djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

Herewith a quick take on my two most recent summer-movie visits:

Wonder Woman is very, very good — and manages to be so by mostly being a World War I movie rather than a superhero movie.  I am, of course, much too young to have living memories of the WWI period, but one of my grandfathers was an Army engineer in that war, then puttered around Europe for several years afterward doing a variety of field work for the American Red Cross.  My father made a point of writing down and preserving a great many stories arising from those travels, and Wonder Woman surprised me by matching the tone and texture of those stories to an impressive degree.  The members of the team Diana and Steve Trevor bring together feel like people my grandfather could easily have met and understood.  I’ve heard complaints about the portrayals of some of the minority characters, but my sense is that what’s shown is essentially accurate for the time and place — and that the reactions of the characters in question are as true to period as everything else.

Mind you, it’s not perfect.  The scene in which Diana crosses “No Man’s Land” very nearly threw me out of the movie — even in a comic-book world, there should have been too heavy a volume and breadth of firepower for her to survive being shredded using the traditional deflection-and-dodging powers that we usually associate with Wonder Woman and her gauntlets.  That the scene works is a matter of the sheer force of will Gal Gadot throws into the role…and by the end of the film, it’s clear that in fact, Diana’s Amazon powers are more literally godlike than they were in the Lynda Carter era.

#

By contrast, The Mummy is a major disappointment.  Tom Cruise tries to coast through the movie on roguish charm, but the script makes him too much of an idiot and cad for that charm to do much good (except to the degree that it persuades the Forces Of Evil to keep him alive).  Cruise’s character literally has no control over his actions for large segments of the film — the resurrected Egyptian princess Ahmanet is pulling his strings most of the time — and even when he makes a choice that looks sort of heroic (notably, resurrecting the film’s other female lead), one can rationalize that he’s only doing so because he’s looking out for his own self-interest further down the road.

But the real trouble with The Mummy is that there aren’t any proper mummies in it.  What we have instead is Sofia Boutella as the aforementioned Ahmanet, and within five minutes of waking her up, the film has her mostly out of her wrappings and into slinky seductress mode, clad in just enough shreds of green to keep her nominally street-legal.  Nor are most of her monster legions mummies; just about all of them are better classified as skeletons, zombies, or ghouls.  The Egyptian — or even faux-Egyptian — folklore is just as thin on the ground.  With no likeable hero, no mummies, and no mystical Egyptian spice in play, all that’s left is a lot of CGI sludge and generic mayhem.  And that’s not much of a recipe for a successful Mummy movie.

Fortunately, I paid for my ticket to the Cruise Mummy by buying a boxed set of four movies from the much better predecessor franchise starring Brendan Fraser, Rachel Weisz, and eventually The Rock (total price well under $20) — a win for my DVD collection, if not for Universal’s current cash flow.

 [reprised from The Lone Penman; *not* crossposted to LiveJournal]
djonn: (butterfly)

I know, I know, I'm one of the last three people in the whole world to have seen Frozen...but at least I caught it a few hours before it picked up its Oscars.  Some thoughts:

In general, it's an impressive film, and it's definitely in the upper tier of modern-era Disney animated features.  I don't think it quite reaches the topmost tier alongside Beauty & the Beast, but it's a solid companion piece to Tangled and Brave and more of a traditional musical than either of those.  One online comment I scanned earlier today referred to the movie as "Wicked Light" -- which is both an apt characterization and a very good reason for Disney to be developing a stage version.

The opening setup sequences are troubling in a couple of respects.  First, I need a second look at the initial sequence between the sisters' parents and the rock troll elder. While the trolls are ultimately portrayed as benign, the elder's blocking of Anna's memories is a key catalyst for the subsequent crisis -- which is a trifle disconcerting when we eventually see the trolls again.  The second catalyst is the late King's and Queen's spectacular failure to follow up on the elder's advice that Elsa must learn to control her powers; rather, they reinforce Elsa's choice to try and suppress them instead.  The parents' deaths are also peculiar. Their passing is decidedly convenient for the plot, and -- amazingly -- causes no political upheaval whatsoever in Arendelle.  It's unclear how much time elapses between the deaths and Elsa's coronation, but I had the definite sense that Elsa wasn't old enough to take the crown immediately.  Yet we see nothing about a regency council or royal advisors, and no one objects when Anna puts a wholly foreign noble in charge of the kingdom while she goes after Elsa.  This is...odd at best.

The other scene I want to see again is Anna's initial dockside meeting with Prince Hans. Despite having waited 15 weeks to see Frozen, I had managed to avoid being spoiled for Hans' character arc, and I entirely failed to anticipate the twist he springs on newly  white-haired Anna on her return to the palace. One key reason for this involves the last few moments of that first meeting, in which Hans' horse drops him into the fjord...and even though Anna is no longer there, the bit is played purely for its comic effect, with no change in the tenor of Hans' reaction.  It's a very sneaky fake-out, and I'm not sure whether to compliment the creative team for its deviousness or chastise them for essentially cheating viewers with regard to the scene's true context.  In the end, Hans emerges as one of Disney animation's creepiest villains (offhand, I'd rate only Frollo of the much-underrated Hunchback of Notre Dame as nastier), in which light it's unnerving that he's also one of the few who survives mostly unscathed by film's end.

The preceding reservations notwithstanding, I enjoyed the movie very much. The animators do their usual brilliant work with the various sidekick characters, the deliberate winks at fairy-tale convention are clever -- clearly, both sisters have seen Enchanted, the film that introduces the phrase "true love's kiss" to the Disney canon -- and the chemistry between Kristen Bell's Anna and Idina Menzel's Elsa is charming throughout.  (It may be just me, but I also find it amusing that both actresses were cast against type: the blonde is playing a brunette, while the brunette is playing a blonde.)

My overall grade: B+ (A for voice performances, A for visuals, B for music, C+ for script/story).  Not quite a classic, but a very respectable effort.

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)
I saw The Avengers Friday -- amazingly, there was not a line round the block for the early show at the Cinemagic -- and have been perusing reactions to the film online thereafter.  Myself, I quite liked the movie; I think it does about as well as one can at the "epic superhero teamup" genre, and there are lots of nifty character moments.  But I came across an interesting thread in other people's reviews that made me think about the way Big Action Movies are filmed nowadays, and so what I want to do here is explain why I think Joss Whedon's work in this film outdoes two of the other milestones in recent Big Action Movie history.

What sparked this thought were two different reactions to Whedon's directing of the epic action sequences: one writer thought they were too fast and not focused enough, and the other thought they were just a touch too slow and too narrowly targeted.  I think they're both wrong; to my mind, Whedon's action sequences -- and most especially the long battle in Manhattan that takes up most of the last third of the movie -- do exactly what they should, and that Whedon knew exactly what he was doing as he designed them.

To illustrate my point, let me cite an exchange near the end of the battle (I promise, this isn't any sort of serious spoiler).  Captain America and Thor have just finished off a wave of the invading forces, and while they've acquitted themselves well, they're clearly both a bit worse for wear at this point.  And then another wave of invaders swoops into view, Thor looks at Cap, and says "Ready for another round?" or words to that effect.  And Cap nods -- but they're both obviously tired, and not really ready for yet another wave, and they know that barring a miracle, this may just be the end of the line.  And then, of course, they wade into that next wave....

And the moment works, and works brilliantly.  Why?  Because we viewers have just been through the same epic battle the heroes have, and even though we're eager to get back into action, we too are emotionally (and just a little physically) tired after all we've seen, and there's only so much we can take before battle fatigue sets in.  Whedon, in a ten or fifteen second exchange between these two characters, has demonstrated that he's exactly synchronized his characters' capacity for heroic action with his viewers' ability to assimilate that action.  We know how drained Cap and Thor are because we're drained too; we've had the same experience in the theater that they've had in Marvelverse Manhattan.

Which is why, for me, The Avengers works better as a Big Action Movie than either of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight or Guy Ritchie's 2009 Sherlock Holmes.  Both of these are, in their way, well-made movies with much good in them -- but I dislike the way their action sequences unfold; where Whedon's action serves his storytelling, both Nolan and Ritchie seem to me to superimpose Big Action Scenes on their movies in ways that get in the way of the story rather than reinforcing it.  The action in Dark Knight seems largely gratuitous to me, basically designed to put roadblocks in the way of the character conflict between Batman and the Joker -- in particular, the movie needs those gratuitous action sequences so that one doesn't look too closely at the plot logic leading up to the climax.  Sherlock Holmes has a somewhat different problem; the "rewind" effect Ritchie uses to illustrate Holmes' thought processes is intriguing, but the combination of that technique and the extremely fast cuts and scene shifts of that film's action scenes (both inside and outside the "rewinds") make the viewer work too hard to process them.  So rather than actually getting inside Holmes' head, we more or less get to see that Holmes has Amazing Intellectual Superpowers but not much else.

By contrast, the action sequences in The Avengers work because they give viewers a viable entry point into the action, both on the macro level (as noted above) and on the individual level (see especially two of the Black Widow's scenes and two of the Hulk's).  The scenes work because they're paced in a way that lets viewers experience the story side-by-side with the characters.  Here, the spectacle serves the story rather than simply being flashy and, well, spectacular.  Not that it isn't spectacular when it needs to be, mind, but for once in the Big Action niche we've got a movie in which the craftsmanship is well matched with the material.  One can disagree with some of the film's creative choices, but for pure technical craft, I give Joss Whedon the highest possible marks.
djonn: Self-portrait (Wabbit)

Let's be clear here: I don't normally succumb to talking-animal movies.  I have skipped all of the Ice Ages, ventured nowhere near Madagascar, stayed well away from Happy Feet, and ignored the entire string of insects and arachnids (ants, bugs, bees, what-have-you) that have infested theaters over the last couple of years.  [All right, so I did see Chicken Run, but if memory serves, that one had almost no standup comedians in the major roles.]

However.

The trailers for Kung Fu Panda looked surprisingly tempting.  It looked as if the writers had actually paid some attention to martial arts folklore, for one thing.  And I was picking up some cautiously optimistic buzz.  And I had Monday afternoon mostly free....

I'm not sure it's a classic, exactly.  But it is an extremely well-made, straightforward, and beautifully self-contained movie, and it may just be the first Dreamworks animated project to really capture and bottle the old-school Disney storytelling spirit. 

Two things really stand out as making the movie work.  One is the worldbuilding.  The story opens by showing us the city where Po, our title character, lives -- and that setting remains important throughout the movie.  Indeed, the film's most critical turning point comes in a scene between Po and his "father", involving no kung fu action at all.  The second is the character chemistry, most especially between Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), but also throughout the cast.  Hoffman in particular makes Master Shifu a fascinating and distinctive character . . . and what's more, the script gives him a character arc that is, if anything, even more powerful than our hero's.  You just do not see characterization that deep in feature animation -- but it's here, and it's persuasive.

Even more impressive, the script is smart enough to mostly underplay the morality-fable aspects of the story, while being equally careful not to make the comedy go too far over the top.  Both elements are kept to just the level needed to serve the story without dominating it, which helps keep the tone consistent throughout.  Thus we get a fantastic extended combat sequence between Po and Shifu involving the last of a bowl of dumplings -- and an equally fantastic extended combat sequence in which the legendary Furious Five animal masters go toe to toe with the utterly ruthless Tai Lung for much higher stakes.

Again, I don't know that I'd call this a classic; for all its excellent qualities, it feels more good-natured than anything else.  And yet, as I was musing about what I'd seen over the closing credits, it occurred to me where else I'd seen just this kind of chemistry and unselfconscious goodwill in an animated ensemble . . . it's the same resonance that's there in the earliest and best of the Disney Winnie-the-Pooh stories.  Stay through the end credits for the small Easter egg at the tail end, and see if you don't agree with me.

Highly recommended.

djonn: Self-portrait (Feather)
As threatened elsewhere -- and because I am, I admit, a Teen Sleuth Junkieā„¢ -- I caught a showing of Nancy Drew this afternoon.

And was, rather to my surprise, impressed.

Despite the fact that this was made under the Warner Bros. umbrella, what we have here is a spiritual heir to the classic "Disney repertory" tradition of family films.  And if its cast isn't quite as self-assured or its script quite as polished as that of, say, Candleshoe or Bedknobs & Broomsticks, this is nonetheless a remarkable movie, and one that deserves to do well.

Now that I think of it.... )

The bottom line?  While the script treats Nancy's history with a certain degree of playfulness, structurally and thematically the film is loyal to the Nancy Drew tradition.  Cheerfully recommended for all Teen Sleuth Junkiesā„¢. for smart ten-year-olds of both sexes (give or take a couple of years), and for anyone in search of a genuinely family-friendly movie that treats both its viewers and its characters with intelligence and respect.
djonn: (butterfly)

Noted on the advertising poster for the upcoming Nancy Drew movie, opening next week at theaters everywhere:

Based on the characters created by Carolyn Keene

Riiiight....

....unless maybe this book really is the true story.  (Heh,  I like that theory.)
djonn: Self-portrait (Wabbit)

[livejournal.com profile] cadhla points out that today is the 17th anniversary of a historic incident on a fictional island off the coast of Costa Rica, wherein a gentleman named Hammond -- not the one from Stargate SG-1 -- managed to lose a lot of his guests to a horde of ravening velociraptors (among other things).  In the comment thread, [livejournal.com profile] pope_guilty asks the musical question, "How did Hammond go from a scheming, investor-defrauding bastard in the book to Walt Disney in the movie?"

It occurs to me that I sort of formulated the musical answer a number of years back.... )

djonn: Self-portrait (Default)

Having scored a pass to a preview screening earlier in the week, I am just back from seeing My Super Ex-Girlfriend (you may well have seen trailers with Superman Returns and/or Dead Man's Chest), in which we observe the consequences when architectural-design geek Matt Saunders (Luke Wilson) accidentally meets, dates, beds, and then quite understandably dumps Jenny "G-Girl" Johnson (Uma Thurman), who has serious control issues.....

On one hand, I was not blown away.  On the other, this is not nearly as awful as one might expect . . . . )

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