Sunday, December 16, 2007

Enchanted

Enchanted is founded on a delightful premise, and in the end, it’s every bit as much fun as you would hope. Amidst the recent onslaught of computer animation, seeing Walt Disney Studios return to their roots (if only for a few minutes) comes like a breath of fresh air. With charming performances and solid execution, Enchanted gracefully walks a tightrope and manages to simultaneously satirize and embrace the classic animated films of the past.

The story opens in traditional hand-drawn animation, a style not used by Disney for several years (though Disney does have a traditionally-animated musical currently in the works for 2009). We are introduced to a new Disney Princess, Giselle (voiced by the phenomenal Amy Adams), whose hobbies include singing, talking to woodland animals, and dreaming of finding her one true love. After being pushed down a well by the wicked Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon), Giselle suddenly finds herself no longer animated and struggling to get by in modern-day Manhattan. She soon befriends Robert (Patrick Dempsey), a single father who helps Giselle almost in spite of himself, and she anxiously awaits the coming of her Prince (Robert Marsden).

Strong performances stand at the heart of this movie, and everyone delivers. Chief among them is Amy Adams, who strikes a charming chord in every moment and makes it impossible not to like her. She’s as sweet and innocent as any Disney Princess of the past, yet she manages to be completely lovable rather than bubbly and annoying. No one could have played it better, and her journey of discovery in New York City is filled with big laughs. One of my favorite moments comes when she sees an apartment in need of some serious cleaning, sings out the window to enlist the help of nearby animals, and ends up summoning an army of pigeons, rats, and cockroaches.

What could have been a cheap gimmick absolutely soars due to the sheer volume of talent involved in the production. Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz, the masters behind countless other classic musicals, both for Disney and for Broadway, composed the songs. The director, Kevin Lima, has previously worked on numerous Disney films, both live-action and animated. Who better to satirize the classics than the very people who made them?

Patrick Dempsey turns in a fine performance as Robert, the realist (bordering on cynic) single father who gets caught up in Giselle’s fantasy world of inexplicable kindness and romance. The only character I wanted much more from was Susan Sarandon’s Queen Narissa. Almost every great Disney fantasy features a great Disney villain, and if the script had only given her more, Susan Sarandon could have made Narissa a truly memorable character. Broadway star Idina Menzel (of Wicked) gives a good performance as Robert’s fiancée, but why cast Idina Menzel in a musical and not employ her beautiful singing voice? Every time she appeared, I found myself waiting for a solo that never came.

Viewers of all ages can enjoy this film, though it’s especially fun for true Disney fans, as the plot features iconic elements from other classics, including Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty. The theatre I was in was fairly full, but had surprisingly few children in the audience. When the movie ended, the audience burst into applause, and I unashamedly joined in. We didn’t clap because we had seen a perfect movie, or because we had seen anything life-changing. We clapped because we had been part of something fun, the children within had awoke, and most of all (for me, at least), because the Disney magic was back.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for some scary images and mild innuendo.

Enchanted really is appropriate for kids of all ages. There’s nothing too frightening, and though much of the humor is aimed at adults, there’s still plenty here that kids will eat up. The more serious themes of divorce, disillusionment, and Giselle’s multiple awakenings to reality are handled with great sensitivity and care. Take your kids, but know that you’ll really be treating yourself.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Beowulf

Beowulf is based on a classic epic poem: the hero, Beowulf (Ray Winstone), travels to a distant kingdom in order to defeat Grendel, the ancient demon who tirelessly plagues King Hrothgar’s (Anthony Hopkins) domain. Here is one of the Western World’s oldest fantasies, a classic tale of larger-than-life heroes - a story that has survived the centuries. Why, then, would filmmakers feel the need to alter it? The biggest mistake of this movie is not that it deviates from the original story, but rather that it tries to keep one foot in the original and the other foot out. The literary character of Beowulf stands tall as the ideal 6th century man, but this film suffers from a modern man’s problem: it’s afraid of commitment.

In 2004, Troy made similar mistakes. A superb cast, enormous budget, and classic story came together and flopped because the filmmakers tried to modernize The Iliad by removing the gods and adding clichéd dialogue, presenting an epic, yet watered-down mish-mash of a movie. This time, Beowulf presents its title character as part legendary hero and part modern man who struggles with his ego. If only the film could have let go and trusted the original source material; Beowulf isn’t dishonorable, and he certainly never fuels his own ego. The literary character of Beowulf is a model of honor and virtue, and he earns his reputation solely through deeds. He isn’t a realistic character, but this story rarely calls for realism. He’s a superhero.

This movie gets most things right in its first half. Beowulf rides in like the manly-man he is, promising to vanquish the evil monster. When told that many warriors have died trying to claim the reward of gold, he says, “If we die, it will be for glory - not gold.” Because Grendel uses neither weapons nor armor, Beowulf strips completely naked and fights Grendel with his bare hands. Now THAT’S how this entire movie should have been: epic, over the top, and good ol’ goofy fun. Unfortunately, the violence is more disturbing than fun, and once Beowulf visits Grendel’s mother (Angelina Jolie), the plot takes a wrong turn and never recovers.

Beowulf marks director Robert Zemeckis’ second venture into the world of motion-capture animation, a style that uses computers and special cameras to make the animation look as realistic as possible. Real actors give actual performances, but what you see on-screen are computer-animated versions of those performances. This was done with enormous grace and mystery in The Polar Express (2004), but the world of Beowulf is far darker, more sinister, and ultimately less interesting. Facial expressions are more realistic, but the grim environments failed to capture my imagination and draw me in. Characters and settings in The Polar Express don’t exactly look real, but they aren’t false either. Magical uncertainty lurks around every corner of that train. Like The Polar Express, Beowulf debuted in multiple formats, the best of which is IMAX 3D. The 3D achievement here is unbelievably impressive; 3D cinema used to be a gimmick, composed of multiple 2D layers (one flat thing looked closer than another flat thing), but not anymore. However, 3D realism makes the film’s violence all the more intense; limbs aren’t just thrown, they’re thrown at your face.

One of my biggest criticisms isn’t of the film itself, but of the MPAA rating; it’s a shameful outrage that Beowulf received PG-13 instead of R. The film may be animated, but so what? Any film in which limbs are ripped-off, blood is splattered, and Angelina Jolie appears naked IS NOT for children. This is animation for adults, a concept other cultures have been familiar with for quite some time. Any live-action movie with half this much nudity and gore would be rated R, and PG-13 (not to mention an animated PG-13) means that many parents with bad judgment will bring along their 5 year-olds.

The final action sequence with the dragon is incredible, featuring a level of excitement that the movie should have delivered all along. Beowulf has some solid action, impressive animation, and a few other virtues, but it could have been so much more than the sum of its parts. As is, this story seems less like an authentic telling of Beowulf and more like “a mere hanger-on in hero’s armor.”

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence including disturbing images, some sexual material and nudity.

Nothing, and I mean NOTHING about this movie is for kids. The violence is simply too much, and even 13 year-olds should be cautious. I think I would have been bothered at age 13 by some of the images here, though I do admit that the 3D experience is surely much more intense than traditional screenings, and it will be even less intense on a television. Still, definitely prescreen it for your young teenagers, and please, please, DO NOT take your children.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Across the Universe

What a courageous, joyous experience Across the Universe is. Julie Taymor’s latest work is completely fearless, striving to be so many different things and somehow succeeding across the board. Across the Universe is a musical comprised entirely of Beatles songs, and it examines the 1960’s through the lens of that pivotal music. The Beatles are never mentioned by name in the film, but their cultural impact permeates every frame; Across the Universe invites you on a journey through some of America’s most turbulent times, with the music of The Beatles lighting the way.

Apart from the direct homage paid by the music, this film has more Beatles references than even the most avid fans could catch. Every character name and most lines of dialogue are lifted directly from Beatles lyrics. The story follows Jude (Jim Sturgess) and Lucy (Evan Rachel Wood), two very different people who find each other in New York City in the early 1960’s. The film follows their relationship through the music, sex, drugs, and other cultural revolutions that defined the times.

The musical numbers throughout the film are as diverse as The Beatles’ music itself, ranging from very abstract to more traditional musical fare. Given the familiarity of the music, most of the numbers are surprisingly functional, meaning that the lyrics seem like dialogue written specifically for these scenes. Needless to say, that’s extremely clever storytelling. Watching the film, I was immediately struck by just how genuine this musical is. Not only do the songs flow very naturally, but the actors themselves seem to be truly singing in each moment. After doing a bit of research, I learned that most of the songs were indeed performed and recorded during the actual filming, as opposed to the typical technique of re-recording the songs and dubbing them back in during post-production. These musical performances are much more authentic, and it shows.

Director Julie Taymor has repeatedly proven herself a master artist, perhaps her most impressive achievement being the design of The Lion King on Broadway. One of her great accomplishments here is her intimate understanding of The Beatles’ music and how best to utilize it. Traditional numbers are interspersed with appropriately trippy sequences, serving as throwbacks to The Beatles’ films like A Hard Days Night and Yellow Submarine. Taymor’s pairings of songs with historical events flow seamlessly, such as “Let It Be” with the Civil Rights Movement, or “Strawberry Fields Forever” with the violence of Vietnam. It’s fun to be able to sing along to a brand new musical, but even better to see such familiar songs presented freshly.

Yet another welcome aspect: Across the Universe really knows that it’s in color. Not a moment goes by where the color is without purpose, and purposeful movies always stand out. Just as Citizen Kane (with its rich, dark contrasts) couldn’t possibly have worked in color, Across the Universe could never exist in black and white. Colors burst from the screen at every turn, from the red strawberries of “Strawberry Fields Forever” to the psychedelic haze of “I am the Walrus.” Whenever a film as visually lush as this one comes along, I’m reminded of just how few movies take advantage of their full visual potential. Movies have the power to transport us to beautifully imagined worlds, and for a visual medium, it’s surprising how many movies choose to play by our world’s rules.

This film, like all gutsy, adventurous works of art, will have plenty of antagonists, but I call Across the Universe an absolute triumph. One of the year’s very best films, it resonates with the joyful energy of passionate artists who fully believe in their work. The film takes risk after risk, and succeeds every time. For anyone who loves romance, musicals, the 1960’s, or most of all, The Beatles, Across the Universe offers one of the most memorable film experiences in recent years.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some drug content, nudity, sexuality, violence and language.

As should be evident by the list of content above, this film is not for children. However, the main concern isn’t just the sex, drugs, and language. Even though the film is mostly a ‘feel-good’ musical, the gravity of the material will simply be missed on younger viewers, especially elements about the Vietnam War. I would certainly not recommend it for viewers under 13, and even then, some history lessons about the period might be in order before and after the film.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Transformers

“This is easily a hundred times cooler than Armageddon!”
-Actual dialogue from Transformers

Yes, I would have to agree. Director Michael Bay (who also directed the lackluster Armageddon) has scored a bizarre home run with Transformers, a film based on Hasbro’s action figures of the same name. It’s the kind of movie that seemed destined to be awful; how could anyone build a decent movie around action figures from the 1980’s? I suppose by the same mystical power that Disney used to make a mega-hit based on a 1967 theme park ride. Nothing is impossible, it seems (yo ho!). An unlikely winner, Transformers works, and it’s pretty fun that in a summer filled to the brim with disappointing blockbusters, one of the most entertaining films so far features building-sized killer robots from outer space that can inexplicably become cars.

The film follows Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a high school student who desperately wants a girlfriend, but who just can’t find his footing. Having finally saved up enough to purchase his first car, Sam’s father drives him to a used car lot where a yellow Camero connects with Sam in a very mysterious way. Sam soon learns that his first car is actually an extraterrestrial machine named Bumblebee, a Transformer capable of becoming an enormous robot. Once the other Transformers arrive, Sam learns the truth of the situation. There are two different races of Transformers: the Autobots and the Decepticons. Determined to defend humanity against the Decepticons’ destructive rampage, the Autobots inform Sam that he alone (for reasons not disclosed here) holds the key to the survival of the human race.

There are many other plot devices at work, but none of them matter very much. In fact, I’m now doubting the necessity of the entire previous paragraph of plot summary, because the plot rarely drives this film. As a director, Michael Bay excels at explosion-filled action scenes, as his filmography shows: Armageddon, Pearl Harbor, Bad Boyz, etc. What makes Transformers better than all of those movies is the way the characters take center stage. I was prepared to be entertained by the numerous transformations, but I was utterly surprised by the amount of quality character-work taking place amidst the action. This movie has a charming performance from Shia LaBeouf at its center, who holds together a very delicate situation and treats the material with the perfect mix of respect and tongue-in-cheek. The surprisingly humorous screenplay throws several fast balls right over the center of the plate, and LaBeouf hits almost all of them clear out of the park. My personal favorite: “I bought a car ... turned out to be an alien robot. Who knew?”

As an actor, LaBeouf is instantly likable, and as long as I’m being honest, it’s probably him that I cared about more than his character. The script has its strengths, but LaBeouf carries the material farther than a lesser performer would have. Because we care about his character first, the action scenes come as entertaining diversions, and I was completely prepared for the exact opposite to be true. The only big exception to this “characters come first” rule is the final epic battle, where CG madness takes center stage for a good half-hour or more. It may go on just a little too long, but this sequence still thoroughly entertains. It actually reminded me of what I had almost forgotten: that I was watching a movie based on action figures. The blow ‘em up spirit of the original material looks pretty great up there, but Bay delivers more than that. It wouldn’t have taken very much for this to have been a mindless (and consequently, thrill-less) movie aimed at 13 year-old boys. As is, Transformers stands more as a movie for anyone who remembers being 13. It resonates with a level of nostalgia and old-fashioned fun, as opposed to settling into typically forgettable midsummer fare.

Still, Transformers is not without its flaws. The plot has many, many clichés, several cheesy, groan-inducing lines that we’ve heard before in lesser films, and occasional lags in the movie’s overall momentum. There’s also a side-story about government hackers that just doesn’t really work or add much to the film at all. When the dust settles, though, the scales are definitely tipped in the film’s favor. For the first time since The Rock (1996), I applaud Michael Bay. His trademark action scenes are back, but there are finally characters worth caring about (mostly Sam and his car, Bumblebee). Working from downright silly source material, Transformers walks the tightrope carefully, albeit not exactly gracefully, and somehow arrives safely on the other side. There came a point in this movie where I stopped and realized that I actually cared whether Sam’s car lived or died. That’s a pretty remarkable feat, and more than I can say about the entire character-palette of Armageddon.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action violence, brief sexual humor, and language.

Most children 10 and up will likely enjoy this movie, though there’s more here for the boys than for girls. Much like the original Transformer toys, many girls will still enjoy the film, but it’s definitely aimed primarily at males. There’s plenty of action and CG wizardry to keep them entertained, and the battle scenes never become too frightening. There is some language (not in excess, but it’s still there), and there are a few sexual jokes likely to soar above most kids’ heads. If your child’s age has fewer than two digits, I recommend prescreening the film first.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

As quoted in my 2006 review of Pirates 2: “Part of what made the original Pirates film so fun was the lack of real danger. It possessed a sense of adventure, but never became truly intense. The stakes are somewhat higher this time.” Yes, and they’re even higher this time. I still stand by my claim that the first movie in this trilogy provides the most fun, largely due to its old-fashioned approach. The first film just makes you feel good, and if it has to be occasionally cheesy to do so, then so be it. It holds a tremendous sense of adventure, but not suspense. The lovable characters become caught up in increasingly enjoyable scenarios, until finally the film ends and the audience is left cheering with sheer delight. At World’s End will leave audiences thoroughly entertained, but not completely fulfilled. While the final chapter of this trilogy works, it could have recaptured the contagious, feel-good energy of its predecessor.

The story picks up right where Dead Man’s Chest left off. Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) is dead. Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) isn’t. Everyone wants Jack Sparrow alive again, but for different reasons. Will Turner (Orlando Bloom), Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightly), and Barbossa lead the way into the land of the dead in hopes of bringing Sparrow back to life. Meanwhile, Davy Jones (Bill Nighy) is under the command of the East India Trading Company, a greedy organization that hopes to bring an end to piracy as we know it. The pirate lords from all corners of the earth must now stand together and fight for their survival.

It’s almost impossible not to love these characters. Johnny Depp has certainly carved out a corner of cinema history as Captain Jack Sparrow, but the supporting cast members all lend their own charm. Looking back at the trilogy as a whole, I can now clearly see what the second film was missing: Captain Barbossa. Geoffrey Rush’s eccentric caricature of a pirate just about steals the show, and the love/hate relationship between Barbossa and Sparrow makes both characters better. Most of my favorite moments from the series are conversations between these two.

There are also character disappointments, though. This film introduces Sao Feng (Chow Yun-Fat), a fearsome pirate lord from Singapore. He should have been a wonderful new character, but his overall contribution to the film comes up short. In such an action-heavy film, I have no idea why Fat’s martial arts abilities weren’t put to use. Another disappointment comes with Norrington’s (Jack Davenport) limited role. He surprised viewers in Pirates 2 by completely reinventing his character and becoming a pirate himself, but the screenplay robs his character of any entertainment value this time around. Other character mishaps include Governor Swann, Elizabeth's father (Jonathan Pryce), and Calypso, the goddess of the sea. They all work, but should have been given much more to do.

As expected, the visual effects do not disappoint. Every fantasy element looks incredible, and the action sequences burst with unending energy. Many effects films quickly become tiresome, but the Pirates blend of CG wizardry and live-action stunts continues to get it right. The only viewers who are likely to complain about the visuals are parents, seeing as how the three films have become increasingly less kid-friendly. The opening scene shows multiple hangings, and the rest of the film proves more violent than what the first two films have shown us. In many cases, the violence works against the film, taking away from the overall enjoyment.

The swashbuckling adventure scenes soar, though the stunningly complicated plot does all it can to drag the film down to the depths of Davy Jones’ locker. If you haven’t seen the first two films in a while, prepare to be completely lost. Even the most hardcore fans will likely scratch their heads at one point or another, wondering why the writers included more plot twists and double-crosses than the first two films combined. Ultimately, viewers will just have to let go and be entertained. The plot has never been this franchise’s driving force, but it’s so muddled here that it almost detracts from the fun.

Probably the biggest surprise of Pirates 3 is its lack of closure. If you’re preparing to see all of the series’ loose ends neatly tied-up, think again. This film ends adequately enough, but leaves the story wide open should a fourth installment ever set sail. While surprising, this ending just feels right. I love how the film ends with a sense that the characters aren’t done; there will always be more adventures. Fans may not appreciate the fate of one favorite character, but it could be easily altered if another film demands it. After all, the Pirates series is one in which no character really dies. If there is a fourth film, I’m sure that everyone would be back. That being said, I almost hope that we don’t see another Pirates flick. These delightful characters have given us enough. The final verdict: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End succeeds. It left me smiling, but I wish it had left me cheering.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Spider-Man 3


In 2002, the original Spider-Man film pleased its core fan base, but left me somewhat disappointed. Performances were right-on, though the visuals were slightly cartoonish, and I found the overall feel to be pretty campy. Then, in 2005, Spider-Man 2 absolutely blew me away with its great story, mature themes, unusually good character development, and flawless visuals. One of the genre’s finest, Spider-Man 2 raised the superhero bar very high. So, where does Spider-Man 3 fit in? To be honest, it’s pretty goofy. This latest installment doesn’t even approach the league of Spider-Man 2, but that doesn’t make it bad by default. Spider-Man 3 is campy and drawn-out, but still fun in its own way.

At the film’s opening, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) finally has everything going for him. Having earned New York City’s respect, he’s openly regarded as a hero, he’s doing well in school, and he plans to propose marriage to his girlfriend, Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst). Almost immediately, everything goes wrong. A small meteor crashes in Central Park, bringing with it an evil extraterrestrial organism which takes-up residence in Peter Parker’s apartment and eventually bonds with his Spidey suit. The new black-suited Spider-Man takes-on overly aggressive traits and becomes a threat to himself and others. Peter struggles to rid himself of the alien symbiote and reclaim his true identity. There’s way too much additional plot to really delve into, but it involves a rival love interest named Gwen (Bryce Dallas Howard), the Sandman (whose body is actually made of sand), Harry Osburn’s transformation into the new Green Goblin, and the antics of an infamous monster named Venom.

If you think that plot sounds too complicated and jumbled for a single movie, you’re correct. Spider-Man 3 has three main villains, and that’s just too many. Both the new Goblin and Venom are interesting enough to be centerpieces of their own Spidey films, but neither of them really receive adequate attention. The Sandman actually gets more screen-time than either of them, and that’s a mistake. He makes for a delightful visual effect, but little else, and there’s a connection made between the Sandman and Peter’s Uncle Ben that feels very forced and unnecessary.

The film gets some things right, mostly in the first hour. Early scenes setting up a love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane, and Gwen work well, but it all starts collapsing once Peter becomes overtaken by his evil alter-ego. There’s an incredibly bizarre montage of Peter becoming a sleazy jerk, walking down the street and checking-out all the ladies, who seem sufficiently unimpressed and creeped out. I found Dark-Peter’s behavior to be laughably out of place, but this section of the film doesn’t last for too long.

The film’s visual effects lean more towards the cheesy end of the first Spider-Man film, but they are still impressive. The Sandman features some especially impressive rendering, as parts of his body blow away in the wind and reassemble elsewhere. The Sandman is just too goofy to be really threatening, and his presence in the film removes any sense of reality. In Spider-Man 2, Doc Ock wasn’t entirely believable, but he at least made sense and had meaningful character motivations. The Sandman, while an awesome visual effect, makes for a lame character. After the Sandman first appears, Spider-Man actually asks the tongue-in-cheek question, “Where do all these guys come from?” With three iconic villains appearing in one film, I’d say that’s a fair question.

Spider-Man 3 works as a fun Summer flick, but it could have been more. As far as superhero films go, it’s pretty good, but Spider-Man 2 spoiled me. Director Sam Raimi and crew have proven that they can do better than just an enjoyable action movie, and while I don’t think it’s fair to expect the same Spider-Man 2 magic, at least the script and its characters could have been better developed. Still, I doubt that anyone will claim it to be lacking in entertainment value. Spider-Man 3, while flawed, makes for a good time at the movies.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Classic Series: West Side Story


What a joy it is to revisit West Side Story - having aced the test of time, it’s safe to say that West Side Story isn’t just one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, it’s one of the greatest movies period. No other film musical within forty years of this one features such sophisticated film-making. The color and quality of the celluloid itself dates it, but the cinematography and film editing are so advanced you might think the footage had been shot yesterday. Boasting the music of Leonard Bernstein, the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim, and the invaluable direction of Robert Wise, West Side Story stands tall among cinema’s true masterpieces, and no lover of theater, film, or even Shakespeare can afford to miss it.

A modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, the story unfolds in the slums of 1950’s New York. The Jets and the Sharks, two rival gangs, are constantly fighting for ownership of the streets. The Sharks are all immigrants from Puerto Rico, and much of the animosity between the gangs stems from their racial differences. Both sides agree to have a final “rumble” to settle the score once and for all. Meanwhile, Tony (Richard Beymer), a former Jet, falls madly in love with Maria (Natalie Wood), the sister of one of the Sharks. Their secret romance becomes more and more complicated to uphold, and the two lovers begin to understand that they somehow hold the key to the future of the two gangs: peaceful compromise or unparalleled violence.

The cast is made-up almost exclusively of great dancers, and their talents are not wasted. More athletic than graceful, the choreography of West Side Story absolutely sizzles with hot energy. Just as opera uses song to communicate dialogue, this musical uses dance to communicate actions and emotions. Traditional movie dance numbers usually serve more as eye-candy than plot development, which often adds value and weight to a film (no one would dispute the effectiveness of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire’s sequences), though the majority of the dance in West Side Story proves to be more functional. Gang violence, murder, and even rape are all communicated through highly effective dance.

The musical opened on Broadway in 1957. Originally envisioned as a story about a Catholic boy falling in love with a Holocaust survivor, the plot changed when America began receiving a huge influx of Puerto Rican immigration. The play ends with a powerful monologue about racial intolerance in America, which has certainly helped the play endure over the years. Like Show Boat or South Pacific, West Side Story works as a musical with social commentary and purpose. The structural similarity to Romeo and Juliet also helps ensure its immortality; what tale could be more timeless than one of star-crossed lovers? That was already a well-known formula when Shakespeare ripped it off in the late 16th century.

The film version of West Side Story is one of two stage-to-screen musicals that I believe to be without flaw, having absolutely no room for improvement. The other is The Sound of Music, and I believe that these two films significantly improved on the original stage versions. Interestingly enough, both films share a common director: Robert Wise, one of the true masters of American film. In addition to being an Academy Award-winning producer and director, he was also a renowned sound editor and film editor, earning his first Oscar nomination for his editing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. Jerome Robbins, who choreographed and directed the Broadway play, lent his knowledge and creativity in co-directing the film alongside Wise, mostly working with the dance and fight sequences. These talents are all at work in West Side Story, and no where more noticeably than in the remarkable opening sequence. Largely devoid of dialogue, the film’s ten-minute opening follows the two gangs through the city streets. The camera shows the action from a plethora of different angles, and the camera perspectives of these shots show phenomenal foresight. The camera occasionally moves behind fences and railings, giving us slightly obstructed views of the action. As simple as this may sound, the camerawork is so advanced that it almost goes unnoticed by viewers today, seeming as current and fluid as any modern movie. The cinematography was truly decades ahead of its time.

People often reference the three-way tie for most Academy Award wins: Ben-Hur, Titanic, and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King all won eleven. However, many forget that West Side Story garnered ten, which is more than any other musical and one shy of the record. Energetic, tragic, amusing, poignant, and visionary, West Side Story never takes a wrong turn. Movie buffs who have seen many other films from this era tend to be impressed with how well this one holds up. Every friend I’ve ever shown it to has thanked me afterwards - even those who claim to not particularly enjoy musicals. West Side Story set a bold new standard for musical pictures, and that standard has yet to be surpassed.


Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Namesake

Based on a novel of the same name, The Namesake unfolds very much like a novel; the film is quiet, simple, rich, and rewarding. There are moments of great emotional weight, though most of the film remains soft-spoken, inviting you to embark on a peaceful journey through the very soul of America, through the heart of India, and back. The plot of The Namesake proves less important than the story’s emotions. If asked what the film is about, I would probably give several single-word responses: family, legacy, love, grief, etc. Even attempting to write about it proves difficult; The Namesake must be felt.

That being said, a brief summary is still in order. Ashoke (Irfan Kahn) and Ashima (Tabu) are a young Bengali couple who move from Calcutta, India, to New York City. Ashoke has been living in America for some time already, but Ashima has never known anything outside of India. The early scenes of their life in America wonderfully communicate Ashima’s culture-shock and loneliness. She and Ashoke eventually have two children, a daughter named Sonia, and a son, named for Ashoke’s favorite author, Nikolai Gogol. The Namesake chronicles two decades of the Ganguli family as all four of them gradually become American while also staying true to their Indian heritage.

The characters in The Namesake are as believable as any characters I’ve seen. The credit for this can be placed on at least four different parties: Jhumpa Lahiri, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, Sooni Taraporevala, the woman who adapted the screenplay, Mira Nair, the director, and of course, the actors. The characters in The Namesake do not follow film clichés, they are not predictable, and they are not morally simple. These are real people who behave as such, and none of them can be placed into two-dimensional molds of good or evil, hero or villain. This story certainly has its heroes, but they are the vulnerable heroes of real life: ordinary people who exhibit extraordinary compassion and understanding.

One of the film’s key triumphs is its marvelous use of time. Time passes so very realistically, which doesn’t occur too often in the movies. The Namesake has scenes that unfold very slowly, in real-time, followed by cuts where ten years have passed. The film moves at a contemplative pace, while also soaring past entire years of the plot like a smooth stone skipping on the surface of a pond. In keeping with real life, the years seem to fly by, and eventually the characters are left holding only their memories, most precious of which are fragments of conversations. This use of time makes it almost impossible to sense where the story is headed - another rarity in most movies. The film has a two hour running time, though it feels closer to three, and in this case that’s a good thing. Roger Ebert has often said, “No good movie is too long, no bad movie is short enough.” The Namesake doesn’t waste a moment.

Several scenes make much more sense long after they have passed. After seeing the film, thinking back on specific conversations with the entire context of the story in place, moments took on new meaning for me. A screenplay serves as the soul of any adaptation, and it carries the sometimes unthinkable weight of bridging the source material and the finished film. Novels built more around human emotion than plot do not always translate successfully to the screen, but Sooni Taraporevala’s screenplay for The Namesake makes all the right decisions. It knows when to employ large, bold brushstrokes, yet also knows when to move in close and highlight the smallest details. The script spills over with humanity and life, and in the hands of sensitive director Mira Nair, the film flourishes quietly, but confidently.

Mira Nair was offered the director’s chair for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, but she declined, opting to direct The Namesake instead. She would have made a marvelous Harry Potter film, and also would have become a household name overnight because of it. Personally, I’m glad she chose to tell this story. Her film probably won’t find wide circulation, though I suspect it will linger for quite some time in the hearts of all who do see it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

300


300 is one of the most over-the-top, testosterone-fueled thrill rides ever assembled, and it never once contemplates being anything else. This unwavering commitment to its agenda is the main reason it works. This film isn’t about profound truths, philosophy, or even history; this is a film about legendary battles, and the manly men who fought them. Many films founder in their presentations of ancient tales. Troy (2004), for example, never made up its mind as to whether it was going to be historically accurate or true to Greek mythology, and the result was a watered-down, poorly-written Iliad gone wrong. 300 has both feet firmly planted in the mythological realm, complete with bizarre creatures, impossible fight scenes, and plenty of muscles to spare.

Adapted from Frank Miller’s graphic novel of the same name, 300 does have a historical basis. Set in 480 B.C., the film chronicles the battle of Thermopylae, in which a small Grecian force stood bravely against the vast numbers of the advancing Persian Empire. In the film, King Leonidas of Sparta (Gerard Butler - yes, he DID play the Phantom of the Opera) refuses to submit to the will of the Persian King Xerxes. Taking a stand for Spartan freedom, he leads a small band of 300 men against 1,000,000 Persian soldiers.

Many will likely condemn this film for being too simple-minded and chauvinistic, but I’m not sure those are fair criticisms. This film does great justice to the graphic novel, and the graphic novel does justice to the legend. Every aspect of this movie rejoices in a time when honor and glory were completely tied into violence. The truth of that time period may be exaggerated here, but so be it. The men in this story all look and act like He-Man on steroids, and such unapologetic storytelling works when relaying ancient myth. Many comic book adaptations feel the need to make their stories more believable and realistic, but 300 absolutely brings Miller’s fanciful illustrations to life.

The visual style of this film echoes Sin City, one of the true masterpieces of the genre. Both movies were filmed almost entirely indoors, using blue screens and plenty of computer-generated manipulation. 300 is strangely beautiful and glorious to behold, even in its most violent moments. Movies have the ability to show us wonderfully imagined fantasy worlds, though some directors terribly misuse visual effects. Computer animation isn’t always the best option, but I think 300 demonstrates CG effects at their best. If 300 had been filmed traditionally, the inherent silliness of the story would have probably shone through and robbed the adaptation of its potential. By literally painting the backgrounds of every frame, the filmmakers successfully set the stage for the fantastic.

Both the screenplay and the performances help hold the movie together. All actors take the material seriously, which helps us do the same. Many moments are almost cheesy, but the script walks the line successfully in capturing the grandeur of antiquity without being downright goofy. The battle of Thermopylae has been an inspiring underdog story for centuries, and while this film has inspiring moments, it ultimately trades inspiration for style. There’s nothing here to equal William Wallace’s speeches in Braveheart or even the more heartfelt moments in The Lord of the Rings, but 300 thoroughly entertains. It’s exciting, intriguing, and visually captivating, all of which are trademarks of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. Comic book adaptations typically fail or succeed before production ever begins, because the art direction and presentation style usually make or break such movies, just as they do most comic books. The filmmakers of 300 created the perfect setting, and everything else settled into place.

Many will probably complain about all the things this movie isn’t, but let’s be reasonable. No, I wouldn’t recommend using 300 as a citable source for a scholarly paper, but watching it wouldn’t be a bad way to kick-back and relax once you've turned that paper in.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Pan's Labyrinth

There’s a crucial exchange roughly halfway through Pan’s Labyrinth. A mother tries desperately to explain to her young daughter that fairy tales don’t exist and that real life doesn’t play out like the books her daughter constantly reads. Unfortunately, the mother has it wrong. She means to say that real life has struggles and difficulties. To most hardened adults, fairy tales are seen as perfect fantasies in which no characters ever feel pain or fear, the good guys always win, and the princess lives happily ever after. Children know better.

Fairy tales reflect more of life’s dark side than many adults realize. Walt Disney’s films have been terrifying children for years, and those stories are the watered-down stuff; go back and read the original texts of your favorite fairy tales, and you may be very surprised at what you find. In Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth, two worlds collide as a young girl finds herself trapped in a ferociously violent Fascist Spain, as well as in an equally deadly fantasy realm.

I can almost guarantee that you’ve never seen a movie like Pan’s Labyrinth. The film soars as a period piece, a fantasy, and a rich human drama. The film’s fantasy sequences are absolutely breathtaking, but the majority of the story unfolds in a very-real Spain, 1944, where fascism rules with an iron fist. A young girl, Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), moves to a war-ridden town with her pregnant mother who has just married the violent, monstrous Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Confronted with the horrors of war around her, Ofelia soon finds herself the subject of an amazing fantasy adventure. Once Ofelia’s family is asleep, a mythical faun informs her of her true identity as a princess and gives her three very special tasks to complete in order to return to her kingdom.

I was expecting to be impressed by fanciful visuals, but I was not prepared to be sufficiently creeped out. The film borders on horror throughout, and the sequences set in the harsh reality of Spain are brutally violent. I found myself looking away on multiple occasions as defenseless prisoners were shot, tortured, or ruthlessly beaten to death. Part of what is so remarkable about del Toro’s film is the way the fantasy sequences are completely different from the real-world scenes, yet equally important and equally dangerous. Ofelia risks her life in completing every one of the tasks, and del Toro makes that danger real for the audience. The film succeeds as a solid drama, both inside the fantasies and out.

The character palette remains surprisingly rich. There are people on both extreme ends of the good/evil spectrum, yet there are also plenty of supporting characters in the middle that flesh out the story, not the least of which is the faun (Doug Jones). The faun is a remarkably realized character, and seeing him in this film is more than enough to prove the lasting power of “old school” makeup and visual effects techniques. In today’s computer-generated age, the faun resonates with an authenticity that only an actual actor in a costume can provide.

Many have hailed this film as a fairy tale for grown-ups, and it does successfully reintroduce adults to the idea of finding fear and wonder in imagined worlds. It’s probably more horrific than even the harshest fairy tales, but the film has just enough light to keep it from being completely depressing. Most fairy tales have morals, and while Pan’s Labyrinth certainly has them, del Toro chooses to not state them outright. We make up our own minds about what we are seeing, right down to whether or not Ofelia’s fantasies are real. Also, most fairy tales end either happily or tragically, and the story’s moral typically stems from one of those two endings. Without giving anything away, del Toro manages to somehow pull-off two endings in one. The film’s finale is both devastating and joyous in equal measures.

Guillermo del Toro has shown great promise and style throughout his career, but he’s never had material as good as this. He directed Hellboy and Blade 2, both of which are engaging fantasies in certain aspects, but Pan’s Labyrinth can easily be called del Toro’s crowning achievement to date. The film resonates strongly with the love and care that can so often be felt when writers direct their own material. Pan’s Labyrinth is frightening, mysterious, entrancing, and visionary. The film succeeds on a rare level for such movies, because the remarkable visuals serve the story and the characters, instead of the other way around. Pan’s Labyrinth is undoubtedly one of the year’s best, most original, and most memorable films.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Classic Series: Titanic


The RMS Titanic was the very epitome of luxury. Every aspect of the ocean liner was extravagant, so it’s only fitting that at the time of its release in 1997, James Cameron’s Titanic was the most expensive film ever made. The 1990’s saw the full-scale return of epic films, a once-thriving genre that had largely faded into memory. Seven of the ten Best Picture winners from 1990 to 1999 can safely be labeled as epics, and five of them have running times of three hours or more. Still, no one thought that a blockbuster could be epic in length and still garner the repeat viewings necessary to cover the film’s large budget. With the arrival of Titanic, it was official: the epic was back.

This film proved that modern audiences were, in fact, still capable of sitting in a theater for three hours at a time. It proved that film studios could spend $200 million dollars (more than most films ever make), and see revenues of nearly two billion. Years later, paying Titanic another visit, I am pleased (though not surprised) to find that the film has lost none of its potency. Now that the hype has died down and the dust has settled, Titanic is currently passing its final test with flying colors: the test of time.

After all, the film is composed almost entirely of timeless elements, appealing to nearly every age group within nearly every culture. Titanic succeeds as a period piece, a drama, an action film, and a romance. The core themes are true love, class struggles, teenage angst, and death. These same terms could be used to describe half of William Shakespeare’s plays. Rather than Verona, Italy, the story is set in 1912 on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic. The story follows Jack Dawson (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rose DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), two young lovers who come from completely opposite backgrounds. Rose is a first-class passenger on her way to America to marry a steel-tycoon, whereas Jack won his third-class ticket in a last-minute poker game. They find one another onboard the ship, quickly fall in love, and struggle to overcome the restraints of the class system (a feat which makes surviving the shipwreck seem easy). Rose’s fiancé, Caledon Hockley (Billy Zane), is an arrogant, wealthy man who will do anything to come out ahead. Rose consistently enjoys seeing him fail. Conflicts emerge. The second half of the film chronicles the physical and emotional struggles of all passengers as the ill-fated ocean-liner slowly disappears beneath the surface of the Atlantic.

A large part of the film’s brilliance and success lies in its length. So many films have no sense of order or purpose in their running times, but Titanic knows exactly what is required for it to work. In order to maximize the potential of both halves of the film, Titanic isn’t afraid to take its time: 197 minutes, to be exact. The film has plenty of sweeping, breathtaking scenes, but also remembers the little, “unnecessary” moments that make both the characters and the environment more real. Once the ship hits the iceberg and characters begin struggling for their survival, James Cameron brilliantly shows how the class system was upheld, even in death. Passengers were cared for according to their “worth”, and it wasn’t until the very end that class structures began falling apart. These are some of the film’s best scenes, including a moment where a crew member throws a handful of money back in Cal’s face, telling him, “Your money can’t save you any more than it can save me.” Because so much time has been spent with these characters already, seeing them make decisions under pressure is all the more rewarding.

Another phenomenal achievement of the film comes with the characterization of two inanimate elements: the ship and the ocean. Cameron crafted a screenplay that very cleverly showcases the ship itself, and therefore shows off the film’s grand sets. Characters move all over the decks, the rooms, the storage compartments, the boilers, and even the engine rooms, where we see huge machinery at work. The boat itself is so detailed, so convincing, that the audience is caught up immediately. Like other aspects of the film, the historical detail works on both large and small scales. There are moments where the camera moves up close and shows ornate carvings in the furniture, while other shots sweep across the 900 ft. length of the ship and steal our breath away. As for the ocean, once the ship begins to flood, Cameron takes what was beautiful just an hour earlier and makes it seem alive and menacing. Crawling down hallways, slowly choking the life out of the ship, the ocean itself becomes a character, and Cameron captures the suspense in near Hitchcockian fashion. Once again, time is on the film’s side. When the shipbuilder, Mr. Andrews, tells the captain that the ship will sink in “an hour ... two, at most,” we watch the ship go down in almost real time. No shorter time frame could have so effectively captured the horror and madness of being aboard a sinking ship.

The romance between the two leads strikes just the right note. It’s asking a lot of some viewers to accept that two people could meet and fall in love in just a few days, but that’s fairly typical of classic romances. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio have wonderful chemistry, breathing real life into potentially stale dialogue. The material is largely melodramatic, and here we reach the arguing point where so many critics rebuke the film most harshly, and yet it is on these very grounds that I will defend Titanic most passionately. Art criticism abounds with elitism of all kinds, and far too many film critics believe that in order to be film experts, they mustn’t see films for what they really are. In everyday life, these are the people who reject anything that becomes overly popular, believing that only obscure masterpieces can have real value.

I reject this attitude. Art must be discussed on its own terms, and Titanic remains a remarkable achievement in the genre of epic films. To all who claim that melodrama can't hold real power or weight, I would inquire if these viewers have seen Gone With the Wind, or the other two films tied with Titanic for the most Academy Award wins: Ben-Hur and The Lord of the Rings. No, I'm not claiming that all these films are the same, or that they are even attempting to convey the same themes. What I am saying is that melodrama has the power to reveal deep human truths; this was true in Shakespeare's time, it was true in the golden age of Hollywood, and it's just as true today. If so many melodramatic epics hold records and are beloved by countless viewers, then the power of epic melodrama to deeply affect us should not be questioned. Millions of viewers around the world connected with Titanic, and viewers will continue to do so for as long as movies endure.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction

Stranger Than Fiction is a delightful gem of a movie; it’s the kind of simple story that reminds you how fun it can be to let yourself be charmed by a quiet film. It does have a star-studded cast, but it’s as though the movie doesn’t know it. Rather than serving as a self-indulgent vehicle for its big names, the film concerns itself with characters and ideas. While the film is founded on a supremely clever concept, I assure you, there is far more to it than its premise. Stranger Than Fiction has real purpose beyond its enticing setup, building through some wonderful character development to a thought-provoking payoff.

Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, a veteran auditor for the IRS. Emma Thompson provides the film’s voiceover narration, describing Harold’s mundane existence in great detail. Before the story really even begins, Harold discovers an interesting and unexpected dilemma: he can hear the narrator’s voice. Harold hears a woman’s voice describing his life scene for scene, as he lives it, “accurately and with a better vocabulary.” After he hears a “Little did he know” statement predicting his imminent death, Harold seeks advice from a professor of literature (Dustin Hoffman). Together, they realize that the voice he’s hearing is that of renowned author Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson), who has no clue that her upcoming tragic novel has a real man’s life and death at its center. The trouble is, through a series of circumstances and encounters, Harold begins to discover for the first time that his life may be worth living.

Looking at the list of lead actors, it seems an odd and unlikely crew: Will Ferrell, Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, and Queen Latifah. As Harold Crick, Will Ferrell proves that he can be more than simply funny. While this film doesn’t mark as dramatic a shift for Ferrell as Dead Poet’s Society was for Robin Williams or The Truman Show was for Jim Carrey, it does give Ferrell an opportunity to give a likable, understated performance. His powerful on-screen presence has lent itself to some hilarious scenery-chewing roles in the past (and probably will again in the future), but he gives a surprisingly subtle performance as Harold Crick that is more than welcome. Director Marc Forster (Finding Neverland) has allowed all actors to use the “less is more” acting philosophy, and it works. The entire cast seems to believe in the material, and every time I see Maggie Gyllenhaal act, I wonder why I don’t see her more often. She strikes the right note in playing opposite Ferrell, and the performances seem to enhance one another. If ever the film comes up short, it’s in Queen Latifah’s character. Her performance is suitable, but the character itself seems unnecessary.

Stranger than Fiction does a wonderful job living up to its potential. There are several inevitable moments and developments, including Harold meeting the author, and these are executed well. The film’s romance develops more impressively than others, but the film also has plenty of unexpected moments. Not just plot twists, but scenes and lines of dialogue that carry real emotional weight. When Harold meets with the professor to seek his advice, their first order of business is to determine whether Harold is in a comedy or a tragedy. After hearing Harold describe how his life is boring, lonely, and how everyone hates him, the professor determines that it must be a comedy. Stranger Than Fiction has feet in both worlds, and while the comedy definitely holds dominance, there are moments of real poignancy throughout.

I should take this time to post a disclaimer that Stranger Than Fiction is not mainstream. The film is fairly odd, dabbling in various philosophical and existentialist ideas. A film can sometimes be overly praised to the point where all viewers assume that the film is for them, and this movie isn’t for everyone. It’s a thought-provoking piece, but take note of the premise; there are very unconventional forces at work here. In keeping with this, even with the film’s big stars, Stranger Than Fiction probably won’t be a big hit. It’s impossible to say for sure, but because of the film’s quiet nature, I’m afraid it will join the ranks of so many other great films that are somehow doomed to immediate obscurity. However, such films are periodically rediscovered and celebrated by the viewing public, and I suspect that many a future viewer will see this film, love it, take credit for discovering it, and wonder how they ever missed it.