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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


The Hobbit (2012): Written by Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Guillermo Del Toro.  Directed by Peter Jackson.  Starring:  Martin Freeman, Ian Mckellan, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt. Andy Serkis, Ian Holm, and Cate Blanchett.  Rated PG-13 for:  Heavy fantasy action, Gollum.  Running Time:   169 Minutes.  Based on The Hobbit (and other assorted writings) by J.R.R. Tolkein. 

Rating: 3/4 Stars

It’s finally here.  9 years after Peter Jackson concluded one of the most powerful and dominating film trilogies of all time, we’re back in Middle Earth for a new trilogy, this one centered around (but not solely based on) the master storyteller’s LOTR prequel, The Hobbit.  And I honestly could not be any happier.  The entire LOTR universe is one of unique imagination, creativity, and depth, whose stories will certainly end up being among the most enduring of the past century.  The fact that Peter Jackson managed to pull off filming such works on his first go around is little short of miraculous, so of course, the expectations for the first of his new Middle Earth trilogy were on par with those surrounding "The Avengers" and "Dark Knight Rises".  And, in my opinion, "The Hobbit" matches and exceeds expectations with aplomb.  "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" is a wonderful, incredibly fun film, and offers nothing but good vibes for the next two Hobbit movies. 

                Taking place 60 years before the events of the Fellowship & Co., "An Unexpected Journey" (at least at first) begins the tale of how Bilbo Baggins, once as doddering, stodgy, and inflexible as any other hobbit, is coaxed by Gandalf into joining a party of dwarves on a quest to vanquish the dragon Smaug, during the course of which (completely unnecessary spoiler alert) he acquires the fabled One Ring, which will of course later set in motion the events of the LOTR trilogy.  The dwarves, we learn via several flashbacks, were driven from their kingdom by the evil dragon Smaug, who coveted their extensive hoards of gold, leaving them abandoned and homeless.  Now their prince, Thorin, and his motley crew (extra emphasis on motley) of ragtag dwarves (extra emphasis on ragtag), along with Gandalf, have hatched a plan to sneak back into the mountain and retake their kingdom-under-the-mountain, all the while being pursued by orcs led by an old foe of Thorin’s family. 

                While the dwarf-quest aspects of the film stay pretty close to the book from what I can remember (a nighttime encounter with three Stooge-esque trolls, a visit to Elrond at Rivendell, their escapades under the mountain), Jackson fairly quickly breaks away from The Hobbit’s traditional storyline to delve into aspects of Middle Earth’s history only hinted at in The Hobbit and LOTR, specifically the growing power of a being called the “Necromancer” (who may or may not be Sauron, circa his pre-flaming-reptile-eye days), and the threat both he and Smaug pose to Middle Earth.  To flesh out this addendum to the plot, we get a variety of additional cameos and bit roles (including an expanded role for Radagast the Brown, the only other wizard to appear in the LOTR books) to set the stage for what could potentially be the focus of the third Hobbit film, currently titled "There And Back Again". 

                As excited as I am about the idea of bringing the Necromancer to film, and possibly introducing other characters not seen in Jackson’s previous LOTR films, the constant asides could end up pulling focus and importance away from the journey of the dwarves to the Lonely Mountain.  The Hobbit is a fairly tight, contained story, with a far lighter and more whimsical tone than the serious, deep, symbolism-laden Meisterwerk that is LOTR.  And while Jackson does an excellent job of bringing the more silly, childish aspects of The Hobbit to the screen, it can sometimes seem dwarved (pun intended) compared to the bigger threats and ideas hinted at by Gandalf, Elrond, and Radagast. 

                Jackson also attempts to make the story feel bigger by expanding the few action bits of the book into huge, fighting-laden set pieces.  While certainly fun to watch, an unfortunate side-effect of both the parallel storylines and the expanded action is that Bilbo is often quite literally forgotten, disappearing completely from the film for big chunks of time, whereas the book is written exclusively from his point of view. 

                On the whole, though, I am not yet bothered by this, since much of the time away from Bilbo is well-spent introducing the audience to the additional stories being brought into play, and help to set the stage nicely for the next two films.  I do, however, feel that it detracts from this first film only because the parts focusing on Bilbo are, in my opinion, the movie’s best.  The opening scene establishing the characters of the dwarves (as they completely pillage Bilbo’s house of all food) is as raucous and comical as anything else in the movie, and Bilbo’s attempts to maneuver around the three aforementioned trolls are both gripping and hilarious.  The scene that makes the movie for me is the confrontation between Bilbo inside the Misty Mountains, where Bilbo finds the One Ring, and has to play a game of riddles with Gollum in order to survive and find the way out.  Andy Serkis’ Gollum is as spellbindingly disgusting and pathetic as ever, with few visual changes from his design in the original trilogy.  Seriously, when is that man going to get his Lifetime Achievement Award from the MPAA? 

                Like I said though, Bilbo’s vanishing acts aren’t that big a deal, since the time away from our little hobbit are put to good use.  What I did find problematic was the amount of time devoted to the Pale Orc, a huge albino determined to hunt down and kill Thorin.  While certainly a good plot point (and probably an eventual leader in the Battle of Five Armies, awaiting us down the road), he falls flat as far as being a villain is concerned, simply because he’s….well….boring.  He’s big, he’s pale, he wants to kill dwarves.  And that’s about it, really.  And he constantly reiterates his desire to kill anything short and bearded in monotone exposition, gazing into the nether through wide, dead eyes, and pulling a Christian Bale by never fully closing his mouth.  There were several times I almost thought he’d fallen asleep, or was having a quiet seizure between monologues.  Honestly, I found the Urukai leaders of "Fellowship" and "Two Towers" more engaging that Whitey the Warg-Whipper, and they barely opened their mouths. 

                It’s a minor complaint though, as the rest of the film is incredibly good, both story-wise and effects-wise.  I can say without hesitation that I am a fan of the new 48-FPS cameras used for the movie.  Jackson is one of the few directors who can actually put 3D to good use and make it enhance the film, rather just throw it in as a superfluous money grab (although I’m sure he wants money too- but as long he delivers a great story, I am willing to pay).  From the first scene onward, the sheer beauty of the film had me gaping, although thankfully there is genuine depth to back up the pretty visuals this time around.

                All in all,"An Unexpected Journey" is really, really good, and well-worth seeing.  Despite its flaws, it is easily one of my favorite films of the year, and bodes well for the next two movies.  If it’s available in your theater, spend the extra money to see the HFR in 3D.  Few other films that I’ve seen put the technology to such good use.  Another Middle Earth adventure has begun everyone!  Be very excited. 

-Judge Richard

Monday, December 17, 2012

Review: Skyfall

Skyfall (2012): Written by Neal Pervis, Robert Wade, and John Logan.  Directed by Sam Mendes.  Starring:  Daniel Craig, Javier Bardem, Ralpf Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Albert Finney, Judi Dench, and Wolf Blitzer.  Rated PG-13 for: violence, language, drug use, and Bardem’s patent creepiness.  Running Time: 143 minutes.  Based on the graphic novel series by Yvorne Mollywobbles. 

Rating:  2.5/4 stars


    I am not, as the saying goes, a “Bond fan”, or a “Bondian," as it were (Bondonite?  Bonder?).  Nothing personal, I just don’t like the guy.  The whole Cold-War mentality that initially inspired much of his character ceased to be relevant while I was still in diapers, and on top of that, I think both he and the films as a whole are horrid to women (though I am told that that has varied from one incarnation to the other).  So as you can imagine, while drawing up my list of films to see this year, the latest Bond-venture “Skyfall” ranked slightly above the last Twilight movie on the list of films I simply couldn’t be bothered about.  However!  Never let it be said that I am not willing to give franchises second chances!  After repeated assurances that this one was, indeed, quite good (and some time spent silencing the voices in my head), I thought, “Why not,” and sat down to give Skyfall a chance to sell me on the latest Bond-jovi romp. 

    And after seeing it, have I been converted?  Was Skyfall so good that it completely whitewashed my earlier hesitations towards the franchise, and turn me into a......”fan?” 

No. 

    Well, was it a solid, entertaining action film with enough good bit roles to make it a fun watch?  Yes, very much so. 

    We open with (what else) an extended chase across the rooftops of Istanbul (literally).  Bond, aided by Calypso from Pirates III (no, I can’t bring myself to call her by her real name), tries to retake a chip containing the ID’s of every single undercover British agent in the world from...someone wielding a gun and shooting at Bond.  Making him evil.  Why MI-6 thought it was a good idea to amass such sensitive information in a single item is never answered.  Budget cuts, perhaps. 

    Anyway, during the whole scene, it is established that Bond is still tough as nails, but maybe starting to slow with age, Calypso is eager but possibly not meant for field service, and M (the head of MI-6, played by Judi Dench) is a frigidly cold person to work for.  Seriously, the main arcs of the film revolve primarily around how brutally and unflinchingly she will do whatever she personally deems necessary to carry out MI-6’s objectives, and also about how she (pretty much) never bothers to apologize, even when the result is devastating for people she clearly cares about. 

    This is actually a nice atmospheric change for the Bond franchise, openly acknowledging the gray moral middle-ground that all intelligence agencies are inevitably forced to occupy.  And, rather than absolving its characters of their sins, they are forced to confront them in painful ways, especially Dench.  Furthermore, Bond himself is no longer the untouchable, bullet-proof one man machine of old, getting shot twice in the very first scene (much to my joy).  The entire first act of the movie is essentially a Dark Knight Rises-esque “Bond is way out of shape and has to get back in the game” montage, one that I wished had gotten a little more attention than it ultimately received.  Nonetheless, I was impressed by how willingly the film aged Bond.  Craig is no longer as dapper as he used to be, his face deeply lined and looking like he’s missed an awful lot of sleep.  Although he ends up being as un-killable as ever, he is not spared some moments of frustration or humiliation.  My favorite scene in the entire film is when Albert Finney calls him a “little shit”......to his face. 

    The murkier tone of the film is further enhanced by the presence of the villain, Javier Bardem, proving once more that few actors can be as determinedly creepy as he can.  His character, rather than being a simple power/money-hungry baron or Communist spy or whatever, is instead a former MI-6 agent, describing himself as essentially an earlier James Bond, but even better.  However, hurt (in more ways than one) by Dench, and bitterly disillusioned, he hatches an elaborate but not overly excessive plot meant simply to personally injure Dench as much as he can. 

    As much as I enjoyed the individual performances of Craig, Dench, Fiennes, and Whishaw as the various members of MI-6, Bardem is easily the film’s defining presence.  His tortured and insane character bears plenty of shades of Heath Ledger’s Joker, but is enough of his own creation to avoid being a complete copy/paste.  The moment he first enters the film (which is actually pretty late), I ceased to wonder why people are already declaring him one of the best Bond villains of all time.  If nothing else moves you to see this film, seeing Javier Bardem do what he does best- namely, scaring the bejeezers out of you- is reason enough to check this one out. 

    So, on the whole, I heartily enjoyed Skyfall, my earlier misgivings aside.  It never pushes its moral ambiguity to the depths that I tend to prefer, and Bond is ultimately far less interesting than Bardem, but it already takes some fairly big steps away from many of the earlier Bond films.  For me, that’s an improvement, and I hope future films in the series continue that trend.  I’ve also warmed to Craig as Bond.  I think it’s the eyes.  Craig’s icy-blue eyes, so distant and calculating, strike me as perfect for a character like Bond.  And while I was initially indifferent when I heard Adele’s cover for the movie, it actually fits together quite well with the grim, murky opening credits, and the song has only grown on me since.  And who knows?  Maybe, just maybe, I won't dismiss the next Bond flick so readily.  

-Judge Richard

Friday, December 14, 2012

Golden Globe Nominations: My Reactions AND My Votes

Well kids, it’s that time of year again.  Decorations are going up, presents are being wrapped, credit card limits are spiking.  And nominations for the biggest award ceremonies in film are starting to roll out like so many moldy, blood-red carpets.  Although the total number of festivals, organizations, guilds, and cities that have their own awards each year are beyond count, the two most “prestigious” ones (or at least the most well-known) are, obviously, the Golden Globes (for both movies and TV) and the Academy Awards, or Oscars (just for movies). 

    Now, it’s always important to remember at this time of year that, of course, there is no objectively “best” film, or score, or performance, or art direction, or makeup, etc. etc.  All these awards are purely subjective opinions of the people who vote for them (which are usually very small, VERY exclusive groups), so there is never any requirement to accept any of the awards these people give out as valid. 

    However, I would be lying if I said that I did not enjoy Awards season.  Not because I think the Academy and the Foreign Press Association are more “objective” than other film organizations (they aren’t) or because I agree with all of their choices (I don’t), but because awards season gives us all an excuse to take a pause and remember the truly great films of the year gone by, whether they get their proper due or not, and why.  If nothing else, the Golden Globes and Oscars are a great starting point for good discussion about what makes a “great” film, or the “best” film.  And for that, I appreciate what these people do, even if it sometimes sets my teeth on edge. 

    With that, on to the Golden Globes, whose nominees were announced earlier this week (the actual ceremony will take place on January 13).  A full breakdown of the categories and nominations can be found here

    So who are the major players this year, and who will end up getting snubbed?  The nominations are actually spread out pretty well, which the FPA is known for.  Lincoln, predictably (and deservedly) has the lead with 7 nominations (and will definitely win at least a couple).  Argo and Django Unchained (neither of which I have seen nor will see by next month) are up for 5 apiece, and Les Mis, Zero Dark Thirty, and Silver Linings Playbook are up in 4 separate categories.  Salmon Fishing In The Yemen, Life of Pi, and Moonrise Kingdom got a few nods as well. 

    I am quite pleased with the array of films present on the list, but, as always, there are plenty of “forgotten” films to go around, some predictable, others understandable (but no less frustrating).  The Master did not get nominated for Best Drama, Cabin In The Woods (still my personal #3 for the year) was ignored for Best Comedy, and Beasts of the Southern Wild is nowhere to be seen.  The two that bother me the most, however, is the complete absence of both Cloud Atlas and The Secret World of ArriettyCloud Atlas was out there enough that I can understand the FPA overlooking it, but I sincerely hope the Academy rectifies that with their nomination list (which comes out next month, I am told).  And as for Arrietty, although I’m not convinced it’s the BEST animated film of the year, I do take umbrage with the fact that both it and Paranorman were passed over for Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie

    My own personal frustrations nonetheless, this is a pretty solid lineup of movies, and I am excited to see how things play out next year.  It’s a shame Ricky Gervais will not be 4-peating his brilliant performances of the last 3 years as host, but Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are a damn good alternative. 

    I’ve always found it to be particularly interesting to see how the FPA and the Academy diverge with who they give out accolades to.  There is plenty of overlap with who gets what, but every now and then they will split on the “major” awards.  Cameron’s Avatar took both Best Director and Best Drama in 2009, whereas the Oscars for both of those categories went to its big rival, The Hurt Locker.  The very next year, The Social Network took those same awards at the Globe, whereas the more straight-laced, traditional King’s Speech took the Academy Awards for both.  With the bevy of excellent films to choose from, along with the high praise being garnered by both Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty, it should be another interesting year for both the FPA and the Academy. 

    To conclude this brief reflection, I present to you my personal ballot for the Golden Globes, who I would vote for were I a member of the FPA (note- I’m only voting for categories where I’ve seen enough of the films to be able to express a reasonable opinion).  Enjoy:

 Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for Television:
Maggie Smith, “Downton Abbey” Come on.  Maggie Smith.  Please. 

Best Animated Feature:
“Wreck-It-Ralph”- I’d much rather vote for Arrietty, but, again, I don’t have that choice.  Brave was just a bit too hectic to get my vote.   

Best Original Score:
John Williams, “Lincoln”- It’s not his “biggest” soundtrack, but its subtleties compliment Spielberg’s direction perfectly, as always. 

Best Screenplay:
Mark Boal, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Best Supporting Actor:
Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Master”

Best Supporting Actress:
Amy Adams, “The Master” AND Sally Field, “Lincoln”- I really don’t want to pick between these two.  Can’t we just call it a draw? 

Best Actor, Drama:
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Lincoln”- Sorry Joaquin.  I really am. 

Best Actress, Drama:
Jessica Chastain, “Zero Dark Thirty”

Best Director:
Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln”

Best Picture, Musical or Comedy:
“Moonrise Kingdom”

Best Picture, Drama:
“Lincoln”- QUALIFIER:  Pending my viewing of Zero Dark Thirty, this may change by the time the Oscars role around. 

Happy voting! 

-Judge Richard

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Review: Life of Pi

Life of Pi (2012):  Written by David Magee and directed by Ang Lee.  Starring:  Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Gerard Depardieu, Rafe Spall.  Rated PG For:  Emotional content, occasional scary images.  Running Time:  127 Minutes.  Based on the novel by Yann Martel. 

Rating:  3/4 stars




    Life of Pi has been billed in its trailers (and by many who’ve reviewed it) as the next Avatar (Blue-Cat Avatar, not the REAL Avatar), mostly because its focus is on building a story out of stunning and groundbreaking visuals.  And, although I did not see it in 3D, the opening credits alone were enough to confirm for me the assurances of others that it is the first film since the said Cameron epic where the 3D actually enhances the film, rather than detracting from it.  Unfortunately, stunning special effects and an effective art design are not the only things Ang Lee’s latest project shares with Cameron’s last film. 

    We open up with a jump forward to after the main events of the film have ended.  A middle-aged Pi begins to tell his life story to a struggling writer, which he has heard will convince him of God’s existence.  Pi, we learn, is really named Piscine, which he changed early in life due to the subsequent “pissing” jokes he got from his fellow students.  His father was an entrepreneur who opened up a public zoo.  Both he and Pi’s mother consider themselves “new” Indians, concerned more with modern logic and reason and not traditional religion.  Pi does not think that way, however, and in his youth he eventually discovers (and adopts) Christianity and Islam in addition to his Hindu upbringing.  His father responds, disdainfully, that “a man who believes in everything believes in nothing.” 

    Eventually, for.....some reason or another, Pi’s father decides that the family must leave India and go to the United States, bringing the animals with them to sell for the money to start a new life.  However, disaster strikes en route, and the entire ship (along with all the passengers) sink into the deepest trench in the ocean.  Pi, along with a zebra, an orangutang, a hyena, and a tiger, is the lone survivor, left drifting along on a stocked lifeboat.  Within a short span of time, the tiger has killed and eaten the other animals, leaving Pi to figure out how to survive both abandonment at sea AND the danger of a hungry, Bengal tiger. 

    This is easily the strongest part of the film, and thankfully it takes up the bulk of the running time.  It’s also where the art direction and visual effects budget is on full display.  Instead of one monotonous shot after another of waves rising and falling, Pi blends the ocean and sky together, so that it’s often impossible to tell where the earth ends and the heavens begin- the boat seems to simply float along in a whole other world from our own.  At night, with untold numbers of stars dotting the sky, the boat is surrounded by fluorescent fish and algae, bathing everything in a blue-green glow.  Pi never lacks for something to look at, and I honestly found the film to be visually more immersive and creative than Avatar

    The survival-at-sea tale is fairly well-done as well.  Unlike in many other man-and-beast movies, the tiger is never personified, or made out to be human in temperament.  The tiger enters and leaves the film as a wild animal, able to accept Pi as a fellow creature of survival, but never ceasing to be a constant danger to Pi’s existence. 

    For all of its clear strengths though, Pi, like Cameron’s Avatar, is held back from being a truly great film by relatively superficial characters and an overall plot that, in the end, fails to achieve real emotional resonance.  Aside from Pi, none of the other characters have more than a few scenes at the beginning and end of the film, leaving little room to offer them real depth.  And that would be fine if Pi were a strong central character.  And yet, even he never really comes across as a flesh-and-blood person.  After comparing the scenes of him as a child, young adult, and middle-aged man, there is little discernible difference between the three.  He never seems to change, even after living on a boat with a tiger for months on end.  Halfway through the film, he states that hunger can make one question everything, but we never see him go through any sort of sustained spiritual crisis.  His beliefs at the end of his voyage are exactly the same as they were at the beginning.  On top of that, the fact that the film opens up with Pi as a grown man removes pretty much all sense of real tension or danger from the otherwise solid survival story, because, no matter what, we know he’s going to pull through. 

    In addition, Pi (again, like Avatar) also suffers from a pronounced lack of subtlety.  The art direction on display is clearly strong enough for the movie to be able to show and not tell.  Even here, though, where the film is at its best, it still feels the need to over-explain everything.  Case in point: in one scene, something happens that (without spoiling it) is a huge blow to Pi’s efforts to survive, and visually so.  However, as the scene plays out before the our eyes, Pi’s voice cuts through the immense silence, to let us know that, yes, that was, in fact, a VERY bad thing that just happened.  I didn’t find Pi’s constant monologueing to be as much of an irritant as others have (the montage of him reading a survival manual is, I think, one of the film’s better parts), but it occasionally borders on the unnecessary or superfluous. 

    There is a slew of interesting ideas and designs playing out in the film, but few of them are ever explored in depth.  Pi’s assertion that Hinduism, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism need not be mutually exclusive is a great concept (one that I happen to agree with), but after a passing statement that they can coexist, the idea was never again addressed or explored, much to my disappointment.  There is an addendum to the tale at one point (not saying when) that offers a possible alternative interpretation of the whole movie as an interesting allegory for human nature, but, again, it’s done so fast and so late that it never has the time or space to develop. 

    I realize this review may come across as a bit harsh, which is unfortunate, because I really did like and enjoy Life of Pi.  I disagree with Roger Ebert that it’s one of the year’s best, but it’s creative, beautiful, and inventive, and has plenty of interesting things to say, even if it doesn’t quite say them the way I personally would.  My quips with the story and narrative structure only started to surface after I’d left the theater and the spectacular visuals started to fade from my eyes.  If you are up for a different kind of film, one that, even if you don’t like it, will at least leave you with something to chew on, you can do a lot worse than Life of Pi

-Judge Richard
   

Monday, November 26, 2012

Review: Wreck-It-Ralph

Wreck-It-Ralph (2012):  Written by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee, directed by Rich Moore.  Starring: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, and Jack McBrayer.  Rated PG.  Running Time: 108 minutes.   

Rating:  3/4 stars




    It’s been a pretty decent year for animation thus far.  First we had Arrietty, the simple but solid latest entry from the wizards at Ghibli.  Next came Pixar’s latest project, Brave, somewhat schizophrenic, but beautifully made and full of interesting characters and ideas.  And although I was not able to see it while it was in theaters, I have heard nothing but good things about Paranorman, the newest film from the promising group that made Coraline.  Now, we have Wreck-It-Ralph, the video-game-centered nostalgia bomb from Walt Disney Studios. 

    Before my ignorance betrays itself, allow me to state for the record that I am not, and have never been, a gamer.  Having never owned a system of my own, my video game experience has been limited almost exclusively to Pokemon Red, Blue, Yellow, and Gold, Legen of Goku II, Civ III, Portal, and the occasional Brawl/Halo/COD team games at friends’ houses.  So, as you can tell, I do not fall within the primary demographics this film is clearly aimed at.  Thankfully, that turned out to not be an issue, as the film, though filled with gaming references, cameos, and side jokes, is well-made enough and the characters broad enough that this movie can be a joyride for just about anyone. 

    The movie begins by revealing that the individual characters of the various arcade games are all self-aware entities, for whom their game roles are basically day jobs (somewhat in the vain of Reboot, if anyone other than myself remembers that show).  They live within their respective game boxes and can travel to the other games and visit each other via the connecting cords and power strips.  This carries a danger though, since, while the characters can die and regenerate endlessly within their own games, if they die outside their game, that’s it, and the game will be unplugged, leaving the other characters completely job- and homeless in the central game hub (or so we are told by an animated Sonic the Hedgehog Poster).  

    The main character, Wreck-It-Ralph, at a wonderfully assorted gathering of old-school video-game villains at an AA-esque therapy and support group, explains that he’s grown tired of being treated as stupid and evil, not just during open hours, but also by his fellow characters after-hours.  After he awkwardly stumbles upon the rest of his game (including the irrepressibly noble “good-guy” character, Fix-It-Felix Jr.) celebrating the game’s 30th anniversary without him, he storms off determined to win a hero’s medal in another game so that the other characters will finally respect him.  After stumbling through the COD-style shooter Hero’s Duty, where he meets the hardline Sergeant Calhoun (voiced by Jane Lynch), he finds himself in Sugar Rush, a new, top-of-the-line racing game, where he befriends a small girl racer named Vanellope von Schweetz (played rather effectively by Sarah Silverman) and has to find his medal and get back home before his game is unplugged for good. 

    It’s a fairly basic story of friendship and self-confidence, built (for the most part) from the standard Disney formula, with just enough twists to keep it fresh.  John Reilly’s Ralph is sympathetic without being melodramatic or overly depressed, and I find it refreshing that the main character of a Disney film finally gets to do something other than be pulled into a finding-love-where-they-least-expect-it story arc (said arc being left to the side characters this time around).  Sarah Silverman as a little child, sounds, on paper, like the sort of odd-ball casting that would try too hard to be its own running gag, but she actually turns in a great performance, managing to balance between being an amusingly smart-aleck and a likeable character you genuinely want to see win her race.  The biggest accolades, however, go to Jane Lynch (surprise surprise), who can play the hardass fem-fatale like few others.  Here too, however, Lynch’s performance surpasses her character’s initial superficiality, giving Calhoun some real depth. 
   
    The fun characters aside (and they are all fun), the strength of the film is easily the video-game universe it invents for itself.  The characters from older games, even up close, move with old-fashioned herky-jerkiness, while the high res new characters are fully-formed and walk more naturally.  The film avoids drowning itself in its own nostalgia, including plenty of Easter eggs for the old-school gamers, but never to the point of obscuring its own humor from regular viewers (that said, I did get my fair share of the gaming humor- my favorite was a passing GLaDOS joke).  When the film is being serious, it’s really moving, and when it’s being funny, it’s friggin’ hilarious. 

    Sadly, it took me a lot longer to see Wreck-It-Ralph than I’d planned (thanks to Sandy), so showtimes for this film are already giving way to Twilight, Skyfall, and Lincoln, but it’s still pulling in a profit, so if you have the chance the next week or two and aren’t in the mood for Hitchcock, definitely go check this one out.  I had a blast, and I’m sure pretty much anyone else will too. 

-Judge Richard

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Review: Lincoln


  Lincoln (2012):  Written by Tony Kushner and directed by Steven Spielberg.  Starring: Daniel Day-Lewis, Sally Field, Tommy Lee Jones, David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Jackie Earle Haley.  Rated PG-13 for: an intense scene of war violence, some images of carnage, and brief strong language.  Running Time: 150 minutes.  Based on Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, by Doris Kearns Goodwin.

Rating:  4/4 stars

 Abraham Lincoln has always been a difficult person to approach in any medium, be it fiction or historical.  How do you take one of the most well-known and beloved figures in American history, the man who led the United States through its greatest catastrophe, brought slavery to an end in the process, and ultimately paid for it with his life, and make him relate-able?  How do you reconcile the man whose poetic speeches rank as some of the greatest oratory of all time with the gangly, withdrawn lawyer who could reel off one lewd joke after another with relish?  How do you take the legend, and turn him into a man? 

    Lincoln, to my great joy, adroitly manages all of the above.  Day-Lewis, looking and sounding nothing like Daniel Plainview (thank Heavens) turns out one of the best performances of his career to date, ensuring himself at least a fifth nomination for Best Actor, and possibly his third win.  Abraham Lincoln is an easy person to portray simplistically, as a moral crusader ahead of his time, and a genius always above the mere mortals around him.  Spielberg’s masterful direction and Day-Lewis’ incredible acting, however, take us past the romanticizations and show us a man struggling with depression, a troubled marriage, and the unimaginable duress of trying to save a country literally tearing itself apart. 

    Based largely on the excellent biography by Doris Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln focuses on the last months of the man’s life in 1865, specifically the push to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to officially abolish slavery.  After winning an election that also saw Republicans gain huge majorities in the House and Senate, Lincoln faces a difficult choice- should he push for passage of the Amendment now, despite Democratic opposition in the House, or wait until after the inauguration, when huge Republican majorities in both Houses will allow him to do virtually anything he could want?  Believing immediate passage of the Amendment to be both a moral right and, pragmatically, another blow to the already reeling Confederacy, Lincoln decides to push for a bipartisan vote on the Amendment within a month, risking the success of the Amendment, his own reputation and legacy, and potentially the outcome of the war itself on what easily amounts to one of the biggest political gambits of his life. 

    Since passage by the lame-duck Congress would require at least 20 of the recently defeated Democrats to break ranks and vote “yay,” Lincoln, working closely with Secretary of State William Seward (played by Edward R. Murr....I mean, David Strathairn) and Thaddeus Stevens, leader of the pro-equality Radical Republicans (Tommy Lee Jones), engages in an endless string of behind-the-scenes convincing, strong-arming, and downright deception and bribery that jars wonderfully with his traditional “Honest Abe” moniker and shows off his genuine brilliance as a politician.  Tommy Lee Jones’ Stevens, as angry and in-your-face as Lincoln is calm and reserved, carries every scene he’s in, leaving small doubt as to why he was often called “the Dictator of Congress.” 

    While debate in the House rages (literally) over the coming vote, the audience is given the occasional glimpse into the personal lives of Lincoln and Mary Todd, still suffering from the early death of their son William (by that time two of their four children were dead).  While Day-Lewis’ performance is the most engrossing of the film, Sally Field’s as Mary Todd is easily the most haunting.  Sobbing inconsolably in a darkened room one scene and smiling cheerfully to guests in the next, Field brings home more than any actor in the film the tragedy that dogged her and her husband throughout their married life, and the strain it put on both them as public figures who were, at a deep, personal level, intensely private people. 

    And that’s one of the things I appreciated the most about this film; it doesn’t attempt to wave away or hide the many flaws, prejudices, and trials of its protagonists.  The Civil War leaders were some of the most remarkable people this country (and indeed the world) has ever seen, but they were also just as much products of their own times.  It’s all too easy, looking back now, to project our own 21st-century sensibilities onto 19th-century men and women.  For most people today, it is far more self-evident that, yes, all races ARE equal, and, yes, we all deserve the right to vote, live, and marry as we please (and though plenty may still think otherwise, few would dare say so out loud). 

    Such was not the case during the Civil War, and to forget that these people were both admirable and imperfect is to do a disservice to their memories, and thankfully this movie embraces that wholeheartedly.  Lincoln, although a life-long opponent of slavery, had much murkier (and more prejudiced) views on race equality and amalgamation, and vocally supported the idea of sending freed slaves to colonies like Liberia in Africa.  This more complex aspect of his character is captured in what could be one of the most under-appreciated scenes of the entire film; when Mary’s black maid directly asks Lincoln about what he thinks “her people” should do after emancipation, he quietly (one might say cagily) ducks around giving a direct answer.  In another scene, on the floor of the House, the mere suggestion that emancipation could lead to voting rights for not just blacks, but even WOMEN as well (gasp!) nearly causes a riot. 

    What the film also takes pains to remind us, though, is that such differences between our respective eras in no way diminishes the significance of the Thirteenth Amendment’s passing or its relevance to today, nor blight the legacies and characters of those who made it happen.  Progress, it gently reminds us, can be slow, agonizing, and painful, and even those with the best of characters and intentions can be hard-pressed to bring it about.  The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment did not “cure” the ills of racial prejudice and inequality that plagued America at the time, just as the ascension of a black man to the Presidency a century and a half later has not “cured” our own prejudices and inequalities.

    Lincoln is an opus of a film, easily one of the finest of Spielberg’s already stellar career, and will probably be a heavy favorite for Best Picture come Oscar time.  What one might easily imagine as a huge, sweeping, romantic love letter to one of the greatest Presidents in history is actually a tight and surprisingly intense political drama about one of the cleverest politicians this country has ever seen.  And I cannot recommend it enough.  Even if, and maybe especially if, you’re sick of the very thought of politics and Congressional bickering (and understandably so).  Sometimes, it’s worth remembering that ours are hardly the hardest of times.

-Judge Richard

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas (2012):  Written and directed by Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, and Andy Wachowski.  Starring: Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Jim Sturgess, Hugh Grant, Doona Bae, Ben Whishaw, and Susan Sarandon.  Rated R for: violence, language, sexuality, nudity, and some drug use.  Running Time: 172 minutes.  Based on the novel by David Mitchell.

Rating:  4/4 stars

    After an entire weekend spent brooding, I’m still not sure what to say about Cloud Atlas.  It is a film that many movies try to be, and very few actually succeed in becoming, taking the viewer on a unique, interesting, and visually dazzling journey that reaches across genres.  Is it the best movie of 2012?  I’m not sure yet.  However, I feel certain that it will be remembered as one of the most significant films of the past few years.  It is certainly one of the most ambitious I’ve ever seen.  The closest comparison my scrambling mind can come up with is the broken-timeline structure of Pulp Fiction, but even that cult classic can’t hold a candle to Cloud Atlas in terms of its sheer audacity and determination to fly in the face of storytelling convention. 

    As you can easily pick up on from the trailers, Cloud Atlas tells not just one story, but several (six, to be precise), encompassing a roughly 500-year time span, from the mid-19th century to after the Apocalypse.  On top of that, rather than simply showing these various stories chronologically, the film cuts in and out of each at powerful, climactic, or poignant moments, challenging the audience at each turn to keep up with six different narratives simultaneously.  That each of the six stories would function as perfectly good short films in their own right is impressive enough, but the film goes one step further of attempting to make the ideas and events in each one overlap with and reflect upon the others, creating a tapestry out of themes like love, reincarnation, human companionship, and the superficiality of race, gender, and sexuality.  And, even more amazingly, it works.  The editing and direction are clever and tight enough to keep the whole enterprise from spinning out of control, or buckling under its own dense weight. 

    On top of offering the audience a bevy of fun stories to follow along with, the movie further reinforces the constant theme of reincarnation by using primarily the same core group of actors as the main characters in each storyline, with each actor switching between main roles and brief cameos, good guys and bad guys, and, on occasion, appearing as different races and even genders.  Hugh Grant, Tom Hanks, Jim Sturgess, Hugo Weaving, and Halle Berry alone can be found in all six segments, and Jim Broadbent and Ben Whishaw are seen in five.  Thankfully, there is not a single dull or lackluster performance to be heard, as every single member of the cast brings their all to each and every role they’re given. 

    The aforementioned changes between historical eras, races, and genders are accomplished by a truly jaw-dropping variety of what are easily the best makeup effects of the year.  What’s truly wonderful to watch is how the makeup is just enough to convey the switch from the character’s previous role, but is always subtle enough that you can usually tell which actor is playing which character.  I will not spoil a single one of the major makeup accomplishments here.  Trust me, this film is better seen when you don’t know what’s coming.  Even if none of the actors get nomination nods come Oscar season, I can’t begin to imagine another film taking Best Makeup (if another one does, then the Academy is in more dire straights than I thought). 

    The end result of all this is something expansive, challenging, and immensely rewarding to sit through.  I was not bored or distracted for a minute watching this film- there was always something to look at, always a past scene to compare with what I was seeing, always something in the shot or dialogue to make me think.  Cloud Atlas is that rare film that genuinely makes me feel like I’ve been on a long, fascinating journey.  From the opening shot of an aged Tom Hanks ruminating over a fire to his final monologue, I sat in my chair in the middle of the theater and felt myself fly across the ages, from a classic ship adventure to a political thriller to a Matrix-style futuristic revolution and beyond.  And it was one hell of a ride.  
   
    Cloud Atlas is a film that many people will disagree on.  Plenty of viewers are certain to be turned off by the constant jumps between timelines and the subsequent demands made on one's attention.  Critics seem divided as well, with many panning the film for being shallow or too dense to really signify anything.  While everyone is free to have their own opinion, I must say I could not disagree more.  Cloud Atlas never lacks for things to say, and if the overarching, final “message” (if, indeed, there is one to be found) is not immediately obvious, all the better I say. 

    As I said before, I have not yet decided if this is my new Best Film of the year.  I don’t think it’s an objectively “better” movie than The Master, or Moonrise Kingdom, or even Seven Psychopaths.  What I do think is that it is a perfect example of the wonderful potential of the cinema.  It is a film that shoots for the stars, that lives large and takes huge risks.  But while making its broad strokes, it never forgets to fill in the smaller details that make watching it an act of discovery, and not just simple entertainment.  In the space of just under three hours, I felt joy, sadness, longing, awe, wonder, hope, and dread.  I would feel my heart break during one scene, and by the end of the next I’d be howling with laughter.  And, as the final shot of a star-filled sky faded away into darkness, my eyes began to fill with tears. 

    I can’t ask more from a movie that than.

-Judge Richard 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Damnit, Sorkin

   I think it’s safe to say I’m pretty much over The Newsroom.  I mean, I knew it was never going to be a “good” show, strictly speaking.  The storylines were completely unoriginal, the characters were broad, paper-thin stereotypes who spoke and acted like aliens pretending to be humans, and Will McAvoy (despite the earnest efforts of Jeff Daniels) couldn’t respond to even the most simple of questions without churning out a hammy tirade about how “great” America used to be. 

    So no, I knew it would never be “good.”  But, honestly, I was willing to forgive all of that, for one, single reason- it was angry.  Angry at the flimsy circus our 24-hour news world has become.  Angry at the Tea Party.  Angry at Congressional gridlock.  Angry at all the utter junk that clogs up day to day life in this country.  It burned through the very fiber of Will McAvoy’s being.  And, since I share every bit of this anger, I was all on board.  The show could be as crappy as it wanted, so long as it provided catharsis. 

    Sadly, that has not happened.  Oh the rants are there, and they are great fun to watch (McAvoy’s deconstruction of the Tea Party as the “American Taliban” is my personal favorite).  The problem is that they are almost completely buried.  Buried in the bullshitty, who’s-sleeping-with-who drama that most of every episode has been devoted to.  Instead of being the focus of the show, the anger has been mere sprinkles on a greasy, tasteless donut. 
   
    Take the bit about the Tea Party, part of the very last episode of the first season.  All of the clips concerning the Tea Party, when combined, run for 6 strong minutes.  In the actual episode, however, those 6 minutes are spread out through the entire 45-minute plus episode, so far apart that when another segment comes up, you’ve forgotten what he talked about in the last one. 

    And what fills in the gaps between these tiny gems of political rage?  Relationship drama.  Some drug references.  And, astonishingly, a Sex In The City-themed subplot.  I wish I was making that up, but I’m sober.  And to top it all off, Sorkin pulls a Glee by refusing to close the cast-member couplings that are so obviously going to happen, just to leave enough filler-fuel for another season (or two, or three, or giiyaaaah...).  The characters that are clearly going to get together all say to each other some variant of the following;
“Yeah, we are clearly head-over-heels for each other!” 
“But we can’t be together now.” 
“Why?” 
“Hell if I know.” 

    I could go on listing my frustrations with this for some time, but the election isn’t over yet, so my blood pressure can’t take it.  Suffice it to say, I am disappointed.  It’s not even the fact that the filler in the show exists- all shows have filler of some kind (even Avatar).  What’s grating is how staggeringly unoriginal it is.  There is seriously nothing noteworthy about any of these characters outside of their astonishing self-righteousness.  And that just isn’t about to make a show worth watching. 

    So, in a nutshell.  I’m done.  I’m sure the show will remain popular for awhile, and may Sorkin get all the money he can out of the show.  I will no longer take part.  I will content myself with watching the good bits on Youtube (pretty much all of which can be found filler-free, thank God).  And while I have resigned myself to this, I still can’t help but feel that twinge of disappointment.  Goddamnit Sorkin.  You came so close. 

-Judge Richard

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Review: Seven Psychopaths

Seven Psychopaths (2012):  Written and directed by Martin McDonagh.  Starring:  Colin Farrell, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken, Woody Harrelson, and Abbie Cornish.  Rated R for: Strong violence, bloody images, pervasive language, sexuality/nudity and some drug use.  Running time: 110 minutes.

Rating: 3.5/4 stars



    This may be a consequence of my utter lack of knowledge concerning overall trends in film, but I’m honestly not sure if we’ve ever had two films quite like these come out in the same year, much less within 6 months of each other.  The first film I’m thinking of is Cabin In The Woods, still tied with Moonrise Kingdom as my favorite film of 2012 thus far.  The second, obviously, is Seven Psychopaths.  Before delving into an explanation of that particular train of thought, let’s talk about the Psychopaths first. 

    Seven Psychopaths is the third-ever film to be written and directed by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, and only the second to be feature-length (his first, Six Shooter, was an Oscar-winning short film).  The respective middle child in this trio, and his first feature length, is the 2008 masterpiece In Bruges, currently my second favorite movie of all time.  So, as you can imagine, I had considerably high expectations for his next project.  Did I expect it to be on the same level of cinematic artistry as In Bruges?  Of course I didn’t (and it’s not), but what I did expect was unique, off-beat characters, dark and violent moments offset by strangely comic ones without feeling imbalanced, and a fun, clever screenplay, and that’s pretty much exactly what I got, plus a bit more. 

    In this new voyage into Martin’s strange mind, we see the efforts of “Marty” (hehe), played by Colin Farrell, a struggling, alcoholic writer trying to overcome his latest round of writer’s block so he can finish his newest screenplay, called, funnily enough, “Seven Psychopaths”.  His best friend Billy, a dognapper by trade and played by Sam Rockwell, is energetically (and, yes, psychotically) determined to see his friend finish the manuscript.  To this end he pushes into motion a chain of events that eventually take himself, his fellow dognapper Hans (brought to us by the indefatigable Walken himself), and Marty from their everyday Los Angeles lives and into a journey of violent mobsters, stolen dogs, serial killers, serial killer killers, meta-movie references, and shootouts (both real and imagined).  The result is something strange, uncertain, and often confusing, but also unforgettable. 

    For all of the excellent actors McDonagh manages to squeeze into the movie (and they are all very, very good), the standout performance comes courtesy of Sam Rockwell as Best Friend Billy.  Not since Christian Bale in American Psycho have I seen such a compulsively watchable lunatic in a film.  Rockwell adroitly manages to fill the screen and chew scenery in a way that switches from the hilarious to the shocking without ever upstaging or stealing the show from the rest of the cast, a feat that is not to be underestimated.  Not only does he set much of the plot in motion on his own, but his compulsive and driving need to have everything turn out “his way” also dominates the conclusion, to the point that, by the end, you wouldn’t be surprised if McDonagh revealed he’d planned everything out himself from the word go. 

    It is a graphically violent and crude movie, make no mistake, so if copious blood and swearing is not your style, you should probably give this one a pass.  However, what I admire about McDonagh is his ability to bring shocking violence and depravity into this films without it being senseless.  He never shows blood or jots an F-bomb into the script just for the hell of it.  Every act of violence, every horridly crude joke, is geared towards his overall purpose in making the film.  In this case, that purpose is to offer a broad satire of both the standard shock-and-gore tactics typical of many modern action films, and our own insatiable desire for cinematic blood.  This brings me back to the beginning of this review and my reference to Joss Whedon’s Cabin In The Woods.  Like Cabin, Psychopaths is ultimately more than a simple parody of the standard tropes of its genre.  It pokes fun (both subtly and not so subtly) at them, but also tries to explore why they exist in the first place. 

    While this is the aspect of Seven Psychopaths that is probably the most thought-provoking, it is also, depending on your interpretation of its critique, the primary weakness with the film.  Cabin opted to attack the standard formulas in the horror genre by wading up to its eyeballs in them, drenching the Blazing Saddles-esque third act in so much gore than you couldn’t help but laugh at the ultimate emptiness of such tactics.  In Psychopaths, the characters go out of their way to avoid the cliches that their respective characters usually provide.  However, despite the clear effort to avoid these cliches, many of them are there anyway.  For example, Hans and Marty wonder aloud why so many female characters in action films are shallow and poorly-written, yet the 3 named women in the film have little more than a scene apiece.  And when Marty, Hans, and Billy start arguing about the idea of shootouts....well, you can probably imagine where that leads. 

    These seemingly obvious contradictions beg the following questions; is the fact that the film falls back on many of the very cliches it denigrates an unintended failing on the part of McDonagh’s writing or directing ability, a subconscious surrender to the pressure of what’s “expected?”  Does he include them hoping that, shown next to the dialogue criticizing such cliches, the viewers will simply find them humorously ironic?  Is he just lazy?  Or, perhaps, is he purposely including them to show that the demand for cliches is so overwhelming, so unyielding, that they are, to some extent, unavoidable or inevitable?  And if he is, does he see that as a good or bad thing?  The answer you come up with will depend on your own interpretation of the film. 

    Perhaps the scene that best defines Seven Psychopaths (as well as its spiritual kin Cabin) and its approach towards their respective genres occurs towards the very end of the film.  Anyone who has seen the trailer knows the part where Christopher Walken refuses to put up his hands when told to do so by one of Harrelson’s henchmen.  After trying to figure out why his demand (in and of itself a huge cliche) is not being obeyed, the henchman says in a quiet, confused, almost desperate voice;
“But....it doesn’t make any sense!”  
To which Christopher Walken, coolly and bluntly, replies;
“Too bad.” 

Amen to that. 

-Judge Richard

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Nostalgia Critic Follow-Up

This will not be a particularly long post, since I already waxed rhapsodic on the Nostalgia Critic last month.  However, I felt a follow-up was in order, since, in the process of making my Top 11 NC list, I was forced to cross off literally dozens of his videos that are just as good as those I eventually put on the list.  I honestly think that every one of his episodes, even the stranger, less funny ones, are worth taking the time to watch, because all of them are unique, and have Doug’s unique brand of humor in them. So this is basically just basically a follow-up list of what I consider to be some of the other top Nostalgia Critic episodes.  The full collection of his videos can be found at http://thatguywiththeglasses.com/videolinks/thatguywiththeglasses/nostalgia-critic.   

Enjoy. 

First of all, the milestones: 

Transformers The Movie: Review (the first episode)- April 06, 2008
Battlefield Earth (the 100th episode) - February 02, 2010
Ponyo (the 200th episode) - February 22, 2012
Scooby Doo (the last episode) - August 14, 2012


And then the others: 

1. Harry Potter Book 7 Launch- April 10, 2008
2. The Top 11 Naughtiest Moments in Animaniacs- May 11, 2008
3. Top 11 Catchiest Theme Songs- June 01, 2008
4. Top 11 Drug PSAs- June 22, 2008
5. Captain Planet- July 06, 2008
6. Surf Ninjas- September 18, 2008
7. Top 11 Nostalgic Animated Shows- September 29, 2008
8. Top 11 Underrated Nostalgic Classics- November 04, 2008
9. Top 12 Greatest Christmas Specials- December 22, 2008
10. Jingle All the Way- December 30, 2009
11. Ferngully- February 03, 2009
12. A Kid in King Arthur's Court- February 11, 2009
13. Titanic - Animated Musical- March 24, 2009
14. Red Sonja- May 05, 2009
15. Full House- May 26, 2009
16. North- June 03, 2009
17. Critic and Nerd: TMNT Making of Coming Out of Their Shells- June 10, 2009
18. Sidekicks- June 17, 2009
19. Gargoyles- June 24, 2009
20. LOTR Animated vs LOTR- July 22, 2009
21. Alone In The Dark- September 08, 2009
22. Star Wars Christmas- December 22, 2009
23. Commando- January 05, 2010
24. Quest for Camelot- March 02, 2010
25. The Care Bears Movie- May 11, 2010
26. Independence Day- July 06, 2010
27. Animaniacs Tribute- August 11, 2010
28. Rocky IV- August 31, 2010
29. Top 11 Scariest Performances- October 12, 2010
30. IT- October 19, 2010
31. Nostalgia Critic and Cinema Snob: Leprechaun- October 26, 2010
32. Secret of NIMH 2- January 18, 2011
33. Care Bears 2- January 25, 2011
34. Dungeons and Dragons- February 01, 2011
35. The Lost World - Jurassic Park- February 15, 2011
36. The Langoliers- March 15, 2011
37. The OTHER Animated Titanic Movie- May 17, 2011
38. Old vs New - True Grit- June 14, 2011
39. Milk Money- July 12, 2011
40. Top 11 Batman TAS Episodes- August 16, 2011
41. The Haunting- October 11, 2011
42. The Cell- November 09, 2011
43. The Grinch- December 16, 2011

-Judge Richard

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review: The Master

The Master (2012): Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.  Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Laura Dern.  Rated R for: Sexual content, graphic nudity, and language.  Running time: 137 minutes.

Rating:  3.5/4 stars

    Having spent the better part of a week going over The Master in my head, I am still hard-pressed to say exactly what I think about it.  I can definitely say that it was not what I expected it to be.  Although similarities with Anderson’s last film, There Will Be Blood, are there- a strange and off-beat acoustic soundtrack, rampant alcoholism, and a cast of strange, twisted, and yet relatable characters- The Master is very much its own film, with own story to tell and its own style in doing so.  Whereas There Will Be Blood offered wide, sweeping shots of the American West as a crucial backdrop to its story, The Master provides one close-up after another of the people’s faces, and trades Blood’s consistently bleak browns for shots ranging from vividly colorful to stark and shadow-filled. 

    At the heart of Anderson’s new tale is Freddie Quell, a struggling, alcoholic WWII veteran, whose every twitch, glare, and nervous tic is brilliantly brought to life by a shaved Joaquin Phoenix.  After an opening segment that depicts several spectacular failures on  Freddie’s part to adjust to civilian life (after being told how full of potential he is), he encounters, “a writer, a doctor, a nuclear physicist and a theoretical philosopher, but above all a man”, otherwise known as Lancaster Dodd, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. 

    Dodd is the leader of a social/religious/scientific movement called “The Cause,” based loosely (very loosely) on the real-life origins of Scientology.  Quell, who we learn has clear issues with commitment in his life, becomes devoutly, and sometimes violently, attached to (and protective of) Dodd, although what he thinks of The Causes’ various teachings themselves is never made very clear.  Dodd accepts Quell into the movement despite his constant trouble-making, arguing that he and his wife (the ever-engaging Amy Adams) can “cure” him of his troubles. 

    The Cause itself, however, is ultimately not the real focus of the film.  Its similarities to scientology do provide a limited frame of reference, but its hardly an expose or a broad parody of scientology in the same way that Book of Mormon was for Mormonism.  Some of Dodd’s teachings and ideas- that life is trillions of years old, and that “recalling” past lives can cure terminal illnesses, to name a few- are discussed intermittently, but the audience is never given a tangible, solid outline of the what the Cause really is, and whether it can be called a scientific movement or a religious one (both are implied).  Rather than picking out and critiquing a particular philosophy, religion, or way of thinking, Anderson instead uses both the Cause and the complex relationship between Dodd and Quell to take a broader look at the very idea of belief itself, wondering (but never directly asking) why so many people feel the need to “follow” something, be it scientific, religious, or something else entirely. 

    In so many ways, Dodd and Quell are perfect foils for each other.  Dodd is a loquacious, charming, and cultured Don Quixote, walking with his head held high in both  confidence and defiance, earnestly asserting that man is a cut above the rest of the animal kingdom.  Quell, on the other hand, is an animalistic, instinctive, and unhinged Pablo, embodying everything Dodd seems to fight against.  After joining the Cause, one of the first things he does is pass a note to a women he’s never met asking if she wants to fuck.  He stumbles on his words, grimacing angrily at almost everyone and everything around him.  His nonstop pacing, and the constance presence of his hands on his hips, bring to mind an impatient, hungry dog, hurt and anxious, but at the same time cowed and fearful. 

    Strange and inexplicable though it may be, it is ultimately Dodds and Quell’s brotherly relationship to each other that drives the film.  Anderson is the rare director who prefers to show rather than tell, who really uses the art of film in all its aspects, both visual and auditory, to tell a story.  The Master is a prime example of this.  Each character says just as much (and sometimes more) with their silences as they do with their words.  The result is a powerful and thought-provoking film that leaves you unsure of what, exactly, you just saw. 

    Sadly, this could easily result in many people simply dismissing the film as not having any real substance at all, that it’s all arthouse with no story.  While I can understand why someone might think that, I must respectfully disagree.  No, it is not a movie that tells you directly what it is about or what it is trying to say.  The true mastery of the film (pun intended) is that it manages to suggest so much about leadership, faith, and human nature without ever feeling the need to offer any definite answers.  Is Dodd a genuinely good person, or a deliberate manipulator of people’s emotions for his own gain?  Should we despise Quell for his violence and aggression, or pity him for the pain etched in every line of his face?  Is The Cause a sinister movement, or a beneficial one?  Can any movement be considered good or bad?  Rather than saying one or the other, The Master offers itself to its audience, and as the credits roll, asks, “What do you think?” 

    Although I am still not certain what I took away from The Master, few films this year have forced me to think so hard and so long.  It may not be in theaters for long, so if you have not seen it yet, do yourself a favor and get out as soon as possible.  There’s been no other movie like it thus far in 2012, and even if you don’t like or “get” it, you definitely won’t forget it.  What more could you ask for?

-Judge Richard

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The End of the Nostalgia Critic/Top 11 NC Episodes

   Sad to say it, but I kind of expected this day would come.  Last week, after the conclusion of To Boldly Flee, the online film celebrating the fourth anniversary of Channel Awesome and the That Guy With The Glasses website, Doug Walker announced that he and his brother, Rob, had decided to retire the character of Nostalgia Critic, the persona that has largely defined the burgeoning career of not only himself, but of all the other reviewers and entertainers for whom his website has become a base of operations. 

    Not that either the website or Channel Awesome as a whole are done, far from it.  While Nostalgia Critic would no longer be a weekly show, he said, he could bring him back for the occasional special, and his other personas (Ask That Guy, Chester A. Bum, and Video Game Confessions, among others) would continue as well.  In addition, he is already planning a new web series called “Demo Reels.”  Nostalgia Critic may be gone, but the career of Doug Walker, in all likelihood, is far from over. 

    However, this is still a pretty big moment.  It was the Nostalgia Critic persona that fueled his career in the first place, and the constant back-and-forth between him and Youtube over the NC videos that helped launch the TGWTG website back in 2008.  It remains to this day the biggest draw on the site, bringing in (according to Wikipedia)  over 100,000 views a week.  Many people know him only as the Nostalgia Critic.  Given all that, it is somewhat surprising that he would choose to end something that is still so enduringly popular. 

    Personally, I think the signs have been there for some time that he would eventually call it quits.  The first warning sign was the end of his review of “My Pet Monster,” where he has a mock phone call with the director of the film and is “ridiculed” for being an adult who watches children’s movies, after which he sadly stares out the window and a caption announces, “The End?”  The next was when I first saw the trailer for To Boldly Flee, and his somber voice-over describing how everything had been building “to this moment.”  So while I am very much saddened (and, yes, nostalgic) about the news that the character is pretty much retired, I can’t say I’m shocked. 

    I do find it rather poignant that he would retire the character shortly after my graduation though, since it was just a few months before I started college as a freshman that he launched the site, and I’ve been following him weekly for well over 4 years since then.  Now I understand how my senior friends from my freshmen year felt when “Scrubs” ended right as they graduated.  Like an old friend has gone away, a moment in time is gone.  And it’s not just because his shows were a fun, regular way to put off studying.  The Nostalgia Critic videos are one of the biggest influences on my own sense of humor, along with Zero Punctuation, Monty Python, and Mystery Science Theater.  They have also greatly altered how I view the internet and the possibilities it offers for movies, shows, and comedic creativity.

    There is something remarkably unique about the work of the TGWTG team.  For all the audiences that the site caters to, and the huge number of regular viewers they receive (over 1 million a month), it’s hardly a cash cow.  These people are paid by the ads they post on the site, but they are hardly raking in mounds of profits from their work.  And many of them, outside of the people who watch their videos, are hardly known, since some of them review VERY specific genres and subgenres of film, comics, and video games.  So they aren’t exactly obtaining celebrity status by doing this either.  They each put in hours and hours of effort to film, cut, edit, dub, and format all of these videos (and the amount currently on the site is staggering), often using little more than commercially available laptop programs and perhaps one decent camera and microphone set.  Their work is truly homemade. 

    And it’s that level of personal touch and devotion that, in my opinion, makes the site so special, and why their work has such an enduring effect on both myself and others.  Even though many of them use carefully crafted and maintained personas and characters for their videos, through every video and every series shines a strong and very evident passion for their subjects.  They do what they do not because it brings them profit or celebrity status, but because they just enjoy spending their time doing it.  Because of this, after watching so many of the videos of so many of the people on the site, you almost come to feel that you know these people personally, that you’ve really met them and talked about your shared interests with them.  I can’t help but think of Doug, Todd, Lindsay, Lupa, Linkara, and the others with a certain warmth and affection.  Not as friends, of course, but as comfortable, familiar acquaintances.  We live in a society where most television shows, news programs, and movies are increasingly impersonal and mechanical in how they’re made, formulated not out of a desire to create art and express passion, but simply to make money.  As a result, having a niche site like TGWTG where artists can bring their work and others can come to enjoy it just for what it is is special indeed. 

    Through the popularity of the Nostalgia Critic character, Doug Walker has created something genuine.  His work, and the world that he and the members of the site have worked to build over the past 4 years, inspires both myself and others to always remember that, no matter what, there are always ways to enjoy and express your passions in life.  And for that, I proffer my hat to you, Nostalgia Critic, and thank you for all the laughs you have brought us over the years. 

    I am currently contemplating doing some retrospectives of my own on the Nostalgia Critic (Doug will be doing his videos over the coming months), including formal reviews of the three full-length anniversary films Channel Awesome has done thus far.  Currently I am in the process of putting together a list of the “classic” Nostalgia critic episodes, consisting of my 30-40 personal favorites of the 284 “official” episodes listed on the Nostalgia Critic page.  For length’s sake, however, I will save that for a follow-up post. 

    So to conclude this preliminary article, I offer to my readers my own Top 11 Nostalgia Critic Episodes list (possibly to be followed by a Youtube counterpart).  Why Top 11?  Because he went one step beyond, and so should we.  Thanks Doug. 

The Top 11 Nostalgia Critic Episodes: 

11. Pokemon: The Movie- April 20, 2008
10. Top 11 Most Awkward Christopher Walken Moments- March 30, 2010
9. We're Back!- August 12, 2009
8. Top 11 Villain Songs- February 23, 2010
7. Good Son- February 13, 2009
6. Casper- October 20, 2009
5. Top 11 Nostalgic Mindfucks- February 24, 2009
4. Siskel and Ebert- November 10, 2009
3. Batman and Robin- May 23, 2008
2. The Room- July 13, 2010
1. Nostalgia Critic MUSICAL REVIEW: Moulin Rouge- November 29, 2011

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nolan and the Batman Franchise: What Now?

   Well, Rises has come and gone.  And just like that, Nolan’s Batman trilogy, 8 years in the making, has come to a close.  And a pretty definitive one at that.  Despite the (SPOILERS) open-ended nature of that final shot of Joseph Gordon-Levitt rising up in the cave, Chris Nolan has stated he will never again direct a Batman film, meaning that his stamp on the franchise is officially over. 

    And what a stamp it is.  Whether you love them, hate them, or just don’t give a damn, it’s impossible to deny the influence this trilogy has had on both the Batman universe and the entire genre of superhero movies.  All three were massive box-office successes, and The Dark Knight is still considered by many to be one of the most definitive superhero movies ever made.  So now that it’s done, what are we left with?  What legacy (or legacies) does Chris Nolan leave the Batman universe? 

    Origin Story:  One of the first things Nolan did with the trilogy was to provide a solid, detailed, and *relatively* reasonable origin story for the caped crusader, something that no previous Batman movie had attempted (I speak of movie origin stories here, not ones in the comics, if there are any).  It’s interesting, it’s engaging, it’s fun to watch him slowly get the hang of skulking around Gotham at night, and, perhaps most importantly, it really gets us interested in Bruce Wayne.  A constant problem with Batman is that his villains are often so much more fun than he is.  And while Heath Ledger definitely steals most of the show in The Dark Knight, by giving us a strong background for Batman in the first film, he helps give viewers an understanding of (and sympathy with) Bruce Wayne as a person, which, in my opinion, carries strongly through the other two films. 

    (More) Gritty Realism:  This particular trend in the Batman universe had been going on for several decades prior to the Nolan franchise (Burton’s films were particularly influential in this regard), but Dark Knight and Rises both raised the bar for gritty realism even higher with their dark tones, tragic story themes, and brutal (if noticeably bloodless) violence.  Both films (especially Dark Knight) are filled with heavy references and allusions to our own post-9/11 society, making Gotham and its struggles with super-villains-turned-terrorists hit just a tad closer to home.  Any effort to launch a new Batman franchise (and there will be another, sadly) will almost certainly be judged on how well it matches the tone set by this franchise. 

    The Joker:  I’m having a hard time trying to think of a movie franchise as deeply influenced by the death of a main actor as this one.  Not only was Heath Ledger’s performance genuinely ground-breaking for the character of the Joker (and well worth the Oscar nod), but his sudden and tragic death prior to the release of the film elevated it to an almost sacred level in the minds of the public (even though it technically wasn’t his LAST film appearance).  Unfortunately, it also partially crippled Rises from the get-go, because no matter how well Nolan wrote the character (and no matter how good a replacement he found), there was no way he could include even a mention of the Joker without pissing off legions of audience members, convinced he was trivializing the “last act” of a great actor. 

    There is no shortage of opinion that this hurt Rises considerably.  The briefest of mentions are made to the crimes of Harvey at the tale-end of the last movie (and some passing references to the “Dent Law” that followed), but aside from that, all of Dark Knight may as well have fallen into a Dark Hole in the nether regions of space.  Despite this obvious, but painfully necessary, omission, I still really, really liked the movie, but even I can’t help but imagine how much more Nolan could have done with both Bane and the overall plot if he could have thrown the Joker into the mix as well. 

    And as deep as Heath Ledger’s influence on Nolan’s trilogy has been, I am convinced that his shadow is going to loom large over the entire Batman universe for some time.  If there is another serious attempt at a Batman film series, it is inevitable that they will bring in another interpretation of the Joker.  How can they not, after all, when he is consistently Batman’s #1 arch nemesis?  I am convinced that, when that does happen, the inevitable cries of “How could they?” and “It’ll never be as good!” will surface, and the newer franchise will suffer as a result. 

      Bane:  Chris Nolan has always been about re-imagining concepts from the Batman comics in his own way, and out of all the characters he plucks from the coffee-stained pages of the printed universe, Bane definitely undergoes one of the biggest makeovers.  Although I have never read the comics (or watched the Animated Series), Bane was never (to my knowledge) considered a significant or important villain.  Here, however, he is given a powerful and threatening intellect to rival Bruce Wayne’s, an AWESOME accent (yes, I love his voice, and I am not ashamed to say it), and a connection to the League of Shadows.  What sort of effect this will have on the Batman universe as a whole probably won’t be felt right away, but I would not at all be surprised if a comic, graphic novel, TV series, or even a future movie franchise uses Nolan’s invention as a template for its own Bane someday. 

    Catwoman:  Another character to change pretty substantially from the Burton film version, Catwoman is never even named in Rises, just passingly referred to as the “Cat Burglar.”  Additionally, Nolan removed the bizarre sexuality of Burton’s Catwoman, making Selina more of a low-class version of Batman, albeit with *slightly* more questionable motives.  Yet another reinvention that could be the genesis for future takes on the character. 

    All-Star Performances from A Bevy of Great Actors/Actresses:
  Christian Bale.  Morgan Freeman.  Cilian Murphy.  Liam Neeson.  Michael Caine.  Tom Wilkinson.  Gary Oldman.  Aaron Eckhart.  Heath Ledger.  Maggie Gyllenhaal.  Anne Hathaway.  Tom Hardy.  Joseph Gordon-Leavitt.  Marion Cotillard. 

Need I say more? 

    Technical Perfection (IMAX style):  Thoughts and opinions on the individual films of the franchise aside, Nolan does succeed resoundingly in making Gotham bigger with each progressive movie.  This shouldn’t really be a surprise.  Nolan has always had a talent for making films that look amazing.  While earlier Batman films were hindered by lower budgets and lower technical capabilities, Nolan puts his love of IMAX-style film technology and big, moving cinematography on full display.  Using both high-powered cameras, old-style prop and set pieces for effects, and a combination of shots from several major US cities, Nolan managed to give us a Gotham that genuinely sprawled, setting yet another high bar for any director that tries a reboot. 

    Are these all of the ways in which Chris Nolan has altered or influence the world of Batman movies?  Probably not.  They’re just the ones that happened to pop into my head as I was writing this.  It’s always difficult to pinpoint exactly how a movie can influence culture, even years or decades after its release.  It’s especially hard for a franchise as defining and pervasive as this one.  For 8 years now, Chris Nolan’s Batman has been a pretty dominant presence in our culture, and will likely remain so for a long time.  They could even someday ascend to the level of the original Superman films in the public conscience, if a later reboot doesn’t manage to overshadow them.    

    None of these movies are perfect, of course.  I have discussed their varied flaws at length more times than I care to count, and I anticipate many more future nit-pickings.    That’s all part of the fun though.  They’re big, they are immensely entertaining to watch, and they take Batman in a lot of new and different directions.  It saddens me to think that a reboot is already being planned, but given how comic book heroes are part of our social conscience now (and, yes, how well they pay), I guess it’s inevitable.  No matter how good any later films are, though, this trilogy will always be “The” Batman movies in my mind.  After all, I didn’t become a Batman “fan” until I saw Begins, and, much like with Doctor Who, you never forget your first Batman.

-Judge Richard

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

A Kingdom's Tale: Historical Accuracy in Film

   As a longtime student of history, I have always felt a keen interest in how different films use and portray historical figures and events.  Movies set in particular time periods tend to follow two mains trends- those that deliberately try to accurately recreate particular events (Hotel Rwanda, Amistad, Gettysburg) and those that merely use those events/figures as a frame for telling a more universal, timeless tale (Amadeus, The Social Network, etc.). 

    These trends are subject to a rather unfortunate double standard.  Most filmmakers using history as a template are focused (as well they should be) on simply making a great film, and make whatever changes they deem necessary to tell the particular story they want to tell, without bothering to notate every one for the audience’s sake.  Unfortunately, many a film that doesn’t claim to be an accurate retelling of history is often slammed for those selfsame inaccuracies, by both critics and regular viewers.  On the flip side, it is unheard of for a film to be criticized for sticking too close to actual events.  A prime example of this is Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven. 

    Released in 2005, Kingdom of Heaven takes place in Outremer (the Christian Crusading states) in the late 12th century, depicting the growing conflict between Saladin (a Muslim general who had recently unified Egypt and Syria) and the restless knights and nobles of Baldwin IV, the Leper King of Jerusalem.  The film depicts the decisions leading to the real-life Battle of Hattin, which utterly destroyed the armies of Jerusalem, leading to Saladin’s recapture of Jerusalem after a century of Christian rule. 

    The central figure in all this is Legolas.  I mean Will Turner.  I mean Balian of Ibelin, a recently widowed French blacksmith who is convinced by a man named Godfrey (played by Oskar Schindler) to come with him to the Holy Land.  Driven by doubts about his own faith, he joins Godfrey and begins to be trained as a knight.  As they travel (and after Godfrey is wounded in a fight) Balian learns that he is Godfrey’s son, and heir to a parcel of land near Jerusalem called Ibelin (he is later knighted before Gofrey dies from his wounds).  

    After his arrival, we see Balian attempt to navigate the twisted realms of Outremer politics and intrigue.  An uneasy peace between Saladin and Baldwin IV (portrayed by, of all people, Ed Norton) is threatened by the militant Templars, led by Raynald de Chatillon and Guy de Lusignan.  As the noble and moral figures of Balian, Baldwin, and their allies attempt to hold back the blatantly evil Raynald and Guy, they constantly discuss and debate the true meaning of faith, and how it can drive both the Christians and Muslims to acts both magnanimous and horrifying. 

    It is ambitious film, if nothing else, seeking to combine elements of action, old-school, Lawrence of Arabia-style historical drama, and heady religious discourse.  It has a powerhouse of a supporting cast (including Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Ed Norton, and David Thewlis), and tries to offer a genuine, sober look at the connections between extreme religion and conflict, and at how the driving forces of the Crusades, in many ways, live on in the Holy Land to this day.  In my opinion, it succeeds with flying colors, offering a potent tale of faith, radicalism, and redemption. 

    However, there seem to be many who disagree with me.  The theatrical release of the film has only a 39% percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 63 overall rating on Metacritic.  Part of this is undoubtedly due to the fact that Scott was forced to cut almost an hour of his original version for theaters, removing a considerable amount of depth from the characters.  His Director’s Cut, released later that same year, was the 194-minute version of the film he originally presented to the studio (20th Century Fox, if anyone’s wondering), and has gotten a far better reception from critics. 
   
    In addition to lukewarm reviews of the theatrical release, much criticism was directed at a perceived lack of historical accuracy in the film.  Depictions of Baldwin IV, Syblla, Guy, Raynald, and others are heavily fictionalized.  Orlando Bloom’s tortured, simple-blacksmith-turned-perfect-knight Balian is a far, far cry from the real Balian, who was much more politically involved in the succession conflicts following Baldwin IV’s death.  Historian Jonathan Riley-Smith specifically attacked an apparent bias against Christianity; the patriarch of Jerusalem is cold, cowardly, and unfeeling, and Guy, Raynald, and the Templars are almost cartoonish in their lust for Muslim blood (the shouted phrase “GOD WILLS IT” is their repeated chorus for most of the film).  Riley-Smith even went so far as to call the film, “Osama Bin Laden’s version of the Crusades.”

    As a historian myself, such sentiments trouble me.  Yes, the film is loaded with inaccuracies; most of the characters and events are highly dramatized, and the dynastic and political conflicts are made much more simple than they really were.  But, as I’ve said before, that’s sort of the point.  It’s a movie.  The point of a movie, first and foremost, is to tell a great story.  And to do that, a filmmaker seeking to use real events as a framework will have to dramatize certain things, simplify others, and leave some parts out entirely. 

    The funny thing is, in a way, historians must do the same thing.  History is nothing more or less than the story of everything there is- the ultimate novel ever written, the greatest film ever made.  As a result, historians are bound by the same constraints as filmmakers seeking to explore a certain event or historical figure; since we can never know everything about them- every motivation, every thought, every word spoken- the historian must conjecture, deduce, and sometimes flat-out guess in their efforts to understand why things happened the way they did.  We seek to be “objective.”  We try to reconstruct cause, motivation, and effect as accurately as possible, using every bit of information available to us, but in the end, our efforts are still just that- a reconstruction.  A replica.  A remake. 

    I suppose what I’m getting at is that there is little constructive benefit to damning a historical movie for inaccuracies that are as inevitable as those in “legitimate” history.  And if so many people are so misinformed about the past that a film can mislead them, then we historians aren’t doing our jobs properly.

-Judge Richard