Sunday, December 30, 2012

Les Misérables

I've been writing reviews for awhile now on this blog, and yet somehow I've never reviewed a musical.  I've done comedy, horror, romance, drama, Oscarbait, arthouse bullshit, crime, thriller, silent, war, grindhouse, surrealist nightmare, western, exploitation, and whatever the Hell "Cosmopolis" was supposed to be, but never a musical.  So now all I have to do is review a porn and I'll have completed the circle of movies.  Maybe the upcoming adaptation of "Fifty Shades of Grey" will make that a reality.

I live in the New York area, so I've probably seen more stage musicals than most, and I've seen the original stage version of "Les Misérables".  I've actually done one better and read the original Victor Hugo novel and seen a 1998 dramatic adaptation of that novel starring Liam Neeson.  Out of all the versions of the story that I've seen, I'll have to go with the 1998 film.  I guess I'm only in even remembering that version, but its actually a really great movie with easily the best performances I've seen for any of the characters.  Liam Neeson is a perfect Jean Valjean, Geoffrey Rush is Javert, a post "Batman and Robin" Uma Thurman is  Fantine, and Claire Daines is Cosette.  Its the most streamlined version of the story too, getting right to the point and hitting the important dramatic marks.  The stage musical is very good, I felt, but I'm not really much of a musical scholar as much as I am a movie guy.  However, its very good because its staged.  Its long, but there's an intermission, there are many great performances, but the staging is diverse and indeed epic in scale.  There are some epic sets, including most impressively an entire barricade for the Paris revolts that appears out of the ceiling.  Perhaps there was a really great movie that could have been made out of the musical, but I'm sorry to say, Tom Hooper's "Les Misérables" was simply not it.

There is a kind of ungainliness to the stage musical that is almost acceptable to that version.  There's definitely a pacing difference between a great stage musical and a great film musical, and "Les Misérables" does not seem to understand this at all.  Tom Hooper adapts the stage musical more or less line for line, including probably every single song, which is a choice that no stage director would ever make.  There's another greater problem in that Tom Hooper runs entirely out of tricks by the first hour, which up until then was extremely well-shot with excellent performances.  But then you start to realize rather terribly that you've already seen the best soliloquies, and the movie starts to run out of steam fast.  There's a tepid oddly joyless version of "Master of the House" which is followed by an hour and a half of thinking "come on, can we get this over already?".  The pretty imagery starts to fall flat, the drama fades away, and for whatever reason, Tom Hooper decides to start randomly throwing dutch angles around, as if screwing with the camera position will somehow breath life back into his movie.  More ruthless editing and the removal of a few joyless reprisal songs could have made for a much better experience.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012


I guess I had to see this after having the deep misfortune to have viewed "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter".  Also, despite living a post-Christmas world, I haven't really seen all that much Oscar Bait this year.  There was "Cloud Atlas" but that was far too experimental and divisive for the Academy to even consider.  So let's go with a director who is guaranteed to be nominated for just about everything:  Steven Spielberg.

A lot of people really hated last year's "War Horse" for being sappy and melodramatic.  If you wanted a perfect paint by numbers example of pure cynical Oscar Bait then you'd want to see "J. Edgar"... however "War Hose" was a nicely cynical attempt that somehow managed to sneak in a bit of real movie magic.  "J. Edgar" had all the artistry of a "Transformers" movie, but was better at fooling people.  "War Hose" actually had some very pretty shots and sequences, along with some very likable characters*, but obviously it was not Steven Spielberg's best work.  But if you're looking for something that actually is Stephen Spielberg's best movie that does not involve monsters, Indiana Jones, aliens, or WWII, "Lincoln" would probably be it.  Despite taking place just about 150 years ago, "Lincoln" may be the most politically relevant movie to come out this year, with at least the most important message.  If only the Democrats and Republicans right now would only watch this movie of complex political bartering and semi-corrupt double dealing from our nation's greatest president, maybe we could finally get something done.

The brilliance of "Lincoln" is that is it not a massive biopic that depicts Abraham Lincoln's entire life from cradle to Ford's Theater.  Instead the movie is focused nearly entirely in January 1865, dealing primarily with Lincoln's desperate attempts to get the Thirteenth Amendment, one of the most important political events in American history, passed while slowly setting the stage for the Union's ultimate victory over the Confederacy.  The movie almost entirely takes place in Washington DC in the White House or the Capitol building.  Many of Lincoln's most important moments such as the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or the Gettysburg Address (which is recited to Lincoln by several soldiers), occur in the backstory and are left out of the film.  Instead its a far more concise, focused story on just one of Lincoln's many triumphs, which was the correct move.  Abraham Lincoln's entire life would have needed an entire trilogy equal in scale to "The Hobbit" and years of work to depict his impressive life theatrically.  Spielberg chose one of Lincoln's greatest accomplishments - an accomplishment that took place in the dirty, unsavory, and corrupt world of horse trading politics.  And somehow despite showing Lincoln at his most corrupt, he still manages to come off as the same saint-like figure that we were taught about in school.  However, he is somehow even more impressive of a historical figure because we see his darker side and all that he had to overcome in order to achieve his great works.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Man, "Tron 3" got really weird.

We survived the Apocalypse, so I figure I owe you people that "Wreck-It Ralph" review that you've all been begging for.  (Or the four or five of you who actually comment have been begging for.)  So here it is, Christmas came early this year, and Hanukkah came weeks late.  As you'd expect, "Wreck-It Ralph" was a damn good movie and I'm glad I managed to catch it on exactly the last minute*.  This is easily the best animated movie of the year, so if you haven't seen it yet... well, you're screwed probably.  Wait for DVD.

For whatever reason Pixar this year decided that they were going to do the magical Princess movie, and Disney decided that they would copy Pixar's usual plotline of inanimate objects living happily in a secret tiny society.  And so with Disney making a Pixar movie and Pixar making a Disney movie, "Wreck-It Ralph" feels like a video game-style "Toy Story", and "Brave" felt like.... crap, honestly.  My biggest worry about "Wreck-It Ralph" was that it would descend into endless fanservice and video game cameos for the nerd crowd, but instead they actually focused on making a nicely solid kid's movie.  And they found a way to give Samus a voice and characterization that didn't also make her humorless codependent wretch.

The plot as the trailers have told you, takes place in one of the increasingly-few arcades.  All the little video game characters are connected together through the electricity, traveling through the plugs.  This is why the "Street Fighter" characters and Pac-Man are hanging around, but you won't find any "Zelda" or "Final Fantasy" - those games have never been in arcades**.  Impressively they even managed to sneak in characters from extremely gory franchises like "Mortal Kombat" and "House of the Dead", I'm guessing the Disney execs don't really know video games that well.  Wreck-It Ralph is the villain of a 1982 video game called "Fix-It Felix Jr.", a thinly-veiled copypasta of "Donkey Kong", who after thirty years of being the bad guy and ignored by all his dickish co-characters, decides that he wants more in his life.  To that end he "goes maverick" and jumps into other arcade games in order to prove that there is more to him than simply smashing buildings.  Along the way we get every once of the magical adventure that the trailers promised.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas

I think I aged roughly a year watching all three hours of the Wachowski Sibling's "Cloud Atlas".  This is a long movie, and an emotionally draining movie.  I don't think a film this complex has been attempted since "Inception", and even that when you get right down to it was a heist movie with a SciFi setting.  "Cloud Atlas" is not one movie, but six movies spliced together for three hours fading back and forth continuously as each story progresses simultaneously.  The best way to simulate this experience would be to watch "Mutiny on the Bounty", "The Pianist", "The China Syndrome", "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", "Blade Runner", and "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" on six TVs all playing at once.  That way you could properly recreate this movie's combination of adventure, romantic drama, spy thriller, dark comedy, SciFi action, and post-apocalyptic fantasy all at once.  You'd probably get a splitting headache at end and be confused as Hell, so I'd recommend that you watch "Cloud Atlas" instead.

"Cloud Atlas" is easily one of the most ambitious movies I've ever come across, and that usually doesn't translate well into a positive viewing experience.  Richard Kelly's "Southland Tales" was definitely an attempt at a post-modern satire on post-9/11 politics and culture in a giant blender of SciFi and absurdity, but that also made it one of the worst movies I've ever seen - so confusingly terrible on every level as to not even be hilariously bad.  I assumed going into "Cloud Atlas" that it would be a movie I more respected than actually would be able to enjoy.  From the trailer it appeared to be a movie about everything, and it actually was a movie about everything.  You have a recurring cast of actors moving through a cycle of reincarnation across six completely different stories linked by only the faintest of references.  Each story looks different, has a different tone, and even are from different genres entirely.  And I was pretty sure that the end result of this would be an incomprehensible mess of impossible-to-follow ideas with all of the stories contradicting each other in an unwatchable disaster of pretension.  What did I expect to was instead a masterpiece of editing, where each of the stories in fact manages to (and I know I sound like an art major git right now) rhyme with the others, and together they add to the greater whole.

Now, obviously "Cloud Atlas" is not a movie for everybody.  In fact, its probably not the movie for 99% of the population, it was a huge flop.  Its challenging, its bizarre, I could not imagine any way to try to market this to another person, its enough of a problem trying to review it.  The trailer, actually, is an excellent cross section of the actual movie.  If you enjoyed that, you'll enjoy the movie, because even though the transitions aren't quite that often, the movie actually does flip all around each of the six plotlines very frequently in what feels like almost an endless montage.  I don't know how many people can manage to keep track of six storylines at once, if you had trouble following "Inception", this would be hopeless for you.  But even so, there is real beauty here.  Not many movies would dare try to the cycle of reincarnation for a few characters over 1000 years, and if they did, they would probably take a more traditional linear approach.  I don't think a movie like "Cloud Atlas" will ever be made again, its an epic milestone in storytelling art.  Even I'm not sure of every detail of this film, I'll have to see it again to appreciate it more deeply, yet I still rank this as easily the most interesting movie made in 2012.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

I love "The Lord of the Rings" movies.  Personally I consider them to be among one of the finest film achievements of all time, easily the greatest fantasy movies ever made.  They're easily one of the most important movies made during my lifetime, and are unrelentingly epic, beautiful, and amazing.  In fact, in repeated viewings I've found that I've come to love them more and more over the years.  I enjoyed them the first time I saw them when I was a little kid, but they were never equal to a "Star Wars" movie or a "Batman" film in importance to me.  Now, "The Hobbit" is one of the biggest movies of the year, all thanks to Peter Jackson's flawless and majestic film adventure.  They're so good that they make actually reading Tolkien nearly impossible for me.  Because who needs this dry literary masterpiece?  I got the extended editions with twelve hours of some of the most perfect movies ever made.

So "The Hobbit 1" obviously was not going to be able to match the original trilogy in terms of impact, quality, and tone.  Because "The Hobbit" is not a "Lord of the Rings" book, its a small charming children's book focused more on a whimsical fantasy story than an epic adventure.  Unfortunately that's a tonal problem that I don't think Peter Jackson or anybody else was ever going to solve.  You can see the problem just with the main cast.  In a kid's book (or a kid's animated movie from the Seventies) it would make sense to have thirteen dwarves running around.  Thirteen dwarves is a pretty impressive number to a little kid, even though the thirteen dwarves are basically just one bumbling character that Bilbo has to save several times.  But when its a serious dramatic film, thirteen dwarves is a massive weight, since all thirteen of these people need some kind of individual character beyond being one-dimensional comic reliefs.  How exactly do you connect together a scene where trolls get trick into being turned to stone by sunlight with the Battle of Helm's Deep in a single dramatic tone?  Or create a film trilogy that begins with dwarves singing songs about Bilbo Baggins' plates and ending it with a huge battle that will set up an apocalyptic war for all of Middle Earth?  I don't think you can.

Now "The Hobbit 1" is not a bad movie, but its still noticeably the worst of Peter Jackson's Middle Earth films.  The decision to divide "The Hobbit" into three movies is still controversial, though I can see how it might have worked.  But what I don't really understand is why this movie is so loong.  That shouldn't be a major surprise since "The Lord of the Rings" films are already three hours long (with another hour thrown in if you're watching the Extended Cuts like you're supposed to), but in the theater they didn't feel so long.  This one feels like a long movie, without the same single-minded sense of purpose and pacing that made the original trilogy work.  This movie feels padded and bloated.  "The Dark Knight Rises" is about equal length, but there's not a scene or subplot that I would have removed.  Just off the top of my head I could imagine at least a half hour of cuts that would have made "The Hobbit" flow better.  Still, its a mostly solid movie, I'm willing to see the others, but know, there is a clear step-down in quality.

Also, see this movie in a regular framerate, the 48 frames per second business is awful.  And see it in 2D.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Pacific Rim Trailer

Sorry, its been a big week for trailers.

Guillermo del Toro has been having a few few years, and I'm glad to see he finally got a movie made.  He was supposed to be the director of "The Hobbit" (back when those were only two movies), he was supposed to make "At the Mountains of Madness", all of those projects fell apart.  The only thing he's done is written the remake of "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark", a decent but extremely forgettable movie from last year.  However, all his troubles seem worth it, because now we have the newest Evangelion movie, "Pacific Rim".

This is a movie for me.  Personally made for me.  I'm shocked there isn't even a little note at the beginning of the trailer that says "made for Blue Highwind".  It isn't the first time I've felt this way, because I am 100% certain that my future self will invent a time machine and travel back to the Eighties to create "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension".  I love Godzilla movies, I love giant monsters, I love giant robots, and like the rest of the nerdy portion of the Internet, I love "Portal" and the fact that we're getting GlaDos in this movie as fanservice.  This is now my number #1 movie for 2013.  I am there.

So to prepare, I'm watching a pirate version of 1989's "Robot Jox".  I suggest you do the same.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Man of Steel Trailer #2

Just... just, watch it, already:

A few months ago I reviewed "All-Star Superman", the supposedly greatest Superman comic book of all time that I personally found to be confusing, rambling, and ridiculous, basically everything I hate about superhero comics.  So I've resolved to never review another comic book again, because clearly I'm not the target audience.  "All-Star Superman" was supposedly the grand, almost-Biblical epic take on the Superman mythos, the ultimate final dramatic glory that is Superman all in one graphic novel.  Well, I say it didn't succeed, there, but Zach Synder and Master Christopher Nolan have definitely shown DC comics up with this one.

Yeah, its a trailer, its made to look awesome.  Why would a trailer go out of its way to look terrible?  Well, certainly "The Lone Ranger" trailer did go out of its way to look terrible, so I don't know.  The point is that this seems like an almost religious take on Superman, presenting him in as the Almighty Savior for a very imperfect world.  Most interest is Johnathan Kent (played by Kevin Costner) telling little Superboy that maybe it would have been a better choice to let his entire classroom die instead of saving them and revealing his powers.  But then we still have Superman in his god-like glory blasting off at mach 10 around the globe.  And there are cities getting blown to bits.  The stakes seem high, the mood seems right, it isn't going to goofy comic book thrills, its going for something more mature and serious.  So it looks awesome.

Two complaints though:  chill out with the shaky-cam business.  And why is there "Gladiator" music instead of the John Williams Superman theme?  Beyond that, this is going to be something not easily ignored next year.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Hobbit (1977)

Come Friday the first of the new trilogy of "Hobbit" films will come upon this world.  For many, it is the most important film event of all of 2013.  For me, that was "Batman 3".  However, Peter Jackson's new epic Hobbit adaptation* is not the only version of the story that exists, there is another.  One from myth and legend, from the strange time known as the Seventies, coming forth from the universe known as animated NBC specials.  The film was made by the animation studio Rankin/Bass, who are best known for creating just about every animated Christmas special, including "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer", "The Little Drummer Boy", and "Frosty the Snowman", and would later make "The Last Unicorn", a decent Eighties fantasy cartoon.  Animation was done by Topcraft Studios, a Japanese company that would later create "Nauiscaa and the Valley of the Wind", making it essentially the precursor to Studio Ghibli.

The 1977 "The Hobbit" was also the very first film adaptation of any of J.R.R. Tolkien's works, but would quickly be followed by the 1978 Ralph Bakshi animated feature film, "Lord of the Rings".  "Lord of the Rings" was oringally meant to be called "Lord of the Rings Part 1" since it only covers the first two films in the series.  Unfortunately United Artists refused to include the subtitle, adding considerable confusion.  They also refused to make a sequel since the 1978 "Lord of the Rings" was a box office failure.  Rankin/Bass' finished the Tolkien mythos themselves with their own version of "The Return of the King", airing on ABC in 1980.  Together "The Hobbit", "The Lord of the Rings", and "The Return of the King" make a strange loose trilogy of animated features that more or less cover Tolkien's entire Middle Earth mythos.  I haven't actually seen the other two films, I'll probably save them for the week before the next two Peter Jackson "Hobbit" films in 2013 and 2014, assuming I'm still blogging then.

As a movie, the Rankin/Bass "Hobbit" isn't much more than a historical curiosity at this point.  Assuming all goes well this weekend with Peter Jackson's version, this original film will be made entirely redundant, existing as a strange little cartoon to be seen only by film hipsters (like myself) and the most hardcore of Tolkien fans (unlike myself).  Its a faithful adaptation, capturing the sweet childish wonder that is "The Hobbit", directly capturing all the main scenes in a lean seventy-seven minute running time.  The animation is a bit sketchy, but Rankin/Bass did well to re-imagine Tolkien's poems as musical numbers, giving them a whimsical quality lacking in the text**.  Since it won't take up too much of a your time, I actually recommend giving it a view.

The Lone Ranger Trailer

When you go to movie as often as I do, you start to see the same trailers over and over again.  Some of them are exciting and impressive like "The Hobbit", some are merely okay and get annoying after the fifth viewing, like "21 Jump Street", and some are so bad that I fear I will kill myself the next time I have to watch this trailer.  Which leads me... to this:

I like Johnny Depp.  I like Gore Verbinski.  I liked all the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies, even the really forgettable one... I think there was a mermaid or something in it.  But this is bad.  This is really bad.  First of all, I don't understand what Disney is trying to do here, "The Lone Ranger" is an intellectual property from my grandma's time.  My generation probably only knows it exists because of Looney Tunes parodies that outlived the original concept and Jim Carrey occasionally yelling "Hi-Yo, SILVER, AWAY!!"

Still, "the Lone Ranger" could have been adapted into an entertaining blockbuster mindless movie.  Its a western, I like all the action on the trains, even if its all pretty much standard "Pirates of the Caribbean" business at this point.  Those movies were exciting when they came out, but now I think we've come to the limits of slapstick blockbusters, its all been done before and better.  Arnie Hammer certainly looks like a 1940s serial star, but with that mask and his apparent inability to die I'm frightened this is going to become "The Spirit 2"*.  Only there's one big problem... and I think you already know what it is.

Johnny Depp is giving the worst performance of his life here.  Apparently he's part Cherokee on his grandmother's side or something so that means I'm not allowed to call out his performance as being the horrible racist old-Hollywood cliche that it is, but I will anyway.  Its a horrible racist old-Hollywood cliche that we as a country should have realized was offensive back in the 1970s.  I know its a call-back to the original TV show, but was that show exactly enlightened?  NO.  And beyond any Political Correctness crap (I can't believe I'm on their side for a change) the performance is just bad.  Its bizarre and flat, trying to be this zen master but at the same time a bubbling Jack Sparrow.  No, I'm not buying that at all.  This will sink this movie, I guarantee you.

So if you're an idiot, go see "Pirates of the Old West" on July 4th next year.  I'm sure I can find something better to do.

* Actually "The Lone Ranger" becoming as fascinatingly terrible and bizarre as "The Spirit" is probably the best we can hope for out of this movie.  Everything else just looks horribly mediocre.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Rise of the Guardians

"Rise of the Guardians" is not "Wreck-It Ralph", the movie I really want to see and the movie that everybody seems to be begging me to see.  However, its still really good, so that's what I'm writing about now.  Oddly its a Christmas movie and its November, so I do not fully understand why it came out now, but then again, I understand that the force of modern American holiday capitalism requires that the Christmas season begin earlier and earlier every year, until eventually we can just keep those Christmas trees up all twelve months long.  Speaking of crass capitalist motives, its made by DreamWorks, a company that seems to be schizophrenically flipping back and forth between impressively moving ("How to Train Your Dragon") to embarrassingly awful ("Madagascar 3").  Luckily today I'm talking about one of the former.

If you want a solid family movie with great animation, sympathetic characters, and a great premise, here's "Rise of the Guardians".  If you don't want those things, then watch "Smurfs 2", coming in 2013.  The concept here is more or less Niel Gaiman's "American Gods" but for kids.  Instead of Pagan deities in conflict with physical avatars of the modern world, we have holiday characters and folk mythology fighting the boogeyman.  So of course there's Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman* who all are a apart of a mythological superhero league that fight evil and protect children.  However the real star is Jack Frost, who at first sight might fool you into thinking that he's nothing more than a broody pretty-boy who looks like Joffrey Lannister and only exists to bring in the preteen girls.  That's partially true, but he's also a far more well-rounded character with his own deeper issues.

"Rise of the Guardians" opens with Jack Frost's birth into our world.  He awakens in darkness with no knowledge of his past.  The only thing that the Man in the Moon (read: God) has told him is his name, "Jack Frost".  Out he swims onto a frozen lake in the middle of a forest, where he finds a talisman of power, a wooden staff, with which he can create ice and snow.  His fear and confusion falls into glee, but when he walks into the nearest town, he finds nobody can see him.  You see, the gods need prayer, or in another way, the folk heroes need belief in order to interact with humanity.  The main villain's plot is to destroy that belief and destroy the Guardians, thus opening up the children to unlimited fear.  "Rise of the Guardians" is a movie that stars creatures that some of our more cynical and dickish members of society claim exist only to justify unlimited commercialism or kick Christ out of Christmas or something, but it actually gives a great explanation for why these folk heroes are important.  That's certainly a lot more intelligent of commentary than I expected out of this thing, and for that reason I must recommend this movie fullheartedly.