Friday, April 29, 2011

Topsy Turvy

My last review was about the 1939 film version of The Mikado. Continuing on my Gilbert and Sullivan kick, I next watched Mike Leigh's Topsy Turvy, a biopic of sorts, focusing mainly on W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan's production of The Mikado. At the same time, it's a statement about being creative, being inspired, and all the work that goes into putting on a show.

It was pretty neat to get a little insight on the men themselves after watching their work. Jim Broadbent plays Gilbert and this guy named Allan Corduner plays Sullivan. The movie begins well into their long career together. Their relationship is strained. Sullivan can't write music for Gilbert anymore because he feels Gilbert is just doing the same thing again and again. Gilbert knows this is true, but doesn't want to admit it.

I found it interesting that they weren't close friends. They were just a very profitable creative collaboration. One of those cases where two clashing personalities somehow fit together perfectly in the creative sense. They hardly even interact through the whole movie, but you see the brilliant results that their partnership formed.

Gilbert, against his will, is dragged by his wife to a special Japan exhibition in London. There he finds inspiration for The Mikado, an exotic new Operetta set in Japan, which ultimately will become their greatest work.

The rest of the movie shows what goes into the production, from bickering with and placating the actors, wardrobe tests, choreography. There is a great scene where Gilbert brings in real Japanese women to try to teach the white women how to walk Japanese. Andy Serkis has a hilarious pre-Gollum bit part as the choreographer. These scenes are all intercut with footage of the play being performed, so you get to see the results of this work. It's a lot of fun!

I actually liked Topsy Turvy and the scenes from The Mikado depicted therein much more than I liked the film of The Mikado itself. The characters were fascinating and funny, the musical numbers are well performed. This is my first time watching a Mike Leigh film, and now I would like to see more; although I hear this one is absolutely nothing like anything else in his filmography. I would actually like to watch this film again too, but then I'd never get those songs out of my head. A

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Mikado

I hate reviewing movies released by the Criterion Collection, especially after I've watched all the special features. Besides the fact that I don't feel eloquent enough to discuss the film, I feel like I'm cheating, by parroting what I just learned. To avoid that, I'm going to keep this one short.

The Mikado came out in 1939, and is the only cinematic adaptation of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. It was co-produced by the very theatrical company that had been performing the pieces since the Victorian era.

Personally, I love Gilbert and Sullivan. I'm not a musical theatre guy, and I've never seen one of their plays live, but I would love to. Sullivan's melodies were and still are some of the catchiest and bounciest ever written, and Gilbert's lyrics are full of wit, satire, and wordplay.

The Mikado is probably their most famous operetta, featuring the well known song, "Three Little Maids from School". It's set in Japan, or rather, some weird British perspective of Japan that isn't really aiming for accuracy so much as caricature and exoticism. Characters have ridiculous names like "Yum Yum" and "Nanki Poo"and everybody is white. As funny and goofy as the tone is, it playfully explores dark themes such as suicide and execution, dictatorships and bureaucracy.

The film itself is good, but not great. It starts slow because they reduced the entire back story to a few title cards at the beginning and one opening scene. The hero, Nanki Poo, is played by Kenny Baker (unfortunately not the same one who played R2-D2), an American actor who sings in one of those awful 1940's radio crooner voices. I imagine the singing is better on stage for this character.

The rest of the actors, several of whom were veterans of the G&S theatrical company, are pretty great. The songs are fun and the story is witty, sharp, and satirical. The film was shot in Technicolor, which means it's pretty lush and vibrant. The set designs and costume designs are great. Lots of pink in this fantasy Japan.

The cinematography is practically non-existent. The director, Victor Schertzinger, rarely even goes in for close-ups. It has a very stage-y feel, like a larger, splashier version of the show as it was in the late 30's. As much as I want to see the real Mikado on stage, I'd also like to see a more cinematic version on screen, though I'm not even sure it would work.

Overall, I'm glad I saw The Mikado. It exposed me to a lot of great songs, and made me want to go to the theater more. I just wish they hadn't truncated it so much at the beginning, and I wish they had made it more cinematic. B

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Invaders from Mars

Possibly the most misleading tagline I've ever seen is the above, "A Nightmarish Answer to The Wizard of Oz!" Invaders from Mars has nothing whatsoever to do with The Wizard of Oz. Not a single similarity. And it came out 15 years later, too, so it wasn't even striking while the iron was hot. This is like if a marketing campaign for Thor boldly declared it, "A Thrilling Tribute to My Best Friend's Wedding!"

William Cameron Menzies' Invaders from Mars was a movie for little boys made in a time where science fiction was believed to only be interesting to little boys. I assume little boys in the 50's had very low standards because they had never seen Star Wars, and this was all they could get. There's a little bit of body snatchers Cold War paranoia thrown into the mix as well.

The story follows a little 50's kid, not unlike every other 50's kid, with his "gee whiz!" and his "neato!", who sees a UFO landing by a fence outside the house. He tells his parents. His father goes out to check on it to placate him, and he disappears. After a short panic, and calling the police, the dad turns up, but his behavior is slightly off.

By slightly off, I mean he's mean and cranky, and he just totally swats the kid in the face and knocks him down. The weird thing about this part is from the context, it doesn't feel like the audience was supposed to react with "OH MY GOD, THE DAD JUST SMACKED HIS KID", they're supposed to think, "Strange, the dad just smacked his kid, and he barely even had a good reason."

So, the kid knows something is up with his parents, and the police are acting weird too, so he needs to find someone who believes him. This leads to an astronomer, a pretty lady, and an army guy. They're the kid's allies, but they all talk to him very condescendingly, the way that would have made me angry when I was that age. There's a part where the kid tells an army guy to "please hurry", and the army guy, saying nothing, reaches over and pats the kid on the head, then drives away. Together, these people must stop an alien invasion and save his mom and dad. By which, I mean, describe what other people are doing while they stand around doing nothing.

And that's the thing. The movie was made for next to no money, obviously, and as a result, we don't see anything happen. Or we see stock footage. There's even a car chase that never shows two cars on camera at the same time, because getting two cars would have cost too much. The spaceship is conveniently hidden underground and accessed through a sandtrap.

The first three quarters of the movie is like this. Long, static shots of characters standing still and talking about things that are only interesting if we see them. Finally in the last 15 minutes or so, there's some action. We see some aliens. They're basically two guys in loose-fitting, green jumpsuits that even cover their faces and actually look rather cozy. And a betentacled head in a jar that looks a lot like Tony Harrison from The Mighty Boosh.

I have no idea how this could have held a kid's attention. But the filmmakers had an idea: TANKS. TANKS TANKS TANKS. They cram in as much stock footage of army men transporting tanks as humanly possible. "Daddy, they've been talking for 20 minutes, when is something going to happen --TANKS!"

I don't know if I'm being hard on it. I probably am. It's considered a B-Movie classic of sorts. I guess it's because of the Cold War paranoia. The thing is, it's just the standard American reaction of "These aliens are invading, so we better shoot the shit out of them and then blow them away to the land of explodia!" (my words, not theirs)

Other, better Cold War-era sci-fi movies from around this time have a much more urgent message. The Day the Earth Stood Still has the whole "we have to make peace or we will all be destroyed" ultimatum. Gojira had the utter terror that comes with a nuclear explosion, and the hero who is willing to sacrifice himself to make sure his destructive weapon doesn't fall into military hands.

I didn't really enjoy this movie, even on a campy level. It has a couple moments here and there, I guess. It wins a point or two for historical context. There are much more enjoyable movies from this period, both for their goodness and their badness. This one didn't work for me. D

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Turbulence 3: Heavy Metal

Hey, did you hear? Slade Craven is going to do a concert ON A 747! And it's going to be broadcast live on the INTERNET! OMG, you don't know who Slade Craven is? He's a lot like Marilyn Manson, but 5 years too late and shittier. By which I mean AWESOME. You hear that Slade Craven is a devil worshiper? Come on, man, that's all for show. It's theatrics!

I hope nothing goes wrong. It would be a shame if Slade Craven had an exact duplicate who happened to be a terrorist and a REAL Satan worshiper. And even more of a shame if this guy swapped places with Slade Craven to get on the plane in order to commit the world's biggest unholy sacrifice. IN FRONT OF MILLIONS OF PEOPLE ONLINE.

Oh, well, if it does happen, I'm sure we can rely on the REAL Slade Craven to save the day, right? With the remote help of a renegade hacker and a plucky federal agent, of course.

Man, this concert is going to ROCK.

This gem is immune to my grading system. Good night, everybody!

Friday, April 15, 2011

Source Code

Take one part The Matrix, one part Groundhog's Day and one part Quantum Leap and you have Source Code. I don't mean to say that it's unoriginal. Almost all sci-fi draws heavily from its predecessors. What counts is how the material is repurposed, and director Duncan Jones does a very good job of that.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a soldier who wakes up in another man's body, on a Metra train heading into Chicago. Eight confusing minutes later, the train explodes and he wakes up in a tank of some kind. He is told that he is in the Source Code project, a not-quite-time-travel means of time travel through quantum physics gibberish (just go with it, it has its own internal logic when you watch it). They need to keep sending him back to the same moment of a terrorist attack earlier that day. He needs to find the bomb and the bomber before an attack on a much larger scale occurs, and he can only do it in these eight minute chunks before the train blows up again and he gets thrown back into his tank.

He's told that he can't alter the course of events, because he's not really in the past (quantum physics gibberish), but see, he begins to like the girl across from him (Michelle Monaghan), so he decides he has to try.

What follows is a lot of fun. There are several twists and turns that I won't reveal, but Duncan Jones wisely doesn't pound you in the face with them. They come about in the script naturally, and each new piece of information makes the story a little more intriguing. It has a bit of a message, but it doesn't take itself too seriously.

Jake Gyllenhaal is enjoyable to watch in movies. He's sort of positioned himself to be in Dicaprio-esque dramas, but he clearly has much more of a sense of humor than Dicaprio, who seems to have none at all. Michelle Monaghan is good, too. She's easy to like, maybe because she was in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, and she still carries some of that movie's residual awesomeness with her.

Vera Farmiga plays the officer he's communicating with outside of the Source Code. Her main job is to believe in him. And rounding out the cast is Jeffrey Wright, as the inventor of Source Code technology. He is always welcome in the movies I watch. He always makes odd choices in his performances, gives his characters interesting quirks, and makes them well-rounded and totally watchable.

There are some inconsistencies with the story if you think about it too hard. It's a hazard of time travel movies, and pretty much unavoidable. They have been thoughtfully couched in quantum physics gibberish. It's like on the Simpsons, when nerds were asking Lucy Lawless about continuity flaws in Xena: Warrior Princess, her answer was, "if it doesn't make sense, a wizard did it." Quantum Physics is the A Wizard Did It of science fiction.

Source Code is Duncan Jones' second film, after his acclaimed debut, Moon, and they share some thematic similarities to each other. He appears to be building himself up to be the next great cinematic science fiction storyteller. While I don't think I liked Source Code as much as Moon, it's still a strong second entry, and enough to make me eager for a third. B

Monday, April 11, 2011

Black Dynamite

Spoofs are maybe the hardest subgenre of comedy to pull off. The Zucker brothers perfected it throughout the 80's with Airplane!, Top Secret!, Police Squad, and The Naked Gun. But at some point after that, the genre degraded into The Scary Movie series and even worse. They became a mindless string of fart jokes and obvious references to the previous year's blockbusters (usually with farts added). Then along came 2009's Black Dynamite, by Scott Sanders, a pitch perfect spoof of the Blaxploitation flicks from the early 70's.

Black Dynamite follows the mold set by the Zuckers with Airplane by having the actors play the movie completely seriously and letting the gags arise around them. In addition to that, it lovingly inhabits the genre that it's mocking, by including cheap production values, intentionally bad edits, and a hilariously on-the-nose soundtrack. In that way, it reminds me of the British TV show, Garth Marenghi's Darkplace, in my opinion the best and funniest intentional replication of bad filmmaking ever made, something that is much, MUCH more difficult to believably achieve than it sounds.

Michael Jai White (formerly of the terrible Spawn movie from the 90's) co-wrote and stars as the titular hero, a kung-fu ladies' man with a license to kill. When his brother is killed over drugs, he makes it his goal to track down the people bringing the drugs into the city. In the process he uncovers a deeper conspiracy that goes all the way to the top.

White is hilarious in the role. He really is impressive. He gets that for a movie like this to work, you have to play it straight. Never let the audience know you're joking.

I once heard an interview with "Weird Al" Yankovic, discussing his cameo in the original The Naked Gun. While on set, he believes that he actually witnessed the point when Leslie Nielson, so great in Airplane! and Police Squad, realized that he was being funny. He started playing the role differently after that, which was evident in the Naked Gun sequels and the million other spoofs Nielson became identified with throughout the years.

Anyway, this movie doesn't do that. I hear there's a sequel on the way, and I hope these guys understand why this one works so well.

I'm going to wrap this up now because I don't want to spoil any of the surprises Black Dynamite has in store. The jokes fly by at a rapid clip, making it one of the rare comedies that really does benefit from repeat viewing. This is a movie I plan on owning. A

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Four Lions

So much of the best satire comes out of England. There's a fearlessness over there that's pretty much unheard of over here. Chris Morris is very much a driving force behind this. Over the last two decades, he's tackled just about every taboo under the sun on his various television projects. Recently, with Four Lions, he brought his edge to the movies.

Four Lions is the kind of movie that is absolutely impossible to get made in Hollywood. It's pitch dark. It's uncompromising. It's politically inflammatory. It's not for the easily offended. And also, it's funny as hell.

What Morris has managed to make is a zany screwball comedy, about an inept group of Islamic terrorists planning, and botching, an attack. A story like this is not an easy task to pull off. He has to walk a lot of tightropes. The whole movie is a balancing act; it has to press buttons to get a point across, but it knows the right buttons to press. For example, one very important and wise move is making one of the terrorists (and probably the dumbest and most zealous of the group) a white guy.

The characters, though mostly buffoons, are also three-dimensional. They believe with all their hearts in their cause, and are willing to die for it. The leader has a wife and son, both of whom are aware of his plans and supportive. This devotion, combined with their ineptitude, make them simultaneously comical and also quite scary.

Where does it all go, you ask? I don't want to say too specifically, because the payoff is both funny and poignant. This is a very good film, the kind that stays with you after it ends. A-

Monday, April 4, 2011

Circle of Iron

I've been a little disappointed with the way some of my recent reviews have been turning out, so I set out to find a movie that I would have no trouble at all talking about. I always have the most fun writing about unintentionally funny, so-bad-they're-good movies, and as luck would have it, Richard Moore's Circle of Iron is the very best kind: the well-made bad movie.

Admittedly, it's a lot of fun to laugh at the ineptitude on every level inherent in something like The Room or Battlefield: Earth. But Circle of Iron is actually a clear, coherent, and very watchable film. The badness comes not from the filmmaking, but goes all the way back to the ridiculousness of the very concept of itself. Not only is it ridiculous, but it is done completely in earnest, and that innocence is why it's so unintentionally funny and so enjoyable.

The story for Circle of Iron was actually conceived by Bruce Lee before he died. He never managed to get it made, but as often seemed to happen with Bruce Lee, David Carradine was called in to save the day. I don't know what Bruce Lee's version would have been like. Maybe completely different, maybe legitimately good. I don't know, though, this movie is pretty silly.

The setting: a fantasy world, where men with 70's mustaches fight each other with martial arts for entertainment as what appears to be the Pope of Kung Fu (Roddy McDowell!) looks on. Our hero, manlily named Cord, clearly the manliest of these manly men, is on a quest. He must find and defeat the man named Zetan and learn the secrets from the book he possesses. On his journey, Cord is apprenticed by a blind master (Carradine), and put through various trials (also mostly Carradine), at the end of each, he learns something about himself (Carradine? No, Cord.).

Cord is hilarious from the get-go. He has his long, flowing, feathered 70's hair. He is clad in only a furry loincloth and furry boots (it's that kind of fantasy world). He wears a gold medallion around his neck. He's clearly not the best actor, but he plays the role sincerely.

David Carradine plays four characters throughout the film. He was an interesting actor. He's been great in things (Bound for Glory, Kill Bill Volume II), and pretty bad in other things. Even at his worst, though, he's kind of mesmerizing to watch. I think he's actually pretty fun in this one. His blind guru character is kind of both awesome and hilarious. He's the cliched Zen Master, speaking only in heavy-handed platitudes and answering every question with a question in turn. He plays the exact same wooden flute that he plays in Kill Bill. Not only that, but he uses it as his cane, AND as a weapon. And get this: It whistles when he twirls it! Come on, that's legitimately cool. Additionally, Carradine plays a monkey man, a nomad, and Death itself. The monkey costume is pretty embarrassing.

There's a random scene in the middle of the movie where Cord meets Eli Wallach, playing a man trying to disintegrate the lower half of his body in a vat of oil. It's played with a sense of humor, and it's supposed to be a parable (it probably really is a parable). It just winds up really bizarre and out of place, but it's part of the crazy fun of the movie.

The parables are one of the funniest aspects. The whole movie is really about enlightenment, (trust me, it's not subtle when you find that bit out at the end) and I'm sure each step of his quest is probably some ancient Confucian story or something. They really hammer it home on you. It's like Man Philosophy, very rudimentary but seemingly profound riddles that the nerdier breed of Martial Arts enthusiasts probably love because it makes them feel both masculine and sensitive at the same time.

Before I go, let's talk about the filmmaking. The director, Richard Moore, was a fairly accomplished cinematographer. It shows. It's a very well shot film. I was shocked by how good it looked. Most Martial Arts movies and Barbarian movies look like they were made on a $50 budget. This one probably was too, but Richard Moore hides it well.

The fight scenes are pretty good too. I know Carradine was the star of Kung Fu, but I guess I'd never seen him at it. If he didn't know martial arts, and I'm not sure if he did, he fakes it convincingly.

So, how do I grade a movie like Circle of Iron? With a couple of the bad movies I've reviewed, I just refused to grade them, because my motives for watching them were not pure. If I enjoy a movie even though it's bad, I can't possibly give it a high grade, can I? I laughed a lot at the absurdity of Circle of Iron, and I really did enjoy it, on a kind of stupid level. I don't think I'll give it a letter grade, but I will recommend it as a fun movie to laugh at with your friends, if that's the kind of thing you like to do.

By the way, if my review interested you, and you want to read a funnier opinion of Circle of Iron with less punctuation, follow this link to my buddy Kent's blog. We're doing a little crossover.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Sleeping Beauty

As I said when I reviewed Fantasia back in January, I'm often not sure which of the classic Disney movies I've actually seen in there entirety in my childhood, and which ones I only saw clips, or read the storybook-on-tape for it. Sleeping Beauty is another one of those. In fact, just about all I remember is the Once Upon a Dream musical number.

I was pleased upon watching it on Friday that Sleeping Beauty was one of, if not the very best, of all the Disney classics. It's rich, layered, and magical, and visually stunning.

We're introduced to Sleeping Beauty, alias Princess Aurora, alias Briar Rose, as an infant, being introduced to her betrothed, a boy prince, who seems a little bit weirded out that someday he's going to have to marry that baby. On this day of celebration, the three good fairies come to give the Princess gifts. Before they can finish, the horrible witch Maleficent appears, angry that she wasn't invited, and curses Aurora so that she will fall asleep on her 16th birthday. When Maleficent leaves, the third fairy can't undo the curse, but she can alter it by saying it will be lifted by true love's kiss.

We all know the story, even those of us who haven't seen the movie. She falls asleep, the prince has to fight his way to her. It's great stuff!

The good fairies, Flora, Fauna, and Merriweather, are excellent comedic characters, each with her own distinct and loveable personality. They're featured through the majority of the movie, and watching them bounce off of each other is one of the reasons it's so fun to watch. Imagine being raised in a cabin in the woods by three Angela Lansbury clones who don't know how to not use magic. My wife pointed out that they appear to have been some of Craig McCracken's basis for Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup, the Powerpuff Girls. I thought that was interesting. There are similarities with the colors they each wear, and even aspects of their personalities. Can anyone confirm this?

Maleficent, the vindictive witch, is probably Disney's coolest villain. Her design is amazing, she's compelling to watch. I like that domination of the kingdom isn't really her goal. She has her own castle and minions. She just wants to punish those who slighted her, at any cost. Her demon lackeys are wicked cool, too.

I was surprised by how little of the movie Sleeping Beauty actually slept for. It was only maybe 15 or 20 minutes of the total running time. I guess I assumed the plot was much thinner than it actually was.

I enjoyed the music a great deal. One of my problems with the early Disney flicks like Snow White and Alice in Wonderland, is they have this choir singing in the backgrounds sometimes, but you can't understand a word the choir is saying. I assume whatever recording equipment they had in those days had been improved upon by 1959, because that choir is still featured in Sleeping Beauty, but this time you can actually make out the lyrics.

I'm glad I've been picking up these Disney Blu Rays. They're wonderful films, true works of art, and if you don't have kids to make you sick of them, they're insanely rewatchable. I recommend that people buy them while they can. Disney takes them out of print after a while. Sleeping Beauty just got pulled from circulation, so you will have to find it used. Blu Ray is likely the last physical format. After this, it will all be digital, so if you want a hard copy, these are the very best ones you will ever get.

Sleeping Beauty is a timeless classic. A+

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Win Win

Win Win is the newest movie by Thomas McCarthy, the director of The Station Agent (which I really liked) and The Visitor (which I have yet to see but really should).

It is one of those movies I'm really bad at reviewing because it presents a lot of normal, believable characters in a situation you could almost imagine happening. I'm much better at reviewing movies with, like, spacemen or sword fights in them. I did like Win Win a great deal, but I have a hard time putting my thoughts on these movies into words. Note to self: work on that.

Paul Giamatti stars as Mike, a struggling lawyer who can't catch a break. His firm is on the brink of failure, he can't support his family, and the high school wrestling team he coaches can't win a match. All of this is driving him to anxiety attacks. When one of his clients, an old man in the beginning stages of dementia, needs a guardian, a solution to all of his problems seemingly lands right in his lap: He takes the guardianship for himself, and promptly drops the guy off in a rest home, where they can take care of him, while he takes the $1500 a month.

In comes Kyle, the old man's teenage grandson, who comes to town, mainly to get away from his mother. And guess what? He's a champion wrestler.

Things go good for a while, but they can't last forever. They get complicated, and Mike tries desperately to find his way out with his world intact. That's the gist of it.

The cast is excellent. They have great chemistry, and are a joy to watch act off of each other. Amy Ryan is Giamatti's wife, Jeffrey Tambor is his assistant coach. My personal favorite character was Bobby Cannavale as Mike's best friend Terry. Cannavale is genuine and funny, and it's surprising to me that he's not in more things. The kid that plays Kyle has never been in anything, and it's a pretty strong debut for him.

I'm going to end it here, so I don't get into the weird rambling part where I try to come up with stuff to say about the movie and don't actually wind up saying anything. I am aware of my deficiencies as a writer, dammit.

In conclusion, Win Win is pretty good. It's engaging from beginning to end, and very funny. I think I can consider myself a fan of Thomas McCarthy now. I look forward to whatever he directs next. B+