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Frozen

Frozen

Guess what? I also like “Frozen!”

One of the nice things about having your own film blog is that you don’t have to worry about generating clicks on your website, so that when your way too late, too short, and positive, but mildly measured review of “Frozen” is published, it doesn’t matter that nobody will read it.  So let me be the billionth person to say that I like the film and think it is pretty good. I don’t really have anything new or interesting to say about the film, and more importantly I have no interest in trying. So here it is in brief:

“Frozen” is high-end Disney pop art, littered with great music, compelling digital animation, mostly rich characters and a Bechdel-test passing narrative about the powers of sisterly love, which by Disney standards is crazy, Dennis Kucinich-level progressive. The film isn’t without its flaws (there is some  unearned tear bait in the film and an absurd character turn which was downright shamelss. Also, if your daughter has ice powers, maybe teach her how to control them instead of locking her in a room and say, “Try not to kill anybody,”) but by and large these are minor issues or are simply inherent to corporate filmmaking as a whole and gender politics at-large.  “Frozen” does everything that you would expect it to, plus a little more.

(I’m not bothering with a summary of the narrative setup. You either know it, don’t care, or can find out from one of the gaggle of people in your life that have seen it.)

4/5

 

 

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Nebraska

Nebraska_Poster

A Dorothea Lange photograph brought to boozy, bittersweet, and hilarious life.

Authenticity is a word often thrown out without much context. The implication that a certain character feels like a plot contrivance or the weird creation of a screenwriter, and that therefore suspension of disbelief takes a hit and the rest of film is harder to go along with, is a perfectly valid criticism. However, what is sorely lacking from those kinds of statements is a reference to that person’s own life experiences. This is important, not because it invalidates someone’s opinion or makes it dispositive, but because life experiences are not universal, despite the myriad of emotions and little moments which are. Characters may or may not reflect our life experiences, but whether they do impacts our response to them.

That is really just a convoluted setup so that I can say the characters in “Nebraska” reeked of authenticity to me, and I would know because I’m from the midwest. With the possible exception of Bob Odenkirk, whose comedic greatness might be a bit too big for this film, everyone in this film felt like people I have met or might have met while spending time at my Grandma’s house in central Iowa. In a non-derogatory way, these are average, unexceptional people living quiet lives and dying quiet deaths in mostly forgotten small towns. Creating characters which don’t feel like characters, but real, actual people is one of the hardest thing to do in film, but “Nebraska” has them in spades.

If film acting begins and ends with the human face, Bruce Dern has taken that art to near perfection. As the craigy, stoic Woody Grant, he speaks very little but says much with the lines of his face and the tiredness of his eyes. Living a quiet retirement in Billings, Montana, we first meet Woody wandering wide-eyed onto a highway, in a stubborn attempt to get to Lincoln, Nebraska on foot. Woody is keen to get there because he received one of those scams in the mail. You know, a generic piece of paper which claims that you won a million dollars, but you have to subscribe to several magazines first in order to claim your prize money. Woody insists that he needs to go to Lincoln to collect his winnings, despite not being able to drive and the whole idea is a waste of time.

Woody is intent on going to Lincoln, even though he is told repeatedly by his chatty, nagging wife Kate that he is an idiot and the prize money isn’t real. Played masterfully by a squawky June Squibb, Kate is one of those old women whose mouth never really stops, and like such women, she oscillates between hilarious inappropriateness, spot-on articulations of other people’s bullshit, and spouting irritating, incessant redundancies. Yet her love for her husband is genuine, despite her constant complaints about his drinking and her endless stream of insults.

Caving in to Woody’s stubborn persistence is his bland but loving adult son David, played with an unassuming sweetness by Will Forte. David is as incredulous with his father as everyone else is, but he nevertheless agrees to drive him to Lincoln. They plan on stopping for a couple of days in Woody’s old hometown in Hawthorne, Nebraska where they will be joined by Kate and David’s brother Ross (Odenkirk,) where they will stay with their relatives for a long overdue family reunion. To call the town sleepy is to undersell the exciting prospects of unconsciousness. Woody’s arrival in town is itself big news, but when they find out he has “won” a million dollars, it is the only thing the town can talk about.

Naturally, this visit with extended families stirs up bits of the past, bringing up faded memories and old conflicts to the surface. but if that sounds dreary, it isn’t. One of Alexander Payne’s greatest strengths as a director is melding meaningful humor with overt sentimentality. For David and Ross, this is one of the few moments they get to see their father as more than a curt, emotionally unavailable drunk. This plays out not with pure sappiness, but through the brother’s often flabbergasted reactions to the lurid details of their parents past, as they realize how little they actually know about their parents.

There are moments that would likely be kitschy in other films but are endearing in “Nebraska.” For instance, there is a scene in which Woody visits his childhood home which is now deserted and destitute. This could serve as a clumsy visual metaphor for the fleeting significance of life and the memories associate with it, but because Payne, and the brilliant acting of Dern have imbued this film and this character with such emotion and reality that it works.

I have yet to talk about the digital black and white cinematography of this film, largely because it was so easy to forget that it was shot in black and white. The cinematography just felt so natural for these characters and this story. As Roger Ebert and many others have observed, black and white gives images a timeless quality that is simply lacking from color photography. This eternal quality is fitting for a film about the fading of a generation and the waning years of a couple of human lives.

When I was young, I would sometimes go to a restaurant with my uncle called the “Gifford Cafe,” in a small little municipality called Gifford. It was a basic restaurant that served up the usual grill fair. They would pretend their burgers were made of exotic meats, such as rhinoceroses or alligators, which made the greasy treats all the more fun to eat. The patrons were predominantly white middle-class farmers, pleasantly chatting about nothing in particular. Far away from anything resembling a major metropolitan area, they have raised their families and lived their lives in relative obscurity. In obscurity they likely remain, but “Nebraska” reflects a portion of their lives.

4.5/5

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Home Alone 2: Lost in New York

Home_Alone_2

A bad early 90s classic that is actually good, because it’s bad.

Having just chided “Anchorman 2” for being an uninspired rehashing of its better and more original predecessor, it would seem contradictory for me to heap praise on another sequel for doing the exact same thing. Chalk it up to nostalgic bias maybe, but that is exactly what I’m going to do. In taking the same themes and riffs from the first “Home Alone” movie and cranking them up to 11, “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York” actually improves upon the shameless and bland middle class sentimentality of the original. Its incessant stupidity is like a running in-joke throughout the film, because honestly, how could such a bonkers idea actually resonate with so many people?

None of this is meant argue that “Home Alone 2” is a “good” movie. It isn’t, but I don’t think it has any interest in any traditional notion of quality. Rather, this film goes for some weird form of satire. Honestly it plays like a parody of a “Home Alone” movie, as silly as it is. In hitting all the same beats as the first film, I suspect the makers of “Home Alone 2” wanted to see just how much absurdity they could cram into this film with as little effort as possible, while still keeping the masses on board. In generating over 350 millions dollars in domestic tickets sales, despite receiving a paltry 24% approval rating from critics per Rotten Tomatoes, it looks as though the filmmakers experience was a success. (While Rotten Tomatoes didn’t exist in 1992, nevertheless odds are good that the film critic in your local newspaper told you it was terrible and that you shouldn’t see it, but your family saw it anyway.)

I doubt this film could have stolen any less material from the original. It stars the same emotionally neglected son, Kevin McCallister (Macauley Culkin, whose indelible charisma and sharp delivery as the child star are the only reason these films work at all,) who once again improbably gets the solitude and freedom he so desperately craves when his overlarge family forgets about him amidst their hectic travel plans. The only difference this time is that a mishap at the airport sends him to New York City while everyone else heads south to Miami for Christmas. Armed with his dad’s wallet and an extremely versatile Talkboy device, Kevin’s freedom is initially intoxicating. Slowly, he realizes how big and unmanageable the world is without his family, and of courses misses them. This is an annoyingly superficial and irritating lesson which is further reinforced by an initially horrifying side character who turns out to be a sage with a heart of gold. (The Homeless Pigeon Lady, played with a bemused indifference by Brenda Flicker.) Do flmmakers really think kids and adults are so stupid? (Yes.) We also get the box-office required, Looney Tunes-inspired showdown between Kevin and a couple of buffoonish burglars, the Sticky Bandits, which has nothing to do with anything. This is nevertheless a great source for a lot of cheap physical gags, as Kevin rigs an abandoned house with booby traps that would kill most humans, but not are shockingly durable villains.

This film is a master class in camera-mugging led by legendary overactor Daniel Stern, whose finest moment as one of the Sticky Bandits involves howls of pain caused by an electric current so severe that he is briefly transformed into a skeleton. He is not alone in this, as Tim Curry, Rob Schneider, and Dana Ivey are the goofy members of a hotel staff so stupid they fall for the old “Angels with Filthy Souls” trick. Joe Pesci is as mumbly as ever, while all the other actors generate a different kind of laughter as they drip through all kinds of sappy, self-righteous dialogue, which plays every bit as ridiculous as all the bawdy comedy.

Can a film be terrible and still be a classic? I think so. I, of course, regard “Home Alone 2” with a sort of absurdist brilliance, but even if this review is the insane ramblings of a “Home Alone” homer, its 24% on the Tomatometer is far less important in considering its status as a classic than its box office take. A classic denotes a film which resonated, and keeps resonating with a mass of people. A classic is a collective fond memory that can be relived and shared with others, serious criticism be damned. For my generation, the “Home Alone” films certainly are that. For the millions of us that were under the age of ten in the early 90s, explicating “Home Alone” from your childhood is impossible.

3.5/5

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

The_Hobbit_-_The_Desolation_of_Smaug_theatrical_poster

An adrenaline-fueled trip to a Middle-Earth-themed amusement park.

I prefaced my review of “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” by making a distinction between Myself: Tolkien-Lover and Myself: Film-Lover. It is a distinction I had hoped not to have to make this time around, but alas the second installment of Peter Jackson’s “Hobbit” trilogy could not appease both aspects of my personality. While the film-lover inside me couldn’t help but be giddy by the maniacal and absurd cinematic spectacle that Jackson generates so proficiently, the Tolkien-lover couldn’t help but see the soul of Middle Earth being drained for sake of some cheap thrills.

With the delightfully meandering setup of the first film out of the way,”Desolation” is free to throw us into the middle of Bilbo (Martin Freeman,) Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and twelve other mostly nameless dwarves’ journey to The Lonely Mountain, where a massive hoard of treasure, guarded by a nasty dragon named Smaug (Benedict Cumberbatch) and their abandoned home awaits them. Thorin-obsessed goblin Azog still pursues them relentlessly, though he delegates some of this duty to his even bigger son Bolg. Gandalf (Ian McKellan) has left the group for a very dull personal mission of great importance battling an imposing Computer Generated shadow.

“Desolation” makes a fair number of deviations from Tolkien’s novel, including the appearance of Legolas (Orlando Bloom,) the addition of Jackson-only elf character Tauriel (Evangeline Lily) accompanied by her in love-with-a-dwarf subplot, and a number of film-conceived character interactions and conflicts,  but these aren’t a problem unto themselves. Instead of content, the issue is one of tone. What this film lacks which the novel has in abundance is a sense of whimsy, but therein lies the rub. Whimsy has much less popular appeal than kinetic action sequences and visceral thrills, so moments of fancy and wry humor, moments which generally fill Tolkien-loving me with joy, moments like dwarves singing songs and drinking beer at Bag End are not to be found in this film, but frenetic, bombastic moments of grandiosity are crammed in at every opportunity.

Three sequences are more bombastic and grandiose than the rest. The first is a Bilbo-led struggle against giant spiders in the oppressive Mirkwood forest, the second a wonderfully overblown trip down a river with the dwarves in barrels while a pack of orcs runs along side flinging arrows at them, and the third a needlessly drawn out confrontation with the incredibly impressive and possibly best-dragon-in-movie-history Smaug, which is every bit silly as it splendorous. Yet when the film isn’t engaged in one of those sequences, it zips along in a standard listless CGI haze which fails to generate anything but the most superficial semblance of emotions and arcs for its all-too-crowded cast of characters, and its all-too-gloomy narrative. As someone that loves meandering asides in Tolkien’s world, I had trouble being vaguely-engaged in the activities of Gandalf, as crucial as they are to the fate of Middle Earth. The film isn’t completely devoid of charm and ambiance, a flashback of an earlier meeting between Gandalf and Thorin at the Inn of the Prancing Pony hits the Tolkien spot so to speak, but these moments are scattered in so infrequently and are over so abruptly that it impossible to savor them amidst the kinetic chaos.

It is of course unfair to criticize a film for not being like the book that inspired it, and what film could really live up to the declarative voice-filled wonder that Tolkien’s prose fills me with. As a film, “Desolation” is no doubt fun, but it is the kind of fun you would have at an amusement park. Exciting at times, but hollow and fleeting. Expecting more than that is a fool’s hope. I just wish I wasn’t such a fool.

3/5

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Captain Phillips

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Fear, anxiety, globalization and economic disparity on the high seas.

There is none better at drawing tension out of real-life terror than Paul Greengrass. Even when they aren’t used as glorified water guns that playfully squirt pretty red paint everywhere (a la’ Quentin Tarantino) or lazy phallic symbols for some beefcake to eviscerate, guns in films are usually very un-scary.  Rarely does it seem like they are being waived in front of, you know, actual people as opposed to bulletproof protagonists. Not so with “Captain Phillips,” a film wrought with suspense doing mainly to those automatic rifles being pointed at people who have absolutely no clue how to deal with it and pointed by people who seem to know even less what they are doing.

Based on the real-world hijacking of the U.S. commercial ship “Maersk Alabama” by four Somali teenagers, errr, pirates in 2009, Greengrass uses his prodigious hand-held shaky cam skills to wring every notch of anxiety out of this tightly-wound thriller. The film begins with Captain Richard Phillips (played by everyman extraordinaire Tom Hanks, as likable as ever) being driven to the airport by his wife to fly across the world to oversee the delivery of some medical supplies from Oman to Kenya via boat. Aside from letting us know that Captain Phillips hates that his work takes him away from his family, (which is vitally important information, because I assume every character played by Tom Hanks cannot stand his wife and kids,) this opening sequence provides the only respite from the constant sense of dread which gnaws at you throughout this film. I’d recommend some sort of acid reflux medication once the ship leaves the harbor.

Knowing how this film ends, which you all should, does little to ease the perpetual anxiety it generates, because it feels like anything could happen at any time. Looming over every moment is the sensation that it could all go wrong, not just for the Americans on the cargo ship, but the four Somali men trying to steal it. Led by Abduwali Muse (the unknown but perfectly cast Barkhad Abdi,) the film doesn’t skimp on them as characters. More or less forced to be pirates by a tyrannical warlord, the hijackers seem just as jittery as their captives, despite holding all the guns. Every exchange is riddled with brinkmanship, a sort of verbal game of chicken which could easily end in bloodshed.

Yet with Captain Phillips doing everything in his power to give the Somali pirates the runaround until the cavalry can arrive while being one wrong word from death, a sense of fatalism lingers over all the action. Both the Somalis and Phillips are acting on behalf of powerful entities more interested in the economic and political ramifications than the death totals. Phillips just has the overlord with the (much) better artillery. Phillips spends much of his time trying to tell Muse just how outmatched he and his men are. Going unspoken is the assertion that it is the U.S.’ excesses which has put the Somalis in the desperate position of having to steal ships in the first.

The standard disclaimer about Hollywood’s “true life” fictionalization process holds with this film, but I don’t doubt for a second that this is close to what the hijacking felt like. Every moment is horrifying, nobody relaxes and the film gets exceedingly claustrophobic by the end. Even the scenes in which Phillips attempts to bond with his captures are wrought with peril. Amidst all this tension, the film has more pity than scorn for the hijackers. After all, it wasn’t as if they passed up a career captaining cargo vessels to be pirates.

4/5

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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Nausicca

Yup, this one is just as great as the other ones.

I have become exceedingly useless when it comes to evaluating the works of Hayao Miyazaki, so much a fan have I become. I just sit there, watching his films with a mystified look on my face and an ever-increasing sense of wonder and awe. So deep runs the imagination, creativity, and story-telling of this, and nearly all of Miyazaki’s films that I find myself unable to do much else but gush about their brilliance like a myopic fanboy.

However, if I must attempt to deconstruct my joy for this film, I’ll start by expressing my incredulity (in a good way) at being thrown into a world for which I had utterly no bearing. Aside from telling us that this is Earth a thousand years after a world-wide war wiped out most of the planet and created an enormous mass of pollution called “The Toxic Sea,” the film careens head first into a bizarre world of jet gliders, gigantic insects, and mixture of ancient and “future” weapons. By way of an example, the first image we see is that of a nameless figure riding what looks like an ostrich and wearing a gas mask that was clearly inspired by Darth Vader.

This guy turns out to be legendary swordsman Master Yupa. While a master swordsman like Yupa might factor heavily into most fantastical adventures, he is really only a bit player here. As part of a settlement of people living in the “Valley of the Wind,” which features a hefty breeze which consistently keeps poisons and other nasty things from troubling them, Yupa was investigating the desolation caused by the recently-expanding Toxic Sea. With landmass dwindling, the few remaining populations of humans have taken to war-mongering and petty conflict.

Without looking it up, I couldn’t tell you the names of any of these population centers because: 1) They are Japanese names for which I lack a meaningful schema to help me remember them and 2) They don’t really matter. Despite the political conflict weighing heavily in the narrative, whatever historical and cultural differences between these quasi-nations exists is irrelevant, because these differences only serve to amplify mistrust and hasten the impending destruction of humanity. These cities resemble medieval kingdoms run by power-hungry tyrants squabbling over turf, albeit with tanks, funky armor, and airships at their disposals. Whatever salvation may be left for humanity, the film makes it clear it won’t come from any of these maneuverings.

So where will salvation come from? The title character, whom I have waited almost four hundred words to mention. Nausicaa is as Christ-like a figure as they come, a teenage princess with a bursting love for pretty much everything, including the enormous crab-like insects known as Ohmu which everybody else is afraid of, and an almost ignorant courage which makes her capable of accomplishing pretty much anything. She flies around on a wind-glider/jet-pack/thing with reckless abandon, hypnotizes Ohmu to send them back into the Toxic Sea, takes out several home invaders with a knife, tames a half-fox/half-squirrel creature, talks down tyrannical queens, all while growing a garden of toxin-free plants and otherwise providing the emotional center of the film. Amidst the legion of chipper heroines that Miyazaki has conjured up in his career, Nausicaa is probably my favorite. More than any of them, she best embodies the androgynous qualities of radiant positivity and fierce recklessness required of an unflawed hero.

There is quite a lot more that merits mention. The score, for one, is excellent. It is equal parts terrifying and wonderous, as though everything could slip into either oblivion or rapture at any moment. The animation is typically great, with thought and creativity behind every detail both big and small. Not least of all is the story, which combines pro-environment propaganda and a Christ parable while somehow avoiding any cliches, contrivances, and anything that might make the narrative feel less organic. (Maybe because the whole concept is so weird, you can’t figure out where this film is going, aside from assuming things won’t end terribly.) Really, if I’m being honest with you, this entire review is extraneous and the only thing I need to say is that watching “Nausicaa” is like being placed in an alternate dimension which consists entirely of Miyazaki’s imagination and that it is an awesome place to be.

4.5/5

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Goldfinger

Goldfinger

The one where James Bond saves the U.S. economy with his prodigious sexual skills.

“Goldfinger” is my favorite of the James Bond films not so much because of the gadgets, the action, the glamorous locations, the grandiose absurdity of its titular villain or even the swagger of Sean Connery, but because of how little James Bond actually does in this film. (Not that that stops him from getting all of the credit.) Relying solely on his masculine charms, a belief in his own indestructibility, and acting opportunistically on an number of fantastically lucky breaks, Bond is like a poker player who somehow wins all the chips with nothing better than a pair of twos.

So, let’s tabulate the strategic back-and-forth between James Bond (Sean Connery) and Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe), the gold-coveting smuggler involved in a nefarious plot involving all the gold at Fort Knox:

(Spoilers down below!!!!!)

Round One: Goldfinger is playing a rigged game of Gin Rummy in which he is conning some schmuck at a hotel in Miami out of his money. Bond cajoles a maid to unlock the door to Goldfinger’s hotel room where a curvy blonde named Jill (Shirley Eaton) is using a telescope and a radio to tell Goldfinger all about his opponents hand. Bond seduces Jill, blackmails Goldfinger into losing, and naturally sleeps with Jill. Goldfinger’s creepy manservant Oddjob (Harold Sakata) sneaks into their hotel room, knocks Bond out but spares his life for reasons that are beyond me, while killing Jill in spectacular fashion by painting her in gold and causing her to “skin suffocate.”

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Bond obtains no meaningful information on Goldfinger, gets a woman killed, but otherwise does an awesome favor for that rich moron gambling with Goldfinger.

Round Two: Goldfinger and Bond play a friendly golf match in which both cheat, but Bond cheats a little better, winning five thousand pounds and placing a homing device on Goldfinger’s car. (Where and when did Bond learn to play golf?????!!!!!!)

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Some actual spy work is going on here. Nobody dies and Bond actually gives himself a chance to follow Goldfinger to Switzerland, though I daresay a major businessman’s movements wouldn’t have been that hard to track anyways, so only minor spy points there.

Round Three: Bond sneaks around metallurgy factory and discovers what he already knew: Goldfinger is an international gold smuggler and hears a vague mention of something called “Operation Grand Slam.” While leaving, Bond finds Jill’s sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) trying to assassinate Goldfinger, stops her and sets an alarm off in the process, which sends all sorts of cronies their direction. While being pursued in Bond’s fancy Aston Martin, he wastes some perfectly good gadgets before being captured and getting Tilly killed by Oddjob’s sometimes lethal/sometimes just annoying hat throw. Bond is almost killed himself by Goldfinger before Goldfinger ultimately changes his mind and decides, incorrectly, that “Bond is more useful to him alive.”

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Bond is captured and once again spared, though he does get the name of the plan is discovered, but he manages to get a second woman from the same family killed.

Round Four: While unconscious, Bond is flown to Kentucky where he remains Goldfinger’s prisoner. In Bond’s finest hour, he tricks a mind-bogglingly idiotic guard into unlocking his cell and easily overpowers him. This affords him the temporary freedom to overhear Goldfinger explain “Operation Grand Slam” to a bunch of gangsters that he is planning on killing in a few moments anyway. Bond is promptly recaptured. Later, Bond hears Goldfinger’s real plan from Goldfinger himself, before seducing Pussy Galore (Honor Blackmon), a pilot who plays a pivotal role in Goldfinger’s plot, and convincing her to betray Goldfinger by telling the military about his plan.

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Bond is still a prisoner, though he now knows the plan. Honestly, the real hero of the film is Pussy Galore, whose last-minute crisis of conscious pretty much single-handedly saves the day. I suppose we can also thank the ecstasy and guilt-inducing properties of Bond’s penis, though.

Round Five: At this point, Bond is marginally more useful than a tree stump. Goldfinger’s plan is to eliminate the military via a noxious gas that Pussy Galore and her cohorts will disperse via their stunt planes. (FYI, Pussy switches the gas after her change-of-heart), freeing his crew to detonate a nuclear device inside of Fort Knox, rendering the gold it houses useless for a half a century. Still a prisoner during the plan, Bond is handcuffed to the bomb and is only able to free himself because Oddjob happens to kill the man with the key by throwing him down several stories right near where Bond is handcuffed. Freed, Bond fights and eventually defeats Oddjob, just in time for the military to arrive and diffuse the bomb.

Goldfinger/Bond Standings: Goldfinger loses thanks to military intervention. Bond does defeats Oddjob, but this fight didn’t really matter, since the well-armed cavalry was coming in time to stop the bomb anyway.

By my estimation, the only meaningful actions Bond took to save the day was outsmart the world’s dumbest guard and convince Pussy Galore that she didn’t want to kill thousands of people in exchange for loads of money after all. Even that is generous on Bond’s part, I think the former probably wouldn’t have mattered because Goldfinger was clearly bursting to tell Bond everything anyway. Honestly, Bond literally saves the day by having sex. Did hippies ever have a better champion?

Despite the more hard-edged twist that the recent Bond films have taken, they remain the acme of male-escapist fantasy, and none have pulled that off better than Connery. It isn’t because he is tough or classy, but that he is both. Somehow he convinces you that he could beat the crap out of you just after he has given on wonderful lecture on the best 30-year-old-wine to drink with your meal. Roger Moore was too goofy to pull it off, George Lazenby too blaise, Timothy Dalton too sincere, Pierce Brosnan too regal, and Daniel Craig too intense. Connery perfected the balance, and no Bond since has been able to quite match it.

One of the nice things about “Goldfinger” is that you can see all the pieces of the Bond myth coalescing. The flamboyant, overconfident villains who are giddy with excitement to share the details of their malevolent plans. The barely coherent gadgets which are presented with just the right situation in which to make themselves useful. The creepy, nonsensical underlings who are far too loyal be anything less than the villain’s secret lover. “Goldfinger” even shows that James Bond’s semen is actually a homing beacon for death. (Seriously, it is. I bet after this film Pussy Galore is assaulted by the creepy rednecks from “Deliverance” while Bond went somewhere to take a leak.) This is one of the most Bond Bond films that ever was.

4.5/5 (Bond Scale)

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Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

A film which suggests that ballet doesn’t have to be boring.”

The blending of martial arts with the elegance of dance was not a new concept in the year 2000. Indeed, most Kung Fu films acknowledge this if not in the metaphysical beliefs which they express via their inevitable training sequences, than in the very nature of the term fighting “choreography.” Fights are less about violence and destruction than they are about communication through movement. Yet nobody took these ideas and made them as explicit as Ang Lee did in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” There may be better martial arts films out there, but few look as superb as this one. Even on a paltry twenty-odd inch television, the film looked brilliant.

It starts with Lee’s wide open visual approach. There seems to be space everywhere in this film. Whether it is the Gobi desert, forest, plains or even the presumably crowded city of Peking, there is plenty of room for characters to glide, pirouette, and literally float across gorgeous landscapes with beautiful Chinese vistas watching solemnly in the background. When they need more room, they simply move the action upward onto rooftops and treetops. Using the famous wire work that was so fashionably parodied in the early oughts, the characters are able to pursue each other on the side of walls, across tree branches, and even through long stretches of air, in delicate action sequences that have an awkward physicality which is nevertheless strangely graceful.

As broad as the cinematography is, the characters are painted even more so. Based on an early 20th century novel, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” approaches what feels an ancient tragedy with a simplicity and inevitable sense of doom. There is Li Mu Bai (Chow Yun-Fat), a master of the Wudong martial arts who is unable to achieve transcendence due to his long standing repressed love for Yu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh), whose own reciprocal feelings of love are smothered under a duty-first society which discourages the expression of emotion in favor of doing what is expected of you. This repressive culture embitters Jen Yu (Zhang Ziyi,) who is forced to marry a man she despises for her father’s political gain, when she really loves a desert bandit named “Dark Cloud,” (Chang Chen.)

Secretly, Jen Yu has been learning Wudong martial arts under the training of Jade Fox (Cheng Pei-pei), the former lover of Li Mu Bai’s master who poisoned him and stole the Wudong manual when he refused to teach her himself. Turning her rage outward, Jen Yu steals Li Mu Bai’s famous Green Destiny sword and begins to ravage the countryside with her superior fighting skills. With her lack of hubris and resentment at the world threatening to transform her into a vengeful monster, much like Jade Fox.

The film resonates thematically on the complicated psychological relationships between teachers and students, and the manner in which negative emotions can slowly destroy a person’s humanity as surely as any poison. To be honest though, I didn’t really care. I was too busy being transfixed on the people drifting nimbly through the air and occasionally swiping at each other to get wrapped up in something as mundane as a narrative. If ever there was a “dance” film for non-believers, this is it.

4.5/5

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Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

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An easy and irreverent ride through the cinematic hollowness of Hollywood.

I had completely forgotten just what a great film this is, but then It is easy to forget how innovative a filmmaker Tim Burton was before a decade of complacent filmmaking with Johnny Depp and Danny Elfman turned him into a pastiche of himself. “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” features most of the attributes that would become Burton’s cinematic staples-the colorful Gothic visual palate, the dark comic energy, and a nonchalant absurdism- but feels unlike any other film he has made. It is weird and different in all the right ways.

The idiosyncrasy of this film starts with its titular character, the exceedingly strange Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Ruebens.) There are plenty of films about men in their late 20s and 30s who struggle to grow out of their adolescence, but almost none about adult men who seem to have exiled themselves permanently into childhood. Pee-Wee is delighted by the sorts of things that kids are: Magic shops, making silly faces in the mirror, breakfast cereal, and most of all, riding his beloved bicycle. One of the thing he doesn’t care about is sex. Pee-Wee is pursued romantically by the perpetually supportive Dottie (Elizabeth Daily), but he has not the slightest interest in her. This isn’t some sort of sexual repression. To even have sexual feelings would require a degree of maturity that Pee-Wee lacks, plus it would complicate the pure joy he experiences daily at the simplest of things.

Speaking of joy, Pee-Wee’s bike is so profoundly cool that his obnoxious rival, Francis (Mark Holton) covets it above all things. Like Pee-Wee, Francis is a giant child, but Francis’ oversized underdevelopment makes more sense-his development was arrested by virtue of being the spoiled brat of a superrich father. So when Pee-Wee tells Francis that his bike isn’t for sale, regardless of whether or not it is his birthday, Francis steals it, then gets rid of it when Pee-Wee puts the heat on him. This sets the stage for a massive road trip in which Pee-Wee travels the country in order to get his bike back.

One of the delights of this film is its ability to casually slip into and out of cartoon logic. At times, Pee-Wee is Bugs Bunny, instantly donning woman’s garb so that he and an escaped convict can slip past a blockade on the road, with the clothes disappearing just as fast when he no longer needs them. It is a world devoid of any real danger. When Pee-Wee angers a bar full of bikers who threaten to tear him apart, all it takes is a dance on top of the bar to  The Champs’ “Tequila” to earn their respect. Of course, when he tries to drive off on a motorcycle to continue his pursuit, reality comes crashing in, literally, as the inexperienced Pee-Wee careens into a billboard and ends up in a hospital.

More than anything this is a film which revels in the infectious frivolity of Hollywood. It grabs onto cinematic cliches just long enough to take a bite out of them and spit them back out, whether it is inspiring a waitress to fulfill her dream of going to Paris, or riding in a haunted semi with the infamous Large Marge. It isn’t satire so much as a grinning nihilism. After all, most of the films in Hollywood don’t mean anything, but that isn’t to say they aren’t a lot of fun. In fact, this melting pot of tropes culminates in a thrilling (really!) conclusion across the Warner Brothers lots, as Pee-Wee mows through film set after film set, pursued by Godzilla, Santa Clause, and several inept security guards.

For awhile there was no mainstream filmmaker churning out projects as unique as Burton. From “Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure” up to “Mars Attacks,” he had a string of original ideas that didn’t all pan out but all of which absolutely felt different. The trouble started when Burton began repackaging other people’s ideas, with that same visual schtick he has been churning out for two decades. This film is a reminder that whether or not Burton’s creative well has gone dry, there is plethora of treasures in his back catalog waiting to be enjoyed.

4.5/5

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Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

220px-StarWarsMoviePoster1977

The film you can probably blame for the existence of this blog.

I’ll go right out and say it. The original “Star Wars” trilogy is a part of “me.” That sounds weird and ridiculous, and it is, but it is true nonetheless.  The images from those films planted roots in my brain early and have entangled themselves into my consciousness. I have no memories of ever not knowing Darth Vader was Luke Skywalker’s father, and virtually the entire mythology from those films seems to have been engrained in me A priori. While much of the pop culture I digested as a child has been discarded or dispensed with as I have gotten older,”Star Wars” has stuck with me. I loved it then, I love it now, and I suspect that I will go on loving it for as long as I am fortunate enough to live. I don’t want to mislead, if you are looking for an emotionally neutral deconstruction of “A New Hope,” you should look elsewhere, but don’t mistake me, this film is not perfect. The love I bare for this film is the kind that doesn’t attempt to conceal the flaws, but instead embraces them.

We could, for example, talk about continuity errors. There is a sequence in which young Luke (Mark Hamill) is desperately fighting off a Tusken Raider. In one shot, we see him successfully dodging a Gaffi Stick. In the next, we see that  same Tusken Raider holding that Gaffi Stick above his head in triumph. Did Luke pass out or something? We could talk about gaffes. There is the infamous shot in which a stormtrooper hits his head while entering a doorway. There are pages and pages of material on the internet pointing out the plethora of movie mistakes contained in “A New Hope” alone. Worse still are the bizarre character contradictions. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) dumps his illegal cargo shipment in order to avoid any Imperial trouble, yet he is more than willing to shoot at and run from the Imperials in order to protect what are to him perfect strangers who he should be more than happy to turn over. Luke meanwhile has instant admiration and affection for Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), a man he only earlier in the film described as a “crazy old hermit.” Nevermind that Obi-Wan was attempting to hide from the Empire but he only bothered to change his first name. There are plenty more, and that doesn’t even include the silliness of the premise.

All of these critiques are perfectly valid, but completely irrelevant. The greatness of “Star Wars” stems not from its visual perfection, the professional filmmaking it exudes, nor the ideas which it espouses. Its greatness is a metaphysical form of alchemy resulting from an assemblage of a variety of ancient hero myths, repackaged them in such a bizarre and idiosyncratic way that it resonated, not just with me, but with generations of human beings generations of human beings. There are very few films that will still percolate in pop culture in a hundred years, and “Star Wars” is one of them.

While “A New Hope” is garbed in the trappings of Science Fiction, it is really an Eastern medieval fantasy adventure. The scene in which Luke and Leia (Carrie Fischer) use a grappling hook to swing across a metallic cavern is more “The Adventures of Robin Hood” than “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Even the nomenclature of the film suggests that Luke is a peasant who dreams of becoming an honorable (Jedi) knight, saving the kingdom (Galaxy) and restoring the knighthood to its once former glory, while achieving honor for himself, not wholly unlike d”Artagnan from “The Three Musketeers.” Han is the rough around the edges bandit whose cynicism and selfishness masks a strong moral compass. (I guess this makes Chewbacca some form of sentient, loyal dog in this metaphor.) Princess Leia is, well, a princess, tragically stolen from her kingdom and kept prisoner for nefarious purposes by an illegitimate government. (She mostly does a lot of talking and watching in this film.) Obi-Wan is the link to the past and the purveyor of the Force, a vaguely Buddhist concept about the Universe being one and the power that comes from embracing this philosophy. Mastering it entails mastering one’s own emotions.

For those like me that grew up in a post-“Star Wars” world, it is hard to appreciate just how different this film was from all those that came before it. Top-of-the-line, first rate visual effects were far from the norm in the 1970s and Science Fiction/Fantasy was the stuff of heady, slow-paced ideas or cheesy B-movies, not the vibrant, eye-popping fun and imagination of “A New Hope.” Yet for all its newness, it owes much to films that have come before it. Beginning the film from the perspective of a couple of comic-relief side characters, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), comes from Kirasawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” and the use numerous screen wipes to cut between scenes, from Kirasawa generally. The scenes involving space battles were culled from old World War II fighter pilot films. Tatooine was inspired by “Dune.” There are elements of “The Wizard of Oz,” “Metropolis,” and “Flash Gordon,” smattered througout “A New Hope,”complied them in near-perfect degrees to create something new and captivating.

It is true that, looking back some thirty-six years later, the visual effects have aged. Some scenes are clearly models, and more than a few shots are clearly-aided by a green screen or alternate form of rear projection. Like people, visual effects can age gracefully, and “A New Hope” has. Perhaps in a hundred years time, the world will be laughing at how archaic they look, but for now, the visual effects possess a charm, sense of style, and most crucially weight, gravity, and physics which makes them superior visually and aesthetically to any of its prequel, despite the prequels having the advantage of over twenty years advancements in special effects. The opposite of aging gracefully is”The Phantom Menace” whose visual effects look as though it they have spent the last fourteen years repeatedly ingesting copious amounts of alcohol and other hard drugs. The characters look Bob Hoskins wandering around Tunetown, the reality they inhabit looks so cartoonish and silly.

On the subject of the “Special Edition” version of this film, I will briefly add to the now redundant chorus of “Shame on you , Mr. Lucas!” Creating a new version of the film that was more in line with his original vision is not only his right, but his imperative. Attempting to blot out of existence the original version which everyone loves and prefers, well that is just troubling. Trying to alter people’s memories is a particularly creepy form of mind control that I suspect George Orwell himself would be appalled.

Some blame”Star Wars,” along with “Jaws,” for ushering in this current era of blockbuster filmmaking in which we are living and helping bring about the end of that brilliant time in the 1970s in which talented young directors were basically given the keys to the movie studios by flummoxed executives, resulting in the making of compelling film after compelling film. This is fair enough, but the rise of the blockbuster seems in hindsight an eventuality that “Star Wars” merely accelerated, the New Hollywood Era would probably have imploded within itself anyway. While we could debate the merits of blaming a film for the dreg it later inspires, it goes without saying that putting up with the muck that came after “Star Wars,” including the prequel trilogy, has been more than worth it. Without “Star Wars,” I would not be even vaguely close to the person I am today. Now just what kind of person it made me, that is a little more tricky…

4.5/5

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