Monday, December 28, 2009

The Color of Magic

The Color of Magic is a made-for-TV film that received minimal release in 2008. And, after seeing it, I can say the film should've been left on the small screen in, again, minimal release.

A tourist (Sean Penn, the only recognizable name in the cast) and a failed wizard team together on Disc World, a flat world held up by four elephants supported by a larger turtle, sex unknown (the turtle, that is). It's a mishmash of novels written by Terry Pratchett, meandering all over the place and making little sense. The dialogue is British droll and mostly silly.

Unlike another wizard tale which boasts a $500 million budget, The Color of Magic's special effects budget in comparison was about $1.98. Every expense was spared in showing us the magical proportions of Disc World. It's quite amazing how badly this film gets away with such things, showing us, instead, a dragon's tail so that we think there might be something reptilian attached to it. To call the attempt "cheesy" doesn't even come close.

You can live without this tale of wizardry, trust me. Thumb's down.

Inglorious Basterds

I met a fellow Jew yesterday who said she thought the humor in Inglorious Basterds was delightful. I could not relate. Perhaps she liked it because some of the violence is on the other foot.

Inglorious Basterds shouldn't be taken for history, not in the least. Director Quentin Tarantino borrows heavily from spaghetti westerns and makes a sort of Jewish Dirty Dozen.

Tarantino is famous for his raw scenes of violence. He's also famous for long scenes (think Kill Bill, Volumes 1 & 2) of people just talking at each other. This movie has both. The exposition scenes are actually wonderful, as we see our characters a little sharper. When Colonel Landa asks for another glass of his host's delicious milk just before he kills almost everyone in the house, we see another side of the colonel, a rather despicable, sadistic side. The heretofore-unknown Austrian actor who plays him, Christoph Waltz, is really amazing in this film and I'm sure we'll see him again.

I wish I could say the same thing about the "star" of the film, Brad Pitt, who plays LT Aldo Raine. The name and role is surely a nod to Aldo Ray, the raspy-voiced actor who was in almost every WWII movie I ever saw. While Ray seemed real, Pitt only seems to embody his caricature. And, as the leader of the Basterds, the Army's Jew group of Nazi killers, when he orders a scalping, we wonder which side we should join.

The Basterds are only part of the story, a small part, actually. There are many parts, including Shoshanna, the Jew-in-hiding who's running a French movie house and who attacts the amorous attention of a Germany war hero (actor Daniel Bruhl). There's the German actress-turned-spy, Bridget von Hammersmark, played by Diane Kruger in the smallest but best role she's had so far in her career. And there are several other roles which feed into a plot to kill Hitler and his top-ranked henchmen.

The cinematography is gorgeous, the acting hit-and-miss depending on the actor, the narrative all-over-the-place. Thanks to Tarantino's directorial prowess, the movie isn't a mess but orchestrated bits of chaos thrown together. It makes a story, to be sure, but the pieces are perhaps greater than the sum. The violence is ghastly, particularly the scalping scenes, and they're made more horrible by their respective hosts' indifference.

See Inglorious Basterds at your own risk. For me, thumb's down.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes as Superman? No, Virginia, this is not your grandmother's Basil Rathbone.

I was quite willing to see a reimagination of the part, but some may not be. But Robert Downey Jr always leaves you wanting more. And, surprise, he and Jude Law bring a pleasant wittiness to their roles, respectively, as Holmes and Watson. But there's a new thing that's been added: their relationship seems to be the only true love affair in their lives. Oh, sure, there are attractive women about, but their eyes are only for each other. And it works.

It would be easy to blame director Guy Ritchie for all that went wrong with this version of Sherlock Holmes. The sound mixer, for instance, created a situation where we miss about one-fourth of the repartee, due to their mumbling or an abundance of volume for the background music. The music itself is strange, often strangely inappropriate to the time. The screenplay is a mish-mosh of crazy ideas thrown together -- there's a plot hidden in there, but various scenes, and there are many of them, do not forward the plot and seem to only be there to add a sense of play to the proceedings.

I can't recommend this movie to anyone who likes to see a logical progression of the story. But if you want to see male bonding, this is the movie for you. It wasn't for me.

Thumbs down.

Thursday, December 24, 2009


What do you get when you cross a Marine with a Na'vi? Answer: A very tall, blue-skinned warrior. And he's the star of this show.

The Na'vi are Pandora's indigenous species, part human, part something-else. But they stand in the way of human plumbing of Pandora's natural resources. And the Na'vi are too primitive to fight back as Earth's military forces move deeper and deeper into their lives.

The Na'vi have allowed Sigourney Weaver's Dr. Grace Augustine, who seems to be all kinds of scientist (botanist, human engineer, sociologist), to come into their tribal lives, but only so far. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington, late of Terminator Salvation), who, as a paraplegic Marine, enters the Na'vi life through his surrogate, or avatar.

Pandora is a wild world, depicted colorfully and menacingly through the wonder of James Cameron's newly developed 3D. Over and over again, sometimes quite ponderously, we see Pandora's natural beauty, I guess so that we can wonder how these horrible military types (actor Stephen Lang is the most menacing) can plunder it.

We've waited a long time for this movie -- three or four years hearing about its development and longer than that for its 3D motion-capture technology -- and the movie fulfills some of its promise. It would probably be impossible to live up to all the hype, to be truthful.

Pandora is a wonder to watch. The humans and Na'vi aren't as interesting, except when our blue-skinned friends jump onboard their chosen Mountain Banshees, a large flying creature that is able to physically, emotionally and mentally connect with its Na'vi rider. The 3D enables us to almost ride with the Banshee, save for the wind rushing through our hair.

But most of Avatar is not an E-ticket ride. Much of this very long movie is exposition, or Jake training with the Na'vi for his right of passage, his bonding with the Banshee, and, for us, the moment when he achieves total buy-in to the Na'vi culture so that he'll be able to side with them in the fight against the human military.

Avatar is a film that could've used a better story that made more sense -- there are frequent "hiccups" in logic -- and a liberal cutting in the editor's room. Still, it's part of the Cameron legacy, and if you're a deciple like me, you have to see this to file it among The Abyss, Terminator, Aliens, and Titanic books in your library.

Thumb's up, but we could've hoped the last decade could've been spent writing a better story and screenplay as well as perfecting screen-capture technology.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Hangover

From the start I should admit that I can't stand movies where bad things happen to good people. I mean, I must have too much empathy. You should also know that The Hangover is one of those movies; in fact, I can't even tell you all the bad things that happen. But the good news is, I was able to relax and just enjoy the ride.

Three friends are taking their friend, Doug (Justin Bartha), to Las Vegas for his last night of freedom before he gets married. Phil (Bradley Cooper) is a high school teacher who thinks of himself as more of a high roller than that. Stu (Ed Helms) is a dentist, and hopes to one day marry the woman who beats him, controls him, and cheats on him. And Alan (Zach Galifianakis) isn't really a friend at all, but is the future brother-in-law, and kind of comes with the package: the spotless Mercedes Doug's future father-in-law loans him for the trip. You can see disaster coming, can't you?

But, no, you really can't. The whole premise of the movie is that four guys go out on a bachelor party in Vegas. When they wake up in the morning, they've lost Doug, and they can't remember a single detail about the night before. The rest of the movie gives us clues to piece that night together.

You'd think that in a movie like this there would be toilet humor. Yes, there is, but it's kind of a higher level of toilet humor. Like when Alan, the Jack Black look-a-like who really is maybe not dumber but is weirder than he looks, goes to the bathroom in their Vegas suite and is surprised by a tiger. We spend the next hour-and-a-half finding out where the tiger came from. With the added bonus of how they get the tiger back to that original place. It's men-gone-wild as only they can do at a frat or bachelor party, but taken to an interesting place.

In fact, this whole movie is a higher concept from a lower starting point. It's brilliantly written, and draws us into the disaster by making sure we care about the characters, some more slowly than others. It's funny, it's fun, and it's a mystery train that lets us ride along. This is not your usual buddy movie. It's how buddies change amidst wild situations and well-written humor.

Thumb's up.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Public Enemies

It's interesting that the director of "Heat," Michael Mann, chose to make the title of this movie "Public Enemies." Sure, you see glimpses of other bankrobbers and numbers runners, like Pretty Boy Floyd and Frank Nitti, but the whole focus of this movie is John Dillinger.

Depp turns in a magnificent performance, in a rather low-key, nonsensical way, of John Dillinger the outlaw. We leap into the action; there's no set-up here at all, and as soon as the director can, he introduces us to the love of Dillinger's life, played by Marion Cotillard (who played Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose). However, at the end of it all, even though we see Dillinger in action and hear maybe two sentences about his rough childhood, we have no real sense of why this man is hellbent-for-leather gonna-die-soon. Even though he's very good at eluding the cops time and time again, you get the real feeling that Depp's Dillinger has no regard for his own life. He demands his own freedom to do whatever he wants to whenever he wants it, and will die trying.

The movie has a third key role, that of Mervin Purvis, a man who shows tentativeness in his actions, but fierce determination to catch the criminal his boss, J. Edgar Hoover, demands. Christian Bale matches Depp for his ability to show emotion in quiet action.

In the end, I couldn't tell the good guys from the bad guys. Not because we Americans love and romanticize the bank robbers of those days, especially when they act like Robin Hood, as Dillinger reportedly did, but because all the characters in this show are cruel, vindictive and not worth cheering on. The only exception to that are Dillinger and Purvis, who have their own code of behavior, a code that even they cross on whim. The title Public Enemies may well be telling us that the cops were as bad as the criminals, each doing whatever badass thing they wanted to do. Only in this movie, the criminals seem to enjoy it more.

Depp is stunning. The art direction is gorgeous. The details of the 1930's are amazing. But in the end, Public Enemies is a series of not-terribly-exciting battle scenes interspersed with slow exposition. See it if you're a Depp or Bale fan who just has to. Otherwise, it's thumbs down.

Friday, December 04, 2009

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

I don't need to tell you that few sequels make the grade. Night at the Museum 2 is among those failures. In other words, it's no Godfather 2.

Much to my surprise a few years ago, I adored the first Night at the Museum. An ordinary guy is thrust into an extraordinary situation -- yes, where the museum pieces come to life at night -- and discovers his unique talents in the most trying of circumstances. You're pulling for him, and the laughs were plenty. The characters were surprisingly charming, like the small cowboy and the life-sized Teddy Roosevelt. And the Tiki God who talked in small rhymes and liked gum. Every single situation, and every group of characters, worked really well, and the whole movie was funny and filled with warmth.

Flash forward a few years and our night watchman Larry (Ben Stiller) is now an inventor extraordinaire, doing infomercials to sell his little gadgets, things like glow-in-the-dark flashlights, so that you can find one when you need one. That particular scene, though, just seemed sad. At no point in this scene, or even in the entire movie, does Larry seem happy or witty or purposeful. Even when he's working supposedly with the characters he loves.

The old characters we got to know in the first movie have nothing really good to do. Only the new characters come to life. In particular is the Egyptian pharaoh, Kahmunrah, played by Hank Azaria, who is downright, laugh-out-loud funny. Not since La Cage Aux Folles has Azaria been this funny, this time playing an Egyptian with a lisp. Sure, he has knowledge of all kinds of things he shouldn't, but those are the jokes, folks.

And Amy Adams as a rather flirtatious Amelia Earhart lights up the screen whenever she appears. She doesn't really advance the plot, such as it is, but she makes it bearable to watch. And her character brings into the whole mess a dollop of aviation history. It's neat to see the Tuskegee Airmen appear, and fascinating to see all those flying machines, some of which actually work.

There are many criticisms of this movie, most of which circle around the fact that it's just not funny, involving, witty or warm enough. There's another small criticism: that this building and art collection we see are obviously not representative of the Smithsonian. But there are some small moments, particularly when Azaria or Adams are onscreen, that will bring a smile to your lips.

On the whole, thumb's down.