Monday, November 26, 2012

Skyfall

Now this is how you do a Bond movie. Skyfall marks Daniel Craig’s third outing as Bond, and while the excellent Casino Royale (2006) brought Bond into the modern age, Skyfall examines the character’s relevance. In a post-9/11 world where national security operates so differently than it used to, is there still a place for James Bond? In answer to that question, we get one of the greatest Bond films ever made, folding in franchise staples alongside welcome additions. This year marks Bond’s 50th anniversary on screen, and I could not have hoped for a more fitting celebration of the character.

A thrilling chase sequence in the film’s opening minutes culminates in Bond’s apparent death (I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to say that he survives). After some time off, he reluctantly returns to work after a cyberterrorist attack rocks British Intelligence. Bond wonders if he still has what it takes as he sets out in search of the terrorist (who turns out to be Javier Bardem in one hell of a performance). 

Daniel Craig’s reinvention of Bond came as a breath of fresh air in 2006. A character that had by most accounts grown stale seemed a real person again, and Craig’s icy edge moved Bond closer to the character Ian Fleming originally wrote (Timothy Dalton made Bond tougher to some extent, but Craig perfected it). In Skyfall, Craig shows more vulnerability than before, making Bond a tortured soul, and the script delves deeper into Bond’s past and psychological makeup than any Bond film to date. Even the title, which I assumed was the codename for some evil plot involving a laser, holds deeper meaning. In many ways, Skyfall is Bond’s most mature outing.

After the dreary Quantum of Solace in 2008, some Bond fans wondered if Casino Royale had been a last hurrah; maybe the franchise really was finished. Skyfall addresses these concerns early on and never lets up, as characters wonder if agents like Bond are even needed in the field anymore. “Maybe we’re both played out,” Bond tells M (Judi Dench, who gets well-deserved amounts of screen time and dialogue). Bond’s quartermaster, Q (a franchise regular noticeably absent from Craig’s reboot until now) was traditionally an older inventor, but here he’s a young computer nerd (Ben Whishaw) who brags that he can do more damage in a few hours at his computer than Bond can do in a year in the field. In the world of digital espionage, why is Bond still necessary? “Occasionally,” Q acknowledges, “a trigger still needs to be pulled.”

The two most important aspects of a Bond picture (beyond Bond himself) are the villain and the girl. Casino Royale had the best Bond girl ever, and now we get the best villain. Javier Bardem has won an Oscar playing a creepy villain before (No Country for Old Men), but this performance is completely different. He has so much personality, and the energy between him and Craig is electric. Also, his schemes and motivations make sense, an important quality few Bond villains possess. The franchise hasn’t featured a truly memorable baddie since Sean Bean’s Alec Trevelyan in Goldeneye (1995), but even he pales next to Bardem’s quirky computer expert gone wrong.

Director Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) has captured beautiful moments in artsy dramas, and it turns out that his talent also extends to action. Skyfall opens with a stunning chase sequence on foot, motorcycle, and train, and every action scene to follow features the same expert craftsmanship. It’s really hard to believe this is Mendes’ first action film (I’m guessing it won’t be his last), but like the best Bond pictures, it’s not all action. In between the excitement, we’re treated to the right mix of intrigue, sexy banter, and dry English humor.

Skyfall’s smart script takes a long, hard look at the history of James Bond, reinventing some of the franchise’s best traditions while leaving others behind. I love that this film tackles head-on the question of Bond’s relevance in the modern world. For fans, Skyfall serves as a delightful look back, and it left me convinced that Bond will (and should) stick around for the next 50 years.



For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense violent sequences throughout, some sexuality, language and smoking 

True to James Bond tradition, Skyfall features a few mild sex scenes (more implied than shown) but no nudity. There’s a steady stream of intense action and violence, but again, nothing too graphic. Dr. No (the first Bond film) established these rules in 1962, and they haven’t changed much.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Frankenweenie

A macabre, stop-motion animated delight, Frankenweenie is about as Tim Burton as Tim Burton gets. Adapted from his 1984 live-action short of the same name, Frankenweenie tempers its dark subject matter with humor and sweetness, as most of Burton’s best films do. Beautifully animated, richly imagined, and thoroughly charming, here is Tim Burton’s best film in years.

Schoolboy Victor Frankenstein spends his free time making home movies and playing with his dog, Sparky. He also takes a special interest in science thanks to an enthusiastic and eccentric teacher. After Sparky runs into the street chasing a baseball and is hit by a car, Victor hatches a plan to resurrect his dog through a late-night science experiment.

Though Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a major success at the box office, it didn’t resonate with me. Many Burton fans (myself included) complained that it wasn’t quirky and strange enough, which seemed impossible given the source material. Tim Burton is an animator at heart, and he’s at his best and most creative when animating an original story. Frankenweenie marks a grand return to form. The sets are quaint and haunting at once, and every character has a defined, memorable look. Victor’s fellow students are equal parts creepy and hilarious. Victor’s science teacher has an impossibly long face and evokes Vincent Price, one of Burton’s formative childhood icons.

Stop-motion animation has always amazed me. It’s a painstaking, meticulous process, and the end result is entirely unique. Computer generated images boast more fluidity and realism, but that cuts both ways, because stop-motion’s jerky movements cast everything in an otherworldly light. Visual effects legend Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts (1968), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)) was a master of stop motion, and his effects hold up so well in part because they don’t look real, and they never did; they’re mysterious and charming. Burton’s three stop-motion animated features (The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), Corpse Bride (2005), and now Frankenweenie) make perfect use of the medium because the stories lean heavily on mystical creatures and fantasy worlds. Burton understands and exploits the medium’s strengths, and he enhances the aesthetic by filming in black and white, which has its own inherent magic.

Sparky comes to life through amazing puppetry. All of the characters do, but Sparky behaves uncannily like a real dog, which helps us care about him early on. Even in his resurrected, zombie form, the title character is an adorable dog. Other animals come into play later on, and again, each character (human and animal) behaves distinctly and memorably. The voice actors do fine work, but much of the emotion comes through quiet moments where the animators were the only actors.

Surprisingly, Frankenweenie is only the second feature film to be both written and directed by Tim Burton; the other is Edward Scissorhands (1990) (The Nightmare Before Christmas carries a strong Burton influence, but he handed the actual direction over to his friend and fellow animator Henry Selick, as Burton was preoccupied with Batman Returns at the time). Watching Frankenweenie, I was reminded that for all of his dark, gothic style, Tim Burton has a great sense of humor. I smiled through most of the movie and laughed out loud more than once. Burton mixes elements traditionally reserved for horror with the wonder and magic of children’s stories, something I’ve always loved about his movies. Fans of Burton’s unique style will not be disappointed here. Frankenweenie finds the right balance of charm, creepiness and fun, and the animation consistently delights.




For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated PG for thematic elements, scary images and action

Frankenweenie gets a bit scary in its last act. A few animals undergo transformations, including a cat/bat hybrid that’s a little unsettling. One monster ends up impaled. Sparky’s death (before he resurrects as the title character) occurs tastefully offscreen, but the theme of death and loss might be a bit much for younger viewers. I think 10+ kids (or kids who enjoy slightly darker humor) will eat this up.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Looper

I’ve always been fascinated with time travel, a concept riddled with problems and paradoxes. Science fiction pieces which use time travel effectively generally establish rules of time travel and stick to them. The story in Looper involves time travel, but time travel isn’t the story, which is wonderfully constructed and filled with compelling characters. It lays out just enough to make sense but not so much that it gets bogged down in the cerebral.

In the year 2074, time travel exists but is illegal, used only by organized crime. Government tracking has made it nearly impossible to dispose of bodies, so the mob sends its living targets back in time 30 years with silver bars strapped to their backs. In 2044, hired assassins called loopers commit the murders, collect the silver, and dispose of the bodies. When the mob wishes to end a looper’s contract, they arrange for him to kill his own future self, freeing him to retire and live out the remainder of his life. When Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) accidentally allows his future self (Bruce Willis) to escape, his situation becomes more complex and dangerous by the minute.

I won’t disclose more of the story than that, because one of the joys of this film is its unpredictability. The plot takes numerous twists and turns, and even minutes from the end, I couldn’t guess what was coming. Writer/Director Rian Johnson has crafted something original and deft. While every last detail of the screenplay might not stand up under strict scrutiny, Looper isn’t one of those mind-benders that invites endless analysis, such as Inception (which after numerous viewings still proves ironclad). Time travel rarely makes perfect sense, so instead of diving in head first, Looper dips partway into complexity and then just takes you for a ride.

Joseph Gordon Levitt proves instantly likable yet again, helping us connect with Joe, a flawed antihero. He kills for money, can’t kick a drug habit, and spends too much time partying at a local club. Bruce Willis was a perfect choice for the older Joe, as he’s another actor with that innate something that makes you root for him right off. Joseph Gordon Levitt wears some effective prosthetics to make him look more like Bruce Willis, but their shared likability does the most to connect the two actors in our minds as the same man thirty years apart. Emily Blunt, Paul Dano, Noah Segan, Jeff Daniels, and child actor Pierce Gagnon also turn in fine performances.

Looper depicts the future with impressive forethought and attention to detail. Metropolitan areas look advanced but dirty. The most popular drug of choice is administered as eye drops. Old technology lays alongside new; for every hoverbike, there are a dozen traditional cars. Most older cars have gadgets rigged up to the gas tanks, presumably allowing them to run on alternative fuel, and 10% of the population has some variation of the TK Mutation (telekinesis), allowing them to move small objects through mind power. Overall, Looper achieves plausibility while dealing in time travel and low-level superpowers, an impressive feat.

Given the complexity and layers that unfold, the film’s resolution is admirably simple, almost poetic. Looper is sequel-proof, which puts another tally in its plus column. Hollywood has become increasingly dependent on guaranteed money-makers (anything with a number after its title), allowing for fewer inventive pictures that stand alone. There’s a sizable audience for smart thrillers, and I think Looper’s cleverness and innovation will be rewarded. Most movies choose between action and ideas, but then a movie like Looper comes along and makes having both look easy.

Fun side note:
The club where Joe passes his time is La Belle Aurore, also the name of the cafe where Casablanca’s Rick and Ilsa spend their last day as lovers before she disappears. “I remember every detail; the Germans wore gray, you wore blue.”

 

For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated R for strong violence, language, some sexuality/nudity and drug content

Looper is violent, with plenty of blood and gore flying around amidst shootings. A young child is killed at one point. Language is strong. A few women appear topless, and the main character battles a drug habit. In short, this isn’t a movie to take the kids to.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Robot and Frank

At the close of a summer season filled with big-budget spectacle, Robot and Frank arrives from the quiet end of the science fiction spectrum. The original plot wasn’t adapted from a short story, but it would make a good one. Robot and Frank starts with a solid premise, and with the help of strong performances from veteran actors, it mostly delivers.

In the near future, aging ex-burglar Frank (played by Frank Langella) lives alone, though his daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) calls him often, and his attorney son, Hunter (James Marsden) visits him on the weekends. Frank mostly keeps to himself, though he regularly walks to the library, reminiscing with the librarian (Susan Sarandon) about print media. Concerned about his father’s memory loss and onsetting dementia, Hunter purchases a robot to help keep his father in check. Frank is resistant to the idea at first but warms considerably when he finds that the robot doesn’t seem to have any ethical qualms with stealing.

Robot and Frank marks an impressive debut for both writer Christopher Ford and director Jake Schreier. The film excels in its subtle and realistic depiction of the near future. Technology has clearly advanced but not so far that we can’t relate. The only bit that doesn’t ring true is the notion of robots being integrated into society without being programmed to strictly obey local and federal laws, but that’s not really a story flaw, as the film does great things with the concept. Passing references to ethical and political disagreements over robotic development (which there already are and most certainly will continue to be) help further ground the story in reality.

Frank Langella (you may remember his virtuoso turn as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon) gives a fine performance as a man both resistant to change and in denial about his memory loss. I believed his progression with the robot, and I think it shows what will almost certainly happen in the years to come: humans easily forgetting that robots aren’t alive. If ever we create artificial intelligence, that will be another matter, but until then, our machines are only programmed to emulate human behavior. After a few weeks in the company of a very helpful machine that can carry on a conversation, that line gets blurry for Frank.

The always dependable Susan Sarandon plays her everywoman self as the kindly librarian, and James Marsden and Liv Tyler effectively depict children with different responses to their father’s illness. The only weak link in the chain comes in the character of Jake (Jeremy Strong), the arrogant hipster in charge of renovating the library. His character often feels more like a caricature than a real person, but that’s a minor qualm, only noticeable because the rest of the characters are so well-realized.

Robot and Frank is a solid piece of science fiction, one that I recommend both for sci-fi buffs and those who don’t typically enjoy the genre. The majority of its projections of the near future ring true, but it’s more concerned with its characters. Like all good sci-fi, Robot and Frank uses futuristic concepts to examine present realities. Aging, memory loss, how best to care for the elderly: these issues aren’t going away, and just as technology won’t hold all the answers, this film doesn’t try to provide them. I found Robot and Frank’s lack of preaching refreshing; while exploring various ethical issues, the film doesn’t tell us what to think. It just tells us a good story.



For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for some language.

Language is the only concern here. I remember there being a couple of F words, along with a peppering of other curses. The story is slow-moving and mature in nature, enough so that younger viewers might not connect with it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises

Christopher Nolan brings his Batman trilogy to a magnificent close with The Dark Knight Rises. It’s an epic finish, with stakes higher than ever for every character. The narrative isn’t quite as tight as Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, but whatever minor flaws cause the first half of the film to drag a bit seem like nothing once things heat up in the second half. Nolan has said repeatedly that The Dark Knight Rises will be his last Batman film, and the vast scale of this production validates that promise. Nothing was held back, making for as exhausting and emotionally satisfying a finale as I could have hoped for. 

The film opens eight years after the events of The Dark Knight. Society still views Batman as an outlaw who murdered Harvey Dent, and Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a social recluse. Gotham City has enjoyed relative peace in the years since the Joker’s arrest, but an accidental trip into the Gotham City sewer system alerts Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman) to a strong underground (literally and figuratively) criminal element, led by a dangerous and mysterious man named Bane (Tom Hardy). In the interest of serving Gotham, Bruce decides to resurrect the Batman one last time.

The Dark Knight Rises takes its time establishing the setting and introducing a surprising number of new characters. The pacing is a bit off in the first act, but the material remains engaging. Anne Hathaway shines as cat burglar Selina Kyle (who never actually goes by “Catwoman” in the film), playing the right combination of strong, sexy and vulnerable. More so than Nolan’s first two Batman films, this installment feels like an old-fashioned showdown between good and evil, so Selina’s moral ambiguity is a welcome addition. Joseph Gordon-Levitt does well as John Blake, one of Gotham’s most trusted police officers. Behind an intimidating mask and a whole lot of muscle, Tom Hardy is unrecognizable as Bane. He’s a brutal, frightening villain, more classic movie monster than maniacal genius like The Joker. He’s also the least interesting of Nolan’s Batman villains, but he serves this story well enough.

If it has been a while since you’ve seen Batman Begins (or if you missed it altogether), I recommend watching it before seeing The Dark Knight Rises. Nolan brings the story of Batman full circle by revisiting some important plot points from Batman Begins, reconsidering Batman’s ultimate purpose and usefulness. Whereas organized crime had corrupted Gotham in the first two movies, the main threat posed by Bane is more terrorist in nature, so the power of fear, one of Batman Begins’ main themes, returns to the forefront. The Dark Knight Rises isn’t a stand-alone superhero movie; it’s the last chapter of a trilogy, and it assumes you know what came before. Even if you’re up to speed, you’ll still need to pay close attention, as a good amount of new characters and plot points (perhaps too many) are introduced early on.

Action sequences are bigger than ever before, and there are more of them. Nolan favors traditional stunts over computer-generated imagery, which makes the action all the more exciting. The Dark Knight Rises also features cleaner, more straight-forward editing than the choppy, what-the-heck-just-happened approach used effectively in the past. While the content and tone are as dark as ever, much more of this film (at least it seemed like much more) transpires in broad daylight, also making the action easier to follow. Each Batman film features bigger stunts than its predecessor, but the sequences in The Dark Knight Rises never get so big or flashy as to break the proper feel of the franchise.

As for the ending, I’ll not disclose any specifics, but I can safely say that I have no qualms with how Nolan wrapped it up. The main conflict between heroes and villains makes up the second half of the film, and it’s a thrilling and suspenseful ordeal. The pitch-perfect denouement for both this film and the trilogy comes in the final minutes, and it left my theater cheering as the credits began. Nolan has always treated Batman’s characters, themes, and even the setting of Gotham City with the seriousness and respect they deserve, and his love of the material is especially evident as things get more emotional toward the end.

I remember when I first heard that “the guy who made Memento” (as Christopher Nolan was known to me in 2005) had written and directed a new Batman movie. I was hopeful, but I couldn’t have known that it would be the start of the greatest comic-to-screen adaptation ever done. Christopher Nolan has established himself as one of the finest directors working today, and his Batman trilogy has set the bar for all comic book movies to follow. Looking back on the trilogy as a whole, The Dark Knight is still the masterpiece of the three, with a near-perfect script and iconic performances, but The Dark Knight Rises makes for a grand send-off.





For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, some sensuality and language

Bane’s a scary guy. The Dark Knight Rises centers on his terrorist threat, with plenty of shooting and neck breaking along the way. This is an intense film with little to no fantasy around to remind you that “it’s just a movie” (see The Avengers). Batman Begins and The Dark Knight are in the same dark, mature vein. The sensuality and language are minimal.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Battlestar Galactica: My 10 Favorite Episodes

I’ve never reviewed a TV series on this site, as I usually reserve it for movies. That said, due to an all-around increase in production values, the lines between television and cinema have blurred considerably. Many modern shows play more like extended feature films than traditional televised fare, and no show in recent memory has meant more to me than the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009).

To me, BSG represents science fiction at its finest. Questions about the nature of humanity lie at the core of all great sci-fi, and Battlestar raises those questions and runs with them from the very first. It’s a perfect blend of drama, action and ideas, and the whole story is anchored by a phenomenal cast of characters (“So say we all!”). It earned a well-deserved reputation for being the most approachable sci-fi show on the air, maybe ever. There are no aliens, no lasers, no one getting beamed up. You could watch an episode for several minutes before realizing you had tuned in to a sci-fi show.

I could count the noticeably weak episodes on one hand, but even those have strong moments. It’s much more difficult to narrow down the greatest, but here’s my best shot. For what it’s worth, these are my 10 favorite episodes of my favorite TV series.

Note: What follows could accurately be described as downright spoilery, so if you haven’t finished the entire series, proceed with extreme caution. Actually, scratch that; if you haven’t finished the series, don’t proceed until you have.

10. Downloaded

Season 2 hits a minor slump with "Black Market" and "Scar" back to back, but it all comes roaring back with “Downloaded.” Up until this point, viewers have more questions than answers about Cylon resurrection, but this episode gives great insight into the Cylons, and Caprica Six and Boomer’s unexpected friendship works. Also, the revelation that Caprica Six sees visions of Gaius just as the real Gaius sees visions of her is a masterstroke.

9. Lay Down Your Burdens

There’s a lot going on in this episode. Starbuck finally rescues Anders, Gaius defeats Laura Roslin in the presidential election, and Chief Tyrol seeks counseling from everyone’s favorite atheist priest Cylon. Most important is what happens in the final 15 minutes. For a story as tightly-knit as this to be able to jump forward one year and make it work shows great writing. When Gaius surrenders with tears on his face, it solidifies one of the series’ boldest twists.

8. Sometimes a Great Notion

BSG’s darkest and saddest hour, this episode shows just how crushing the discovery of a devastated Earth would be. Adama breaks down, Laura burns her scriptures, and Kara burns her body, but it's ultimately Dualla’s suicide that hurts the most. Earth was all these people had to hope for, and watching the collected dreams of humanity shatter makes for gut-wrenching, powerful television. Throw in the revelation of the final Cylon, and you’ve got one of the series’ best episodes.

7. Daybreak

I know, I know; not everyone enjoyed the finale as much as I did and for understandable reasons, but there’s no denying that this episode has tremendous moments. The assault on the Cylon Colony is one hell of an action sequence. We finally see the opera house prophecy fulfilled. The scenes on Earth II are gorgeous and come as a relief after years of darkness and cramped corridors. Ultimately, it’s the character moments that make this send-off so great. When Gaius chokes up telling Caprica Six, “I know about farming,” it gives unexpected but perfect closure to one of my all-time favorite characters. Also, fans had long wondered what could possibly matter so much about Hera, and making her essential to our species’ evolution was a pretty clever answer.

6. Pegasus

Yet again, Battlestar astounds with great writing. The discovery of another surviving ship plays out with painful realism as joy turns to concern and then to hostility. Admiral Caine represents what Adama could have become without the people he had around him. In the wake of the Cylon attack, Adama had his son, his best friend, and the President affecting his decisions, but Caine didn’t have anyone to stop her from putting military concerns above all else. It’s a chilling episode (the beginning of a chilling trilogy of episodes), and it ends on one of the series’ best cliffhangers, with Adama telling Caine over the phone, “I’m getting my men.”

Note: Extended versions of BSG episodes are hit and miss, but this extended version plays even better than the original.

5. Exodus

I almost put "Occupation" on this list, which is the first of the New Caprica episodes. Kara using her napkin to daintily wipe her mouth with Leoben’s blood still on her hands is a pretty fantastic opening, but "Exodus" is ultimately the better episode. Galactica’s jump into the atmosphere makes for one of the show's best action scenes, and the character moments are heartbreaking. In the final minutes, Adama tells Tigh, “We brought ‘em home, Saul,” and Tigh’s voice cracks as he responds, “Not all of them.” Gaeta walks around the deck looking totally shell-shocked. The ultimate punch in the gut comes when Kacey’s mother takes her daughter from Kara’s arms; it’s remarkable storytelling, and it tells the viewers that New Caprica was much more than just a four-episode distraction. In ways both big and small, the characters are never the same again. 

4. The Oath/Blood on the Scales

These are technically two episodes, but I think I can get away with cheating here as they play very much like two parts of a whole. Zarek and Gaeta’s mutiny makes for some of the most suspenseful, riveting television I’ve ever seen. I love that their characters join for this task, but each ultimately realizes that he made a mistake in partnering with the other. My heart breaks when Gaeta looks around the Quorum room at the bloodshed and says, “What have you done? We had the truth on our side.” It breaks again when Gaeta gives his final interview with Baltar who tells him, “I know who you are, Felix.” When Gaeta looks up from his itching leg right before his death and says, “It stopped,” it’s just perfect. In the midst of the drama, Adama and Roslin’s love story also deepens as their faith in each other allows Adama to retake the ship. Battlestar always nailed its suspenseful episodes, but never more so than here.

3. Unfinished Business

On paper, this episode shouldn’t work half as well as it does. The narrative cuts between flashbacks of New Caprica and a boxing match (I would guess this was a hard concept to pitch), but the storytelling is tight and downright raw. We knew something bad had gone down between Apollo and Starbuck, but we didn’t know what. We feel Apollo’s pain when he tells Anders, “Good luck, Sam; you’re gonna need it.” The episode’s final image shows Apollo and Starbuck’s entire relationship in miniature as they embrace, smeared with sweat and blood, whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears.

Note: This episode demonstrates the vital importance of editing, as the extended version released on video adds 25 extra minutes which completely wreck the pacing and narrative flow.

2. 33

Series creator Ronald D. Moore cites "33" as his favorite episode, and it’s very nearly my favorite as well. Most shows ease viewers in gradually, but BSG’s first episode after the miniseries drops right in the middle of a crazy situation. The Cylons have the Fleet on the run, and our characters haven’t slept in five days. Gaius’ visions of his home back on Caprica add unexpected color and visual variety, while tensions in the fleet run higher and higher. We also catch up with Helo, adding another layer of intrigue. It’s dark, thought-provoking, character driven, suspenseful, and brilliantly executed. In many ways, "33" set the tone for the entire series.

1. Crossroads

Who would have guessed that on a sci-fi show about the near-annihilation of the human race, the dramatic pinnacle would be a courtroom drama? Mark Sheppard nearly steals the show in a guest appearance as Baltar’s lawyer, Romo Lampkin, building to that splendid moment where he leaves his cane and walks away. The reveal of four of the Final Five Cylons comes as a shock, as does hearing Bear McCreary’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” Upon learning that he’s a Cylon, Tigh responds just as you would expect: “My name is Saul Tigh; I’m an officer of this fleet. Whatever else I am, that’s the man I want to be.” Starbuck’s post-mortem appearance is less shocking but still powerful. The greatest moment for me comes in Lee’s decisive defense of Baltar. You just know he’s right, and you know everyone else in the courtroom is thinking the same thing. “This case is built on emotion: on anger, bitterness, vengeance, but most of all, it’s built on shame. It’s about the shame of what we did to ourselves back on that planet, and it’s about the guilt of those of us who ran away.” Any of these elements would stand out were they in other episodes, but the fact that they all happen in the same epic season finale makes "Crossroads" my favorite episode of the series.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Avengers

As far as comic book movies go, The Avengers is a strange miracle. Here is a film that by all accounts should not have worked, yet it does much more than scrape by - I’d add it to the short list of great comic book films. Marvel has released five movies over the last four years (Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Iron Man 2, Thor, and Captain America) which have all been building to this one picture. Under so much pressure and so many characters, a lesser movie would have collapsed, but Joss Whedon’s screenplay and direction bring remarkable balance. With the possible sole exception of the original Iron Man, The Avengers is the best Marvel movie to date.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor’s exiled brother, comes to Earth from outer space to rule over humanity. He brings an alien army, so S.H.I.E.L.D. Director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) executes “The Avenger Initiative,” bringing together Earth’s greatest heroes to combat the otherwise unstoppable foes. The team includes Captain America (Chris Evans), who is still adjusting to modern times having been frozen in ice since the 1940’s, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), who occasionally undergoes the unfortunate physical transformation of becoming The Hulk, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and famed industrialist Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), also known as Iron Man.

Joss Whedon’s involvement was the best thing that ever happened to this movie. The creator of beloved TV series such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly, Whedon has demonstrated great ability to juggle multiple characters and make them work as a team, which was the exact skill-set needed here. In two hours and twenty minutes, Whedon’s script somehow fits in just the right amounts of humor, action and character work. Every character receives adequate screen time, including side characters who haven’t previously been given much depth, like Hawkeye, Black Widow, Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), and even Nick Fury himself. The Avengers isn’t perfect (Loki isn’t much of a villain, for instance), but given the tremendous difficulty of the task, Whedon deserves a whole lot of credit.

Four of the Avengers team members have previously carried their own films, though you don’t have to have seen them to enjoy this one. While the idea of getting them all together for one movie sounds great in theory, a single movie with that many big characters could easily have bombed. Whedon’s script is so balanced, but this group of actors also has great chemistry. The standout performance comes from Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/The Hulk. Eric Bana and Edward Norton have played this character previously, but neither of those Hulk films got it right. Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner is sympathetic and likable, and his dialogue adds new insight into his character’s struggles, exploring the relationship between his normal self and his invincible alter ego.

While the character development is top notch for this sort of movie, all of the action you would hope to see in an Avengers movie is delivered ten fold. The Avengers fight each other several times, making for some fun, explosive arguments (pun intended), and when the all-out battle arrives in act three, nothing is held back. It’s actually hard to imagine how a sequel could top the quality of these action scenes. I especially loved a long tracking shot in which each character is shown employing his/her unique abilities in battle. Each character had a moment or line of dialogue that left the crowd cheering at the opening night screening I attended, though the Hulk’s interaction with Loki stole the show.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has spun into this one picture, and now it will spin back out with continued sequels; there’s never been a multi-film project quite like it. Marvel took a big gamble investing so much in these movies, and it paid off. At this point, The Avengers 2 and 3 are inevitable, though I wouldn’t want to follow Joss Whedon’s act. Heck, I’m not even sure Whedon will want to follow his own act. For decades, fans have dreamed of how cool it would be to see all of these characters together onscreen, and The Avengers cashes in on the full potential of its idea.



For the Parents: 

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, and a mild drug reference

This is pure Marvel, comic book action. The only upsetting bits involve the death of a friendly character and a scene where Loki removes a man’s eye, or maybe he just retinal scans it? It’s not clear exactly what he does, as it happens off screen in a blood-free manner. The action is high-adrenaline and fast-paced but not graphic. If you’ve seen any of the five Marvel tie-in movies, the tone of the action and violence are similar in The Avengers.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Artist

The Artist is at once both comfortingly familiar and staggeringly original. Most modern filmgoers have never seen a complete silent film, though I would guess that many have at least seen clips. To some, the very idea of a silent film may seem an antique marvel. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, which makes a film like The Artist a near miracle. Several movies have covered the period in Hollywood history where silent pictures gave way to talkies (perhaps most notably Singin’ In the Rain), but none have ever told the story from the side that vanished. The Artist is a rare, delightful gem - a gift not only to cinema lovers but to lovers of great storytelling in general.

The film opens in the late 1920’s at the height of silent film star George Valentine’s (Jean Dujardin) career. He has more than one meet-cute with aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo), though circumstances keep the two separated. Miller’s career quickly takes off at the same dramatic pace that Valentine’s slows down, and for the same reason: silent pictures are giving way to talkies. Valentine struggles with his identity and legacy as he fights to remain relevant in a rapidly changing business.

Most of the buzz surrounding The Artist concerns the fact it is almost entirely without spoken dialogue, relying instead on title cards. It is also presented in black and white, was filmed at the older 4:3 aspect ratio, and even uses a slightly lower frame rate to evoke the cinema of the 1920s. However, I feel compelled to make very clear that The Artist’s nostalgic presentation is not a gimmick. Writer/director Michel Hazanavicius demonstrates great understanding of the silent medium, and he uses it to remarkable effect. I’m reminded of Christopher Nolan’s breakthrough film, Memento, half of which unfolds in reverse chronological order; all the hype was about the style, but underneath the hype was a genuine masterpiece.

Silent films require simple, easy-to-understand stories which don’t rely too heavily on dialogue. The dialogue in The Artist is strong and purposeful, but visual storytelling takes priority. I typically prefer black and white to color because of its use of shadow and contrast, but the art direction here goes well beyond maximizing black and white. The framing is consistently intentional, almost poetic; one long shot stuck out where Valentine walks down a flight of stairs as Miller walks up. Even if all title cards were removed, I think the story would still come across.

Lead actors Dujardin and Bejo could not be better. Beyond their considerable talent, both have great faces, great smiles; the leads convey so much through body language and facial expression. Silent films require a different sort of performance, and watching The Artist, it’s not hard to see why so many actors failed to find success when talkies took over. The addition of sound moved cinema closer to the theater in terms of nuance and depth of story, but The Artist reminds us how strong visual melodrama can be. My emotional investment in the characters came about without ever hearing their voices, and that’s the result of masterful storytelling in all departments.

The director’s strong use of the silent medium builds to a finale that could only exist in silent film, cleverly depending on lack of sound for its effect. The Artist works as a nostalgia piece, but it’s much more than that; here is a masterful look at film history, the fleeting nature of fame, and above all, the inevitability of change. At one point, Valentine lights up when he thinks a fan might be approaching, but the woman just wants to pet his dog. Valentine smiles sadly and says (via title card), “If only he could talk.”





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for a disturbing image and a crude gesture.

The disturbing image involves a character on the brink of suicide placing a gun barrel in his mouth, and the crude gesture comes when a character raises her middle finger. That’s really it in the way of offensive content, though the bigger hurdle for some young viewers will be the overall slow pace and lack of spoken dialogue.

Hugo

Hugo is both a wonderful family film and a movie for movie lovers. It’s equal-parts charming, sweet, intriguing and magical. That may not sound like your typical Martin Scorsese picture, and it’s not, but his trademark craftsmanship is here, along with some new tricks. Most of the best children’s movies have dark sides, and as it turns out, Scorsese’s talents are perfectly suited for this genre. Scorsese’s passion for the project is clear; you can sense his care from the other side of the camera, and the happy ending (and I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that this film has one) involves film restoration.

In 1931, 12-year-old Hugo Cabret (Asa Butterfield) lives as an orphan in one of Paris’ grand railway stations. Not knowing what else to do, he continues his missing uncle’s task of maintaining the clocks. He sneaks out occasionally to steal food but is caught and put to work by toy shop owner Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley). While working in Méliès’ shop, Hugo befriends Méliès’ goddaughter, Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz). Hugo introduces her to the station’s secret world of passages and maintenance rooms, and the two work together to solve the mystery of a broken automaton, a mechanical man holding a pen, that Hugo’s father was repairing when he died.

What makes this a movie for movie lovers? You may know Georges Méliès as one of cinema’s most important and prolific pioneers, but even if you don’t recognize his name, you’ve likely seen the iconic image of a spaceship lodged in the eye of the man in the moon from Méliès’ most famous short film, A Voyage to the Moon (1902). Méliès made over 500 films (slightly over 200 of which have survived), but Ben Kingsley plays Méliès as a reclusive, largely forgotten has-been (there is some historical truth to this). Love drives Hugo’s narrative: familial love, friendship, and most of all, love of the cinema.

Both child leads have proved themselves in other films and are charming once again here. Few child performers continue their acting careers as adults, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Butterfield and Moretz in pictures for years to come. Ben Kingsley gives real depth to Méliès, playing a bitter man tormented by his past failures. Besides the leads, Hugo boasts memorable supporting performances from veterans Jude Law, Christopher Lee, Emily Mortimer, Ray Winstone, and others. Special mention goes to Michael Stuhlbarg as a film historian and to Sacha Baron Cohen, the station inspector. Cohen’s inspector is the closest thing Hugo has to a villain, though he’s ultimately driven by a desire to do good. I was reminded of Inspector Javert in Les Misérables, though as you might imagine, Hugo offers a more lighthearted, comical take.

The train station makes for a great setting. Smoke, crowds, secret corridors, shadows; Hugo instills that essential sense of wonder and mystique present in nearly all great family films. The film is adapted from a children’s book (The Invention of Hugo Cabret), and while I don’t know if the author had Victor Hugo’s work in mind when he named the lead character, Hugo reminded me of Quasimodo living in isolation, helping the city run on time, and dreaming of joining the passersby. The relatively light darkness continually gives way to sweetness and emotional payoff. By the film’s end, I had been thoroughly charmed.

Hugo marks Scorsese’s first (and possibly last?) movie filmed in 3D. The 3D effects are purposeful and much stronger than movies that are shot conventionally and converted to 3D in post production. Still, though the effects work, they don’t significantly improve the viewing experience. Hugo will be just as good on video simply because it’s a great film, and no 3D effect can alter that (Hollywood also has yet to learn that 3D doesn’t make bad films better).

I don’t know if Scorsese will make another children’s/family film, but he’s made a great one: a worthy addition to his considerable library of classics. I think kids and movie lovers will be Hugo’s biggest fans (I’m certain it would have fascinated me as a child), but more than entertain its viewers, Scorsese’s family picture might just educate and inspire a future generation of movie lovers. I can’t imagine a more fitting legacy than that.





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG for mild thematic material, some action/peril and smoking.

Hugo has a dream where he opens his eyes in bed to find the automaton looking at him, and then he looks down to see gears and mechanical parts as though he himself is a machine. That bad dream might frighten some younger viewers, though on the whole, this movie isn’t too dark or scary. The station’s labyrinth of tunnels and gears are more intriguing than frightening. Also, a character apparently smokes (in 3D, no less), though its impact wasn’t great enough for me to remotely recall it.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Descendants

The Descendants is a beautiful, thoughtful, sad film. The story unfolds in Hawaii, but as the opening narration tells us, there’s trouble in paradise (“My friends on the mainland think just because I live in Hawaii, I live in paradise, like a permanent vacation ... are they insane?”). The title has to do with inheritance; the characters in this film are those left behind, and they all carry the weight of what their ancestors (both immediate and distant) entrusted to them. The characters’ lives seem defined by these blessings and burdens that they didn’t ask for but must learn to cope with.

George Clooney plays Matt King, a middle-aged lawyer who is the sole trustee of a family trust that controls 25,000 acres of beautiful Hawaiian land. His struggle with who to sell the land to transpires alongside his personal struggles. Matt’s wife lies comatose after a near-fatal boating accident, leaving Matt with the responsibility of raising his two daughters: Scottie (Amara Miller), age 10 and Alex (Shailene Woodley), age 17. Long-repressed tensions rise to the surface between Matt and his wife, Matt and his girls, the girls and their mother, etc. Amidst jarring changes, Matt struggles to find balance for himself, his family, and the land he loves so much.

Writer/Director Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways) specializes in these funny/sad slices of American life. The Descendants leans more towards drama than comedy, with a few laughs punctuating what is otherwise a somber story, though it’s extremely well-told and occasionally profound. The Descendants successfully blends several thought-provoking ideas into a single narrative. The characters battle deeply with disappointment, with how to respond when you find yourself hurting or hurt by someone you love. It’s also about legacy: what we leave behind. When you think about how your decisions will positively or negatively shape the world for those who come after you, you start making different choices. In a season of crushing loss, these characters surprise each other and themselves with their decisions, and it’s all so fundamental and raw that we understand and empathize, even having never been exactly where they are.

Tight writing and nuanced performances kept me engaged, with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley doing the heavy lifting. Clooney’s acting here has earned considerable acclaim, but while I admire his mature, subtle performance, I don’t see it as career-defining or even as his best work. Days after seeing the film, Woodley’s performance is the one that has stuck with me and continued to resonate. She delivers all the complexity you would expect to find in a rebellious, somewhat-troubled 17-year-old. Folly lays alongside maturity and sweetness shines through angst, a testament to both Woodley’s performance and Payne’s writing.

My biggest criticism is that one of Alex’s friends, Sid, appears much too frequently and contributes far too little to the story. His character rings true, but I mostly just wanted him to get lost (this may have been the intention, but that didn’t make his presence more enjoyable). Most of the characters are so rich and believable, even the ones who only appear for a minute or two. The Descendants is a beautiful movie on several fronts (including its tropical Hawaiian setting) but most especially for its spot-on depiction of flawed people surviving a painful, heartbreaking experience.

Note: What follows is the spoiler-free teaser trailer, as I think the full-length trailer reveals a bit too much.




For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated R for language including some sexual references.

The Descendants has strong language throughout as well as disrespectful exchanges between children and adults. More than the language and heated exchanges, all of this movie’s themes (mainly loss and disappointment) are emotionally mature.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (a far better title than M:I-4 would have been) is a terrific action flick. Four movies in, around the time most franchises are exhausted (here’s looking at you, Pirates), the 15-year-old Mission: Impossible series delivers what may be its strongest installment. The action sequences have never been bigger, the stunts have never been more exciting, and the gadgets have never been cooler (I almost said that the plot has never been more convoluted, but the first film retains that dubious honor).

Tom Cruise reprises his role as Ethan Hunt, IMF agent (Impossible Mission Force) extraordinaire. After a mission at the Kremlin goes horribly wrong, the President disavows the entire IMF by initiating “Ghost Protocol.” Now Hunt and his teammates are on the run from authorities while hunting the terrorist who slipped past them at the Kremlin. The team includes Jane (Paula Patton), new field agent Benji (Simon Pegg), and Brandt (Jeremy Renner), IMF’s Chief Analyst with a mysterious past.

I’ve been a huge Mission: Impossible fan ever since I first saw the television show in syndication years ago. A special blend of elements separates Mission: Impossible from other secret agent fare: plots are complex, requiring attentive viewing (with some impossibly good disguises thrown in), heavy emphasis is placed on team collaboration, thrills derive more from suspense than action, and the gadgets - oh man, the gadgets. Of the four M:I movies, the only one to really get it wrong was M:I-2, as director John Woo tried way too hard to sex things up James Bond style. Ghost Protocol nails all the series’ staples, and even though action outweighs suspense this time around, the action sequences are so fantastic that it hardly matters.

Take the scene where Hunt uses suction gloves to climb up the exterior of the world’s tallest building in Dubai; Tom Cruise used neither a stunt double nor a green screen. Yes, Cruise was secured via multiple cables (which were digitally removed in post-production), but that’s really him climbing around out there 130 floors up, and you can tell. Nearly every sequence delivers that thrill of knowing that the actors trained hard and put themselves on the line. Mission: Impossible isn’t the place for stylized, cartoonish action, and the sequences in Ghost Protocol push the bounds of what’s possible without turning silly. The gadgets follow the same rule as the action: fantastic but not altogether unbelievable.

15 years after first playing Ethan Hunt, Tom Cruise proves that he’s still got it. Say what you will about his personal life (though I think it’s all been said at this point), but Tom Cruise continually pushes himself as an entertainer. Ghost Protocol features some incredible stunts, and I admire the physicality Cruise brings to this picture. However, from the first episode of the TV series on, Mission: Impossible has been about the team, and the cast members play off of each other very well. This IMF team has strong charisma, perhaps the best of any since the team that got killed off in the first half hour of the original M:I film. I especially appreciate Simon Pegg’s comedy; his expert delivery adds comic relief at just the right times.

Pixar veteran Brad Bird has directed a great action film once before with The Incredibles. Ghost Protocol marks his live-action directorial debut, though I’m guessing it won’t be his last venture with flesh-and-blood actors. Bird has a great eye for action and suspense, and I’d love to see more from him. Thanks largely to his direction, this movie had me sweaty-palmed, holding my breath, and opening my mouth in delighted surprise. I would have traded a few of the action-based thrills for a little more suspense (the vault scene in the original M:I comes to mind), but that’s more my preference than a flaw. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the best old-fashioned action movie I’ve seen in a while.





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action and violence.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is typical PG-13 action fare, meaning there’s plenty of action and violence but nothing too graphic. The action scenes are loud and intense, but you won’t find any gore. I don’t recall much language, and true to Mission: Impossible tradition, there’s little-to-no sexuality.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

War Horse

As far as predictable, inspirational movies go, War Horse falls on the high end of the spectrum. You won’t hit any big twists or surprises, and you’ll see the ending coming from a ways off. The major difference between this and so many other sentimental films is that War Horse has Steven Spielberg in its director’s chair. The film is so well-crafted that when it arrives at its predictable conclusion, you won’t be disappointed. On my way out of the theater, my brother-in-law called it “one of the best ‘Hallmark Movies’ he’d ever seen,” and I knew exactly what he meant.

War Horse is a film adaptation of a children’s novel which also inspired both a radio broadcast and an award-winning stage play, but it’s an unusual story any way you tell it. On the outset of World War I, English teenager Albert Narracott (Jeremy Irvine) forms a special connection with his horse, Joey. Albert’s father sells Joey to a military Captain in order to pay rental debt, and throughout the war, Albert maintains hope that he will see his horse again. What follows is an odyssey across war-torn Europe from 1914-1918 as Albert’s horse, Joey, changes hands with each conflict, finding himself on farms, battlefields, and the infamous No Man’s Land between the trenches.

The sentiment and schmaltz are laid on thick - almost too thick. Subtlety isn’t this film’s strong suit, but then again, War Horse is a WWI picture. John Williams’ grand and sweeping score announces itself at every turn. The camera regularly soars across the typically understated beauty of the English countryside. There are plenty of lingering shots of characters gazing off at the horizon. It all works, as these feel-good staples are later offset by war violence, and the film’s framing and cinematography elevate War Horse above what it would have been in the hands of a lesser director.

Jeremy Irvine plays Albert with sincerity, even though the “boy and his horse” bit seems stranger as Albert gets older. By the time Albert’s an adult man serving in the British Army, the only thing that keeps his immense love for Joey from being a little too weird is that the horse has gone through so damn much, and we’ve gone through it with him. There’s a memorable supporting cast of characters: Albert’s parents, their landlord, various military officers, two young German soldiers, a frenchman and his granddaughter - all brought to life through fine performances.

When you think of the great war films, few transpire during World War I. Most are World War II films, as WWII provides an easy backdrop for tales of heroism and bravery. Vietnam films often highlight the senselessness and waste of war, but from a historical perspective, WWI stands as the ultimate example of how frivolous and tragic war can be. The war produced over 35 million military and civilian casualties, largely due to dramatic increases in firepower without equal increases in transportation. War Horse shows how technology (or the lack thereof) unleashed new horrors and how few wars have ever seen such uneven odds depending on who had what technology. One scene in particular stands out as an army of soldiers on horseback with swords in hand is mowed down by a line of machine guns.

The final sequence evokes the closing moments of Gone With the Wind’s first act, as characters stand silhouetted against an impossibly orange sky. Years from now, I doubt War Horse will stand out in Spielberg’s filmography full of masterpieces, but it’s a well-told story of bravery and friendship, notable for its beauty and its impressive depiction of World War I. The narrative emerges somewhat disconnected and certainly unbelievable, but amidst the horrors of war, some excessive heart isn’t such a bad thing.





For the Parents:

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of war violence.

War Horse is based on a children’s novel, but don’t be mistaken; this is not a children’s movie. It’s a war movie, and even adults who are sensitive to war violence should be cautious. The combat scenes aren’t bloody, but they are intense, particularly one where the horse runs frightened through the chaos and becomes trapped in barbed wire.