Monday, December 26, 2011

Puss In Boots

Well, at least it's not another Shrek movie. You can start there with Puss In Boots, though The Flower declined to see this, stating she wasn't interested in any prequels or spin-offs or any of that nonsense. (A friend of mine went to see this and was crushed that it wasn't about the real Puss In Boots stories.)

In my book, it's probably better to set something in the same universe as another film than to try to wring out another sequel from poor ol' Shrek and Fiona, and the change of focus keeps them from dragging out a bunch of references to the original films that were tired in Shrek 4.

Unfortunately, this replaces them with even older tropes, in most cases.

You don't want to make the cat angry!

I make this look good!

PiB is the story of the rogue cat (voiced by Antonio Banderas) and his childhood pal, Humpty Dumpty (Zach Gallafianikis, of course) who gets him into trouble when Puss becomes a hero and Dumpty a thief. So, it's Dead End with an animated cat and egg.

They're seeking out the magic beans in order to get to the castle where the Goose That Lays The Golden Egg resides, and Dumpty has solicited the help of Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, of course) in their adventure.

The Barb liked it. People in the audience actually clapped when it was over and I saw no alcoholic beverages being served.

I thought it was by-the-numbers and not all that well done, lacking most of the cleverness of the Shrek movies—though at least seeming less tied into the pop-meme-of-the-moment. Actually the hacky phrases above are pretty indicative. It relies a lot on the "cat's are cute" idea, and clearly the producers had been influenced by "Family Guy"'s Brian (the dog) and "South Park". Not vulgarity-wise, but there's a strong hint of the Pandemic episode of "South Park" at the climax.

Not unpleasant, but way below the bar set by animation in recent years. That's actually pretty true of all the animated films this year.

At some point, with all my "meh" reactions of late, I have to wonder: Maybe it's me?

The (Other) Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

It gets hard to defend Hollywood—and why would you try, really?—when they seem to reinforce the worst ideas people have. Like cowardice and completely paucity of original ideas.

I mean, when people talk about all the sequels and movies derived from other sources these days, it's easy to note that this has always been the case. Yeah, we have four Resident Evil movies but there were ten Ma & Pa Kettle flicks. Seven—or was it eight?—Saws? Try sixteen movies in the Andy Hardy series. There were nearly thirty Charlie Chan flicks, I think.

Point is, film has always been a derivative medium.

And I wanted to say, "Well, hey, this could be a good example of Hollywood making a foreign movie their own, with David Fincher (Fight Club, Se7en) at the helm." And there's no doubt this is a Fincher film. Plenty of sickly yellow and greenish lighting, shadowed faces, unusual camera dollying.

Still, it seemed like a sort of pointless exercise. It's actually more lurid than the original (though not enough to warrant the pissy review over at Big Hollywood) but this seems less effective because it's such a slick product. Complete with Macs, Coca-Cola and MacDonald's Happy Meals.

There were a few things I liked better than the Swedish original: The Swedish movie is harder to follow. Not just because it's Swedish but because the sprawling story involves over a dozen characters, and clue-gathering that doesn't really engage you in the mystery per se but that you feel like you have to keep track of to follow the story. As a result, when you finally learn the whole story, it's easy to be confused about who was who.

This version is a bit more careful—and longer—about making sure we know who the important characters are. On the good side, that means when Lisbeth meets with her guardian (social worker) we know who he is and why he's so important, and also gives us an insight into her personality.

On the bad side, the interaction with the bad guy is such a cliché of American cinema, that it's impossible to be surprised by the reveal, even if you've never seen the original films. In fact, even if you never seen any film ever.

There's another funny change. At one point, Lisbeth steals a whole bunch of money with her 1337 hacker skillz. I sometimes roll my eyes at that, you know, because I have some idea of the challenge involved and the movies make it seem like magic. (The American movie does this when Lisbeth reads Mikael's encrypted e-mail like it was nothing. But that actually makes sense to the degree that she's been watching his machine for some time.)

So, the American movie actually shows theft. In extensive detail. And I just wanted it to end. In retrospect, it was necessary for the number one change they made which I'll discuss in a bit.

The Boy and I thought it was okay. Way too long (at over 2.5 hours). The acting is good, of course. I warmed up to Rooney Mara. Daniel Craig is probably right where they wanted him to be (more on that in a bit, too). Chris Plummer—I'm just glad to see him going strong, as strong as ever, really, and getting such good roles in his 80s. Stellan Skarsgaard (apply diacriticals as needed), fresh from his flamboyant role in Melancholia—he's kinda subdued here.

You could do worse, that is, if you don't mind the squalid. (Though Melancholia is pretty squalid, too.) It's better if you haven't seen the original. My mom hasn't, but she had read the book, and said that it was pretty faithful to the book, without expressing enthusiasm for same.

Now I want to talk about the major change from the Swedish movies, which necessarily contains SPOILERS! In a very real way, these movies are primarily interesting because of the relationship between Lisbeth and Mikael, so do not read on if you don't want to be spoiled.


So, the Swedish movies feature Blomkvist, who's a good guy, and Lisbeth, who's more of an anti-hero. Lisbeth is seriously damaged—the backstory of which forms the basis for the second and third movies, and which is no trivial matter.

In the original, at one point, Lisbeth basically uses Mikael for sex. It's a cold, mechanical and bizarre interaction, her on top until she's done, after which she leaves the room, and leaves Blomkvist bewildered.

This is their relationship in a nutshell. Mutually beneficial, but strained. Lisbeth does, slowly, come to trust him, to a degree. But at no point do you get the idea that we're in for some sort of odd-couple detective TV show pilot, like "Tatts and the Kvist" or whatever. (I guess Larson wrote a fourth book where they fight crime in Canada, though, so the old commie might have been open to that.)

Point is, all (Swedish actor's) Nyqvist's Blomkvist really has going for him is his integrity. He's not an action hero. Lisbeth has to save him. And while he saves her in the second movie, it's after all the action is over.

He's just beta.

This makes a whole lotta sense with Lisbeth's character. She's been abused badly by men for a long time. The actual title of the book  (and I think the Swedish movie) is Men Who Hate Women. Blomkvist's laid back attitude is about the only way Lisbeth can trust a guy.

So, in the American movie? Lisbeth is sort of nurturing Blomkvist after he gets injured. She's more timid in approaching him for sex. They interact. She mounts him. Then? He flips her over to be on top.

Pardon my graphicness here, but while the sex is explicit, it's not gratuitous. It's an important part of the character development. And they botched it here.

Afterwards? They cuddle.

So, after years and years of abuse, all she needed was the passing fancy of a sufficiently handsome guy, I guess.

Worse still? The original had Lisbeth vanishing at the end, and striking at Blomkvist's enemy, Vanager. (This was the part drawn out in the American movie.) And she's in love with Blomkvist. And he breaks her heart by not knowing about it.

Really? Really?


Now, it's not fair to bash this aspect of the American movie on the basis of how it compares to the Swedish movie. I mean, it's fine to have a preference, but the American producers can draw the characters however they feel. (I think it fails to ring true to the extent that they didn't really change the other details of Lisbeth's story.)

But it feels like pandering. I was a little sick of Blomkvist's wimpiness by the end of the trilogy, I admit, but however much Craig dials it down, he's still Daniel "James Bond/Cowboys and Aliens" Craig.

This probably some focus testing BS, like what ruined The Lord of the Rings. We can only have one kind of story, one kind of relationship in a film. Bleah.

Another weird change: In the Swedish movie, Lisbeth is confronting the villain and has a chance to save his life. She doesn't. When she tells Mikael, he's not down with that. He doesn't treat her badly over it but he disapproves.

In the American version she asks for permission to kill him—and then he dies without her getting the chance to.

Meh. Maybe they wouldn't detract from your experience if you hadn't seen the original. (Though my mom said the movie was true to the book, not in an especially favorable way though.)

Did I mention it's over two-and-a-half hours long?

Paranormal Activity 3

They're baaaaaacck! Those groovy ghoulies haunting Katie and Kristi are back knocking over chairs and hating on kitchen appliances. Except that this is a prequel so they're not really back so much as here for the first time. Until the next prequel.

We have speculated that they could keep going back, at least to the grandmother's story, since it seems to have been her supernatural shenanigans that started the demonic wheels in motion. Except, as The Boy pointed out, "accidentally" filming it gets trickier the farther back you go.

If you were interested in telling the story it would make a lot of sense to switch to a more traditional sort of movie. But you're just interested in maximizing profits and number of sequels, you'd just switch to super 8, 16mm, or whatever. So, there's not much doubt as to which way this franchise will go.

This movie takes place in the dark days of 1988, with young Julie and her two daughters, and Julie's boyfriend, Dennis, a wedding videographer (VHS, baby!) all living together happily somewhere in the suburbs.

Then, you know, stuff happens.

The form and technique of this movie is the same as the previous two in the series, as you might imagine. The characters are a little more likable, with Lauren Bittner and Chris Smith in the parental roles. Dennis, in particular, is more in tuned and aware than his wife, unlike the previous two films where the husbands were aggressively clueless.

I'm liking the backfilling of the story, though it's not as tightly integrated as the second film, and things we were told in both the previous movies wouldn't seem to be true. I don't count this as a lack of continuity, as the "unreliable narrative" device is not only logical, it's pretty well explained by this film.

Sadly, since it was Christmas vacation, we had the usual contingent of clueless teens who can't tell the  difference between their living room and a public theater and they'd been hitting the bong pretty hard. When the family travels to Moorpark, California, the howling didn't subside for 5 minutes. (We saw the movie just outside of Moorpark.)

We liked it anyway. The devices are holding up, in the sense that if you liked them in the previous films you'll probably still like them. It won't last forever, of course.

Anything else of interest? Well, Lauren Bittner is awful cute. (How cute? One of her credits is "Basbeball Cutie".)  Both she and Smith I think look better in their '80s styles than their current looks.  The '80s vibe is over-all kind of cute.

They have to use a book on demons instead of the Internet.

Liked it, but I'm not exactly champing at the bit for the inevitable fourth movie.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Shirley's Game of Shadows

So we saw the second installment in the newer, 'splodier Sherlock Holmes series with Robert Downey Jr as the titular detective and Jude Law as his sidekick, directed by the former Mr. Madonna Guy Ritchie.

Honestly? You could just read my review of the first movie, and it'd do. OK, subtract the matte rant, there's much less of the cheesy THIS IS CGI LONDON 1894, or whatever. Subtract any concern that might have arisen from thinking this was going to be a traditional Holmes mystery, 'cause it's even less justified then before.

Crank it up to eleven. This is Holmes as superhero. His super-smarts give him the ability to anticipate (sorta) how combat is going to play out, allowing him to fight multiple opponents in hand-to-hand combat. It sorta works.

Also, crank up the slow-mo-to-super-speed-camera tricks to about a zillion.

We all liked it, if not wildly. The Boy's reaction to this was exactly the same as it was to the last one. The Flower was okay on it, but really liked the end. Predictably, her favorite parts revolved around Holmes' puckish shenanigans, more than any aspect of the action or "mystery".

Noomi Rapace, the original Girl (with the dragon tattoo/who played with fire/who kicked the hornet's nest) plays a gypsy in this and what first hits you is that she's really cute. I mean, you could see it in the "girl" movies but she plays Lisbeth so well, it's hard to see her as being attractive, exactly. In this, she's much bigger emotionally as she searches for her missing brother. Acting!

Resident Evil—I mean "Mad Men" star Jared Harris plays the eeeeevil Moriarty, set on starting World War 1, and the ever doughy Stephen Fry plays Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock Holmes' smarter, nuder brother.

So, there you are. Pretty much what's expected. You know if you like this sorta thing.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Be My Melancholia...Bayyyyyybee

The third and final pic in our trilogy-of-films-we-didn't-really-want-to-see is Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Trier (the "von" is an affectation) is like Almodóvar, in that I've never seen one of his movies until recently, though von Trier is a bit more avant-garde with his last film featuring all sorts of depravity, mutilations and infanticide, I'm told. Trier famously sympathized with Hitler at Cannes a few months ago, said shenanigans earning him a trip to the principal's office for violating various stupid European laws.

In essence, he proved there was something stupider than sympathizing with Hitler.

That kind of sums up this movie, in a weird way. Just about every predictable criticism you could level against this film is true—and yet...there's some there there.

The movie opens with about a 5-10 minute encapsulation of the film done in super-slow-mo super-high-res glory, culminating with the earth being smashed by a giant planet. To Wagner's Tristan and Isolde no less. And...scene. This is done so that you have no delusions about how this story is going to play out.

Part 1 of the movie involves Justine (Kirsten Dunst), blushing bride, at her reception. Thing is, she's depressed. Her mom's (Charlotte Rampling) a total bitch. She gets up at the wedding to make a speech on the futility of marriage. Also she's dressed really inappropriately (and in the fashion of a rampaging planet). Dad's (John Hurt) a flibberdagibbet who can't keep one Betty straight from another. Her sister (Charlotte Gaisnbourg) and wealthy brother-in-law (Keifer Sutherland) have spent a lot of money on this lavish party to try to make her happy, and all Justine wants to do is hide from everyone and sleep and take baths. And occasionally have some sort of sexual interaction with her husband or, you know, whomever.

What we have, in other words, is an externalized picture of severe depression, possibly manic-depression but I'm not up on my DSM, and there's a high degree of stylization here. I mean, within a few hour period, Justine is in love, married, fights with her parents, gets a promotion, gets fired, has an affair, ruins her marriage, etc.

Nobody really gets that she's depressed beyond depression. Nobody can accept it. It is a really good dramatization of how depressed people feel, I think.

As you might imagine, this is not incredibly entertaining. It's kind of interesting. But it's also kind of self-indulgent. Kind of way self-indulgent. And that makes sense, really, because depression is self-indulgent on some level.

But that ain't peanuts compared to part two, focused nominally on Clair, Justine's sister, who's trying to help her out of this depression. Clair seems like a good woman with a perfect life. She doesn't have Justine's good looks but she's married to Jack Bauer and somehow he's gotten incredibly rich. She has a nice son.

Clair's problem? The world is ending.

The big ol' rogue planet Melancholia is going to smash into earth in about five days. Her husband Jack—okay, his real name in the movie is John—has reassured her that Melancholia is going to pass by Earth, not only leaving it unscathed but creating the most beautiful astronomical event of anyone's lifetime.

Meanwhile, in the most realistic use of the Internet ever shown in cinema, Clair can't help herself from going to the Internet and reinforcing her sense of DOOM! Weirder still, her basket case sister Justine, who can barely feed herself at the beginning of this part, seems to be growing stronger and eerier as The End looms nigh.

As part one is a semi-literal rather narcissistic depiction of depression, part two is a completely allegorical utterly narcissistic and nihilistic depiction of same: Depression isn't just going to destroy Justine, it's going to destroy the Earth and everything that Earth ever was or stood for.

"Life is a mistake," Justine says at one point. "Life is only on Earth. And not for long."

So. Yeah. About as subtle as a hand grenade. As subtle as Wagner. As subtle as Lars von Trier apologizing for making such a perfect movie, and hoping people would somehow be able to find flaws in it to enjoy. As subtle as sympathizing with Hitler.

I could do a whole page of "as subtle as" from this movie. As subtle as the 19th hole on a golf course. As subtle as guessing—knowing—the number of beans in a jar. As subtle as wearing a dress that looks like the surface of an incoming rogue planet. As subtle as showing Kirsten Dunst naked and frail-looking at the beginning of part two and then later showing her naked and erotically bathing in Melancholia's light.

As subtle as making sure everyone knows Dunst appears naked to shore up your box office.

You know, we didn't hate it, The Boy and I, though The Boy had to go out and get a refill on the mega-beverage they give you at the theater.

Trier definitely has some skills. And it's not hard to see why actors like working for him. Dunst gets to have scene-after-scene that's sort of like an actor's workshop. The very artificiality and pretentiousness is grist for the actor's mill.

And it's not consistently boring. The problem with being this unsubtle is that you really don't need to spend an hour on each part, no matter how enamored you are with your various ways of re-stating the same thing over-and-over again. Especially when you go out of your way to beat the audience out of any semblance of hope or meaning.

Not something one can casually recommend to just anyone. In fact, not something one could argue against, if you wanted to say "this is a pretentious piece of self-indulgent crap". But just like I can't really explain why I don't particularly like Scorcese, I can't really explain why I sorta liked this.

Hu Got To Be Kiddin' Me!

OK, up front: I'm just not a Martin Scorcese guy. I've said it before, I'll probably say it again. I can explain it any number of ways—he makes movies about topics I'm not particularly interested in, with people in them who don't seem to be worthy of the attention, for example—but when you get down to it, I'm just not into him.

I don't deny he has considerable talent. He makes beautiful movies. He knows how to block a shot and how to light a set. All that. But when I see his movies? I don't hate them. They just completely fail to reach me. I was mildly entertained by The Departed and seriously bored by (and slightly offended by the naivete of) Shutter Island but ultimately, his movies are just a big meh in my book.

So, I'll redundantly say of his new family-ish film Hugo: Meh. The Boy echoed that. The Flower thought it was okay, not up there with your average Pixar/Dreamworks film. What's different about this film, compared to other Scorcese pictures, is that I should have loved it, based on the subject matter.

The trailers are really misleading. This is not an animated child's film about mysterious city, robots and adventures. This is a live action movie with ridiculous, atmosphere destroying CGI pull outs to a completely fake looking 1931 Paris.

Yeah, it's Paris in the '30s again. The story is about a freshly-made orphan who lives in the service areas of a train station winding the clocks to cover for his drunk (and missing) uncle, while stealing parts from a toy repairer to try to finish a project he and his dad were working on right before his dad got killed by some really silly looking CGI fire.

The project is an automaton which, contra the trailers, isn't a robot or any sort of fanciful thing, but a genuine wind-up automaton, like they used to have in the 19th century. (Here, buy this $500 book through my Amazon link.) While occasionally Scorcese imbues the proceedings with a certain fantastical aura, the movie is a very literal period piece.

The plot crosses through the work of the grandfather of film sci-fi, Georges Melies, so I should have been in movie nerd heaven throughout most of the film. And yet.

Well, look, I've already said Scorcese just doesn't reach me, so anything I add is going to be gratuitous. That said, this is a self-indulgent film. Not horribly so, but enough to need to be edited down by half-an-hour. Kind of like how I could have edited this entry down and eliminated these last paragraphs.

If you're a Scorcese person, and a film person, you'll probably dig it.

The Dispirited Descendants

"George Clooney can't act! Whatever he does, whatever his character is feeling, his expression is the same!" So began The Boy's tirade against The Descendants, the Alexander Payne Hawaii travelogue. So I think it's fair to point out that The Boy revised that opinion somewhat for this film, with the additional good news that whatever Clooney has done to his face, he does seem to be able to move it now more than Up In The Air.

So, yeah, this is the first in the trilogy of films-we-didn't-really-wanna-see-but-whatchoo-gonna-do? with Hugo and Melancholia rounding out the trinity of Oscar-bait crap crowding out potentially good films like Tucker and Dale vs. Evil and The Human Centipede 2.

Verdict? Welllll, meh. The Boy had a somewhat favorable response, saying that he hadn't seen a movie like that before so it held some interest. My response was, well, meh, because I've seen About Schmidt and Sideways and Election. The Descendants falls somewhere between About Schmidt and Election in terms of entertainment value, and closer to About Schmidt in terms of characters.

Also, you know how, if you see a Tim Burton film, you're gonna see the director wrestle with his daddy issues? With a Payne film, you're gonna see the director wrestle with his woman issues. Women are going to be some combination of controlling, emasculating, cuckolding.

Having seen all of Payne's feature films (except Citizen Ruth), I think it's fair to say that Sideways is far-and-away the best and that allows a lot to Paul Giamatti's irascible lovableness.

In The Descendants, Clooney's character sets off on a journey around the Hawaiian islands to tell his friends that his comatose wife is dying (boat accident). The kicker is that his elder, delinquent daughter has let him know that his wife was cheating on him before the accident. (This is all in the trailers, and revealed early in the film, so it's not meant to be a twist or nothin'. In fact, I think that dramatic tension is supposed to be the compelling interest.)

So, it's a combination of telling everyone the tragic news, trying to find out more about the Other Man and, as in Sideways and Schmidt, finding some redemption in the journey.

Added to the mix, and giving the movie its title, are the descendants: People who own a big, undeveloped chunk of one of the islands, who are being forced to sell. Clooney's character is the controller of the trust, one of the descendants who makes no money from the trust, but lets it appreciate in value while working his modest legal business.

If I were going to fault Payne for anything, in general, it would be an apparent tendency to be muted. Like, WASPy-muted, as if big dramatic tension or emotional displays are in bad taste. And you can make an argument for that in real life, I guess, but in movie-making it means that, for example, when the cuckold has a chance for revenge, but that revenge will potentially destroy a lot of people around him, Payne will work to defuse that as quickly and quietly as possible.

At the same time, there's this pall of horribleness over the whole thing—a woman with one young child and one troubled child is going to die—so the potentially humorous moments are also very muted.

So, yeah. It's not as low-key and depressing as About Schmidt but the journey and redemption lack the exuberance of Sideways. View at your own risk.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

My Week With Marilyn

We're entering the craptacular award season and that can mean only one thing: Pretentious movies! Our favorite local theater got in Like Crazy, Hugo, The Descendants and My Week With Marilyn. So maudlin romance, mob-genre director does family-holiday pic, desultory director with a thing about cuckoldry doin' what he does, and...well, a by now relatively inoffensive sounding flick about a young British lordling who stumbles into his first film job, and finds himself babysitting Marilyn Monroe.

The Flower wanted to come so...yeah, I felt safest with the Marilyn pic. Can it be a biopic if it's only a week long? Would that be a weekopic? A septimanopic? (It sounds cooler in Latin, eh?)

I digress.

This is a fairly pleasant little fantasy pic with Eddie Remayne as the Brit, Colin Clark, who wrote up his little tale in the '70s (and again with uncensored parts included in the '90s). The Flower liked it. The Boy less so.

I liked it more than they did, of course, but there's a lot of a film geekery that's totally over their head. Kenneth Branagh hamming it up as Lawrence Olivier. Julia Ormond (looking older than her years) as Vivien Leigh, whose concern is that Larry might not just fool around with Marilyn but get more seriously involved. Emma Watson as the wardrobe-girl-next-door who gets involved with Colin despite her reservations, only to be dropped precipitously in the presence of Marilyn.

Dame Judy Dench adds some character as Dame Sybil Thorndike. As much as I enjoyed her performance, her role, as the kind voice of wisdom, was a little too neat. That's why I called it a "fantasy pic". Nothing wrong with that.

Of course, a movie like this rises and falls on Marilyn, or the reasonableness of the facsimile thereof. In this case, we have Michelle Williams, who does a very good job indeed, especially considering how little she looks like Monroe. She gets the mannerisms down, the moves, and she presents a plausible image of the personality behind the icon.

She doesn't have it, alas. I mean, I've never been a fan, particularly, but that Marilyn Monroe had something special is as undeniable as it is opaque. Since I get that she's supposed to be her, I get a lot of the buzz that probably didn't seem that clear to the kids. But it's not like you can CGI that stuff in and the movie does a good job of supporting it.

Overall, it works, much in the mold of other "coming-of-age" type stories. So it was probably the best choice for us at that moment in time.