece shows his expertise of both mediums. While the setting is perhaps more lustrous than a stage could ever really provide, that same sense of wonder and imagination is obvious and painted over every frame.

Young Alexander is Bergman’s autobiographical younger self, too similar to be an alter ego. When his father dies, and his mother chooses to remarry, his life of luxury and of freeness and spirit is taken from him when she marries a puritanical, villainous bishop. Bergman’s mother had at married a similar, cold man, who took raising the young future auteur with a harsh hand.

Due to the closeness of the subject matter, at times, especially as one nears the end of the film, that this may be both a celebration of accomplishment (for it ties in all the wonderful motifs and themes Bergman has used in the past) as well as a means of closure for him; both in terms of exiting the screen (he would continue to work in television) and from his stepfather.

The carefully choreographed movements of the camera and the placement of the characters on screen are inherently the stuff of intellectual fodder. But Bergman’s naturalness and knack for setting, time, and place make it seem pleasant, emotional, sensual, without coming off as pretentious. The bright colors fill the screen and the performances are electrifying all around.

Fanny and Alexander, originally a mini-series in Sweden, is a lustrous and beautiful tapestry, weaving Bergman’s personal and professional history to make intricate and nuanced designs. Innocence is gorgeous in this sensuous, subtle masterpiece.

Grade: A

Always a Bridesmaids: Review for Bridesmaids

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Bridesmaids, when it was first announced, drew a lot of comparisons to the drunken comedy hit The Hangover. However, the two, while maintaining a similar, but not the same, style of raunchy humor, is better. It’s sweeter, almost in saccharine way despite the stench of foul humor. Best of all, Bridesmaids has a deliciously great cast.

Kristen Wiig, Most Valuable Player on Saturday Night Live, plays Annie, a rather lonely singleton whose bakery shop was shut down due to the recession. Her best friend, Lillian, (Maya Rudolph, MVP from previous years at SNL) plays her best friend. Rudolph is about to get married and asks Wiig to be the Maid of Honor. This is only a constant reminder of just how single she really is. Thus, the pain and uncomfortableness is so palpable, you could spread it like cream cheese on a bagel. It’s thick and morose, just as much as Wiig’s indigence as the film goes on.

What many people who saw the film were not expecting was how sweet and intuitive it was. The script was penned by Wiig and her friend Annie Mumolo, who used the female driven comedy to investigate friendship in a way that hasn’t sufficiently been portrayed as humorously or sweetly since Fried Green Tomatoes. The relationship between Wiig and Rudolph is mainly what is under the microscope, mixed with that sinfully good Rose Byrne as the woman who comes between them.

Byrne is stylish, poison tongued, and everything that Wiig hates, yet wants to be. She feels like she’s being replaced, as if Rudolph has a new best friend who is richer and can afford better things. She’s Best Friend 2.0. This relationship dynamic of replacement has been played up before, but it’s rarely been the center of a film. Nor has it been investigated as realistically, I think. The relationship is touching, sweet, and the chemistry is fantastic. Of course, Rudolph and Wiig are best friends in real life, which is certainly adds to the performances.

As touching and sweet as the film is, a surprising element to the film, but it can be raucously funny. Melissa McCarthy, as you probably have heard a thousand times, is a scene stealer as the crass Megan. She, who suggests a fight club as a theme for a party, is golden in my eyes. However, her chops are not limited to crass comedy; in fact she adds quite a lot of dramatic nuance in one scene.

The romance between Wiig and the chummy Chris O’Dowd is pretty ordinary and not one of the strongest points in the film. Although it does show Wiig as someone who yearns for intimacy, the relationship and the comedy that follows is nothing fantastic.

As the film slightly meanders for two hours, the question remains: is Wiig just whiny and shrewy or does her character have a legitimate problem? I feel this question goes the same for the drama Eat, Pray, Love, although with different results. While both characters are actually whiny and shrewy, only one comes off as rather sympathetic, and that is the nuance that has been generously added by Wiig. This film relied on her being an actress, a leading lady, and not just the MVP of a sketch comedy show.

Bridesmaids, though oft compared to the testosterone filled The Hangover, has the upper hand. Not only is it funnier, but its dramatic material and relatively wise examination of female friendship allows the film to sneak ahead. Even at a two hour running time, the laughs are consistent, and the acting is great. Always a Bridesmaid, and that’s exactly the way I like it.

Grade: B+

Maid for Drama: Review for “The Help”

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Prejudice movies or films that deal with some sort of inequality and that are aimed at families tend to be conventional and boring. Their outline screams tearjerker, but the meat of the film is usually left up to the performers, a pretty heavy task when you’re given a rather stale subject matter. The subject of race inequality wasn’t even that interesting when DW Griffiths spun it on its head in Birth of a Nation. Yes, it was the more abhorrent side of the coin, but its languid pace, its lack of judgment, and its overall dullness would pave the way for hundreds of films to come.

My fifth and sixth grade teacher would show the Disney TV movie Perfect Harmony every February for Black History Month. It’s an entertaining film about a white choir boy and a black kid who begin a friendly aquainrenship despite it being the 1950s in South Carolina. However entertaining it wa,s it was predictable.

Thus, those kinds of films never have made me raise an eyebrow in intrigue, with the exceptions of Glory and The Color Purple, two masterful films where, again, raw drama is taken from the actors, not the story. Which leads us to 2011’s The Help, based on the bestselling Kathryn Stockett novel that has swept book clubs across the nation. The Help is about a perky newbie journalist, played by Emma Stone in a very underplayed role, who interviews “the help” – the black servants that populated the relatively wealthy families of the south – for an expose and book, just as the Civil Rights movement was beginning.

You have your usual villainess, played with fervor by Bryce Dallas Howard; your put upon heroine, played by Viola Davis (whom I preferred in her Oscar nominated turn in Doubt); your ditzy but kind archetypal relationship with the mouthy black woman, played by Jessica Chastain and Octavia Spencer; and nothing much else. Therein lies the problem of The Help: it’s a completely conventional, predicatble story.

Conventionality is not always a bad thing, ut it is rarely a good thing, with the exception of certain genre films. When dealing with such a “sensitive” subject such as race abnd equality, often the story falls into the dangers of becoming deathly predctable, annoyiong, and sometimes even stereotypical. History is at the mercy of the writers and directors, and thus they will do whatever is most dramatic. That’s what film is for, right? Drama? The Help is conventional in almost every aspect. White girl, journalist Skeeter takes interest in black maids for the greater good. White socialite, Celia, takes interest in black maid because she’s nice. Which of these two relationship dynamics, however conventional they may be, works the best and most realistically? It is the latter, played with fervor and brilliant repartee and chemistry by Jessica Chastain (oh Mother Earth in Terrence Malick’s highfalutin Tree of Life) and Octavia Spencer  (who’s had bit roles). The story gives way to other stereotypes as well, making Bryce Dallas Howard less uhman and more obnoxious and malevolent than one would like to see. That’s not too terribly surprising, as it is, as I continue to say, very conventional of the story. She is the main villain. Then we have the thing that rolls everything into motion, the bathrooms. Howard instigaes separate bathrooms for “the help”. How racist!  Skeeter slowly aquires her interviews and the book gets published and it creates an outrage…

Its accuracy to the original story is pretty much irrelevant, as the main point of drama is perhaps based on the racial stature of the characters. If it bore only a hint of resemblance, the film would still be fine to outsiders. It’s pure conventionality is not only rooted in the subgenre itself, but also in the story and source, which is itself a member of that subgenere, only in terms of literature.

Despite being perhaps excruciatingly predicatble and boring, The Help is not a bad movie. On the contrary, it’s not only a competent movie, an entertaning one, but it is riveting. The performances are what’s really on trial, and there are more than  afew moments where the audience’s eyes may get a bit misty. Jessica Chastain is flawless as Celie Foote, the ditsy, shunned wannabe socialite in Jackson, Missippi. Her relationship with Minny, the maid, is completely natural, something that could have been predcictable and devoid of heart or warmth. Chastain’s naturalness when inhibiting the role really wins you over. Viola Davis is excellent as the protagonist amongst the maids, someone whose son has died. Her emotion moves the audience, the sways in clamness and temperment as nuanced as the ocean waves. Her subtely literally washes over the audience and is never forceful and rarely treads into the area of the “cliché black woman under pressure” performance. This will sure getthe attention of Oscar voters.

While the performances drive the film, there is a fair bit of drama that will bring you to tears. Again, this is expertly handled by the actors,however, the details within the story add the extra emotional punch to the gut. This raw emotion with such superb acting is a perfect equatoin for this kind of movie.

Although it may not be perfect, and although it is dangerously conventional, it may be this year’s The King Speech. Not in the way that’ll snag a surprise Best Picture win, but that it’ll warm the Academy’s hearts. More like Mississippi Cleaning.

Grade: B-

Uncool Tom: Review for Larry Crowne

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I remember, sometime last year, my school principal, whose face is normally beat red for one reason or another, walked out of the art room during one of my classes, almost jauntily skipping. My friends and I were working on an art project, all of us scattered with our utensils on the floor, and sprawled every which way to get the best angle for our beautiful work. Her walked past us, and smirked. A very brief, irreverent conversation was started up between the four or so of us and him, and when he finally had to make his departure, he said something to the effect of “Well, I got to be hip-to-the-groove!” As he left, giddily strutting down the hall, my friends and I all looked at each other, barely containing our laughter. My principal is under the delusion that he is cool and up to date.  And so is Tom Hanks’ new movie Larry Crowne.

Much like my principal, Larry Crowne comes off across like a baby boomer desperately trying to work his new iPhone. He thinks he’s doing it right, but you just cringe from how hard he’s trying. It’s almost painful. Tom Hanks, however, is a much more affable type of guy. IN general, he’s just as charming as one could hope, and he has a demeanor on the screen, a special kind of aura no matter what the character, that lightens your heart. My favorite role of his is probably Viktor Navorsky in the much underrated and light-as-air The Terminal. The film embodies the charming, almost naïve yet knowing kindness that Hanks brings to the screen. However, The Terminal was made about ten years ago. Which means that Hanks is ten years older.

Larry Crowne is essentially an AARP driven romantic comedy. Hanks, who has worked diligently at a Wal-Mart-esque super store, is the amiable Employee of However Long He’ll Work There. His superiors, however, take note of his lack of college education and, when the economy starts sliding, they begin cutting off the people who are least “qualified”. But reflection on contemporary economic times this is not. It’s more of a dullish middle age story about a middle age guy who falls for a pretty middle age woman, but yet tries to stay cool all the while. And what a hard job that is.

Directed and written by Hanks, it’s not that the movie is particularly lazy. It’s just blah. It’s not particularly interesting or compelling and its charm is limited to how much of Hanks acting older you can handle. See Hanks texting on his flip phone with a twenty something at his new community college. See Julia Robert being bored at her job as a community college teacher. See two baby boomers, however attractive they are, playing “why, yes, we are old enough to be your grandparents” and falling for each other. It’s not really cute because it’s annoying and cringe worthy. The lingo the people use is definitely unrealistic and scarily exaggerated. The biker gang that Hanks’ Crowne joins is a scooter gang. Really? It’s really nice that he has friends and such, but it’s such a laughable scenario and the way that it’s handled isn’t convincing.

Julia Roberts is fine. Her airy presence, her big smile, all add a little something. Her performance, though, doesn’t keep the movie from being dull. Trapped in a marriage with a slacker (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad) who is a blogger and regularly watches porn. Thus she has an excuse to canoodle with Hanks. Which is fine. Not interesting, but fine.

This movie screams “fine” all over, and that’s the problem. With a name like Tom Hanks, you expect something quirky, not annoying; something cute and fun, not cringe worthy and kinda wacky. It is, as I said before, the AARP of romantic comedies. But it’s not a good one, because while maintaining that status, it tries desperately to reach a slightly younger age group. If anything, it’s just as “hip-to-the-groove” as my principal. Which is barely at all.

Grade: C