Saturday, March 10, 2012

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Year 4, Day 70 - 3/10/12 - Movie #1,070

BEFORE: Another film with kids entering a fantasy realm and becoming "royalty".  The Narnia books were to my generation (well, to me at least) sort of like the Harry Potter books were to the next wave of kids.  

Linking from "Where the Wild Things Are", Chris Cooper was in "Adaptation" with Tilda Swinton (last seen in "Michael Clayton".  I got lucky with that one.

THE PLOT: Lucy and Edmund Pevensie return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace where they meet up with Prince Caspian for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader.

AFTER: I was so into these books when I was a kid, reading them over and over.  So, why don't I like the movies more?  It can't be that the movies don't live up to my imagination, or they aren't being faithful to the books, since I don't remember most of the twists and turns in the plots.  I can only assume, therefore, that something in me changed, and the concepts and details just don't appeal to me as much.

Maybe when I was a kid, I had more time for imagining, and thinking of things like fairy tales, and things that aren't real, like magical talking lions, sword-fighting rats, sea serpents and such.  At some point I needed to get my head straight and figure out what reality was, since I was going to have to live and work in that world, not one where I could become a prince or a king.  It's maybe a little sad, but it's part of growing up.  Anyway, fantasy realms may be fun places to visit, but who would really want to live there?  A dragon breathes on you one day, and you're toast.

Anyway, back to the film - I suppose it was exciting enough, with a quest across the uncharted waters of Narnia, island-hopping to find 7 magic swords that 7 lost lords took with them, and only by uniting them can our heroes defeat...umm, the green mist or something.  I think there might be a problem here with a nebulous villain - it helps to put a face on these things sometimes, but we never really find out who's behind the mist, if anyone, or what it's all about.  I'll accept the rules of your fantasy world, provided that you tell me what they are.

From what I hear, this may be the last Narnia film made in this series, and I'm kind of OK with that. It's the last book with these main characters, anyway.  I can do without the obvious heavy-handed Christian symbolism, in this film in particular, with Aslan saying he goes by "another name" in the real world.  Everyone's thinking Jesus, but what if it's Allah?  Or Buddha, or even Satan?  I don't want Noah's Ark in a Donald Duck cartoon, and I don't want Christianity (or any religion) in a kids' fantasy film.  This has got to be a violation of my constitutional rights somehow.

Starring Georgie Henley, Skandar Keynes, Ben Barnes (all 3 last seen in "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian"), Will Poulter, and the voices of Liam Neeson (last seen in "Chloe") and Simon Pegg (last seen in "How to Lose Friends and Alienate People").

RATING: 6 out of 10 Dufflepuds

Friday, March 9, 2012

Where the Wild Things Are

Year 4, Day 69 - 3/9/12 - Movie #1,069

BEFORE: And "Fantasia 2000" is my lead-in to worlds of fantasy, with an emphasis on children's literature.  I'll be spending the next few weeks in these other realms, after a brief diversion for a pirate-themed chain.

I have to admit I'm not TOO familiar with the book by Maurice Sendak, but I did see a hilarious two-part interview with the cranky author on "The Colbert Report", so check that out if you get a chance.

Linking from "Fantasia 2000", I don't have too many options, but I'll go from Steve Martin to Catherine O'Hara since they co-starred in the film "A Simple Twist of Fate".

THE PLOT: Max, a disobedient little boy sent to bed without his supper, creates his own world--a forest inhabited by ferocious wild creatures that crown Max as their ruler.

AFTER: This seems like it should be cut from the same cloth as "The Wizard of Oz", where a kid imagines a realm full of strange fantasy creatures - but it didn't really come together as a film for me.  The reasonings seem to come straight out of a child's brain, and my adult brain demands a more cause-and-effect straightforward narrative, I guess.

I get that Max is having trouble fitting in with other kids, and I get that he's acting up at home due to lack of attention, and jealousy over his mom's boyfriend - but the trip to the fantasy world is supposed to help him work this stuff out, right?  And I mostly didn't see much of a connection, except for the igloo in the real world being reflected in the fort that the monsters build.

I just read through some comments online that propose that each monster represents a different part of Max's personality, except for a few who represent people in the real world (much like the farmhands in "Wizard of Oz") but I just didn't pick up on any of that WHILE watching the film.  And if a film's symbolism can't be readily grasped, then what's the point of it being there?

I don't know, maybe if I dealt with difficult kids more (or, like, at all) I'd have more appreciation for this.  It's funny, I was just talking yesterday with a co-worker about films like "Willow" and "Labyrinth", which are best appreciated by people under a certain age.  I loved "Labyrinth" and all things Muppet-related when I was a kid, but I mostly grew out of it.  If I were to go back and watch "Labyrinth" now, I'd probably think the puppetry was really cheesy.

They sort of split the difference here - actors wore large suits with some animatronics, and then the faces were computer-generated later to match the voice actors' performances.  It looks pretty smooth, but I spent some time during the film wondering how they did it, and that interfered with the enjoyment.  Unfortunately, I can't turn that part of my brain off.

Also starring Max Records, Catherine Keener (last seen in "Out of Sight"), Mark Ruffalo (last seen in "The Kids Are All Right"), and the voices of James Gandolfini (last seen in "Crimson Tide"), Lauren Ambrose, Forest Whitaker (last seen in "Phone Booth"), Paul Dano (last seen in "Knight and Day"), Chris Cooper (last seen in "New York, I Love You").

RATING: 3 out of 10 dirt clods

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Fantasia 2000

Year 4, Day 68 - 3/8/12 - Movie #1,068

BEFORE: I was writing recently (on Andy's blog, not mine) about how my father never wanted to go to the cinema when I was a kid.  The topic was illegal downloads, and how today's computer generation demands to see a film right now, on their computer, without waiting for a valid DVD release, and thus justifies the process of illegal downloads.  My father's attitude, on the other hand, was that there was no reason to go to the theater, since in a mere 5 or  6 years every decent film would be screened on TV for free.

However, Dad did not take into account the things which had not been invented yet, like OnDemand, the internet, and for that matter, DVDs.  So not every film was destined to be screened on network TV.

Of course, Dad and I did not see eye to eye, and I (being a 10-year-old) practically demanded to see films like "Star Wars" and "Ghostbusters" on the big screen, as Hollywood intended.  Thankfully my Mom had a habit of taking me to all the Disney releases, including a re-release of the original "Fantasia", which is how I became an avid cinemaphile in the first place.  I think she desperately wanted to instill a love for classical music in her kids - but really, she was just turning me into a fan of animation, which also pointed me in the direction of a career.

Linking from "Cars 2", Bonnie Hunt was also in "Cheaper By the Dozen" with Steve Martin (last seen in "Father of the Bride II"), who appears here to introduce a segment.

THE PLOT: An update of the original film with new interpretations of great works of classical music.

AFTER: This was a good choice for tonight, with a running time of just 75 minutes, it was perfect for a mid-week night when I was short on time.

As for judging the film, it's sort of a mixed bag since there are 7 different segments, in 7 different styles.  I think my favorite was probably the "Rhapsody in Blue" segment, in a style based on the art of caricaturist Al Hirschfeld.  It encapsulated the feel of 1930's New York City, which also had the benefit of being relevant after the economic collapse of 2008, with some people out of work and others rolling in dough.  But unfortunately it also relied on broad stereotypes of New Yorkers - the black construction worker who also plays drums in a Harlem jazz club, and an entitled rich white girl whose day is filled with music lessons, tennis lessons, ballet, etc.

There's a replay of the famous "Sorcerer's Apprentice" segment with Mickey Mouse, which feels a little like cheating, and this is followed by a "Noah's Ark" segment to the tune of "Pomp and Circumstance", that for some reason also features Donald Duck working on the ark.  That seemed a little odd, since he ended up doing more work than Noah did (was Noah tired after building the ark?).  Plus, I tend to favor a separation of church and Disney - get your religion out of my cartoons!

Flying whales?  Sort of interesting.  A flamingo with a yo-yo?  That was just bizarre.  Abstract depictions of triangle-based butterflies?  Ehh, I was just kind of whelmed by that one.

I appreciate the attempts to keep classical music and jazz alive, but honestly it seems kind of like they were fighting a losing battle.  They could have gone a lot hipper with this, and not just by hiring current celebrities to introduce the segments.  But as we saw with "The Princess and the Frog", with Disney featuring the first minority princess, and discovering New Orleans jazz and creole cooking for the first time, they're still lagging a decade or three behind the times.

Also starring Bette Midler (last heard in "Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore"), Quincy Jones, Angela Lansbury (yeah, cause SHE'S hip), James Earl Jones (last heard in "The Lion King 2: Simba's Pride"), and my buddies Penn + Teller.

RATING: 5 out of 10 hardhats

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cars 2

Year 4, Day 67 - 3/7/12 - Movie #1,067

BEFORE: Another film with inanimate objects that become animated objects - the world of "Cars", which oddly has no people in it, as the cars drive themselves.   The voices of Bonnie Hunt and John Ratzenberger carry over from "Toy Story 3"...

THE PLOT: Star race car Lightning McQueen and his pal Mater head overseas to compete in the World Grand Prix race. But the road to the championship becomes rocky as Mater gets caught up in international espionage.

AFTER: This was pretty sad - this is a good lesson in how to kill a movie franchise.  Cars as spies?  Was being racecars not exciting enough?  It seems like the writers couldn't find ways to maintain the suspense about which car's going to win the race...

Plus, this is all flash and no substance.  The original "Cars" film had so much heart, with the snobby racecar stuck in the podunk town of Radiator Springs, and learning its small-town ways.  All that got thrown out the window in this 2nd installment, which whisks us away to races in Japan, Italy and London.  Sometimes bigger is not better, it's just flashier.

OK, so there's a small message about the value of friendship, but it's hidden behind the gadgets and explosions, and flying cars and cars that can somehow be lifted in the air by deploying a parachute (aren't they a little too heavy for that?)  They seemed to be shooting for James Bond, but they ended up with "The Man Who Knew Too Little" with hints of Austin Powers.

There's some kind of conspiracy where the "lemon" cars, like Gremlins and Pacers, get together and...well, that's where they lost me.  They want to kill racecars?  Why?  The main plot (the Grand Prix) is a throwaway, and the B-plot is very foggy and makes no sense.  What a waste of everyone's time.  Plus, why write a plot point in this day and age that makes alternative fuels look bad, and gasoline look good?  When we all know that's not the case...

NITPICK POINT: Cars that travel on planes?  Why?  It seems unnecessary, why don't they just drive there?  Why do they need to go to the airport, and why do they need to go through metal detectors at the airport?  Aren't they all, you know, made of metal?  Maybe this was meant as a joke, but it just doesn't read as one.

NITPICK POINT #2: A Formula-1 racecar and a NASCAR-style racecar wouldn't ever be in the same race - it would be like a heavyweight boxer fighting a middleweight.  I don't know enough about racing to say which one is faster, but I know they're in different classes.

Also starring the voices of Owen Wilson (last seen in "Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian"), Larry the Cable Guy, Michael Caine (last seen in "Inception"), Emily Mortimer (last seen in "Lars and the Real Girl"), Eddie Izzard (last seen in "Valkyrie"), John Turturro (last seen in "The Color of Money"), Joe Mantegna, Tony Shalhoub, with vocal cameos from Bruce Campbell, Vanessa Redgrave, Cheech Marin (last heard in "The Lion King"), Paul Dooley, Edie McClurg, Richard Kind (also last heard in "Toy Story 3"), Jeff Garlin (ditto), Katherine Helmond, and NASCAR racers Jeff Gordon, Darrell Waltrip, and announcer Brent Musberger.

RATING: 3 out of 10 air filters

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Toy Story 3

Year 4, Day 66 - 3/6/12 - Movie #1,066

BEFORE: I suppose I could have gone just about anywhere after "Night at the Museum", like into my historical films, or biopics about world leaders or U.S. generals.  But this feels the most right, from mannequins that come to life to toys that do the same.

For linking, both films have giant casts, so there are probably a hundred ways to do this - but the first one I thought of was to go from Clint Howard to Tom Hanks (last seen in "Joe Versus the Volcano") via "Apollo 13".

THE PLOT:  The toys are mistakenly delivered to a day-care center instead of the attic right before Andy leaves for college, and it's up to Woody to convince the other toys that they weren't abandoned and to return home.

AFTER: Feels good to finally get to this one, with everyone in the animation community raving about it, while simultaneously tearing up over it.  Oh yeah, and it won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature.

Gotta concur, it's a winning formula.  How can you not feel sympathy for a bunch of toys that are no longer played with?  Unless you're a heartless bastard, or a jaded adult, or were never a child who played with toys...

What a perfect, perfect example of Hollywood six-act structure.  You can almost set your watch by it, every 13-15 minutes they go to a new set-up, or there's a turn-around in the situation.  And despite their best efforts, the toys keep getting further from home, and the outlook gets worse and worse, until it reaches near-impossibility, the "darkest before the dawn".  It's almost too perfect, if that's possible, because I was keenly aware of the turning points.  But hey, at least they were there.

If you're like me, and one of the few people who hadn't seen this yet, the toys from the previous films that we've come to know and love realize that their owner has grown too old, they haven't been played with in years, and end up, partly by accident and partly by choice, at a day-care center.  It's a double-edged sword - the toys get played with, but it's not necessarily the type of attention that they wanted.

The brilliance comes when the movie references films like "The Great Escape" and "Cool Hand Luke", as the toys realize that their new home might be something akin to a prison, and an incredibly complex escape scheme is hatched.  Jeez, I'm a fan of prison-break films, and I found the plan a little hard to follow.  But still, wildly inventive.

And, pursuant to last night's point, the toys KNOW they are toys, and they act according to a set of rules.  Not allowed to move when humans are looking, for example.  Oh, the cowboy may act like a cowboy, and the army men act like soldiers, but in this world when Buzz Lightyear forgets he is a toy, and starts acting like a "real" spaceman, there's an inherent wrongness to the situation, and it's a problem that needs to be fixed.  Way to maintain the rules.

There's almost a danger in adding more characters to an already large line-up of toys.  But some of them were used sparingly, and the Barbie and Ken stuff was just great - there's so much comedy to be mined out of those two.

And no phony blooper reel at the end!  Hurray!

Also starring the voices of Tim Allen, Joan Cusack (last seen in "Looney Tunes: Back in Action"), Ned Beatty (last seen in "Rudy"), Michael Keaton (last seen in "Out of Sight"), Don Rickles, Wallace Shawn (last seen in "Furry Vengeance"), John Ratzenberger (last heard in "A Bug's Life"), Richard Kind (ditto), Estelle Harris (last heard in "Queer Duck: The Movie"), Laurie Metcalf, Timothy Dalton, Whoopi Goldberg (last heard in "The Lion King"), Bonnie Hunt, Jeff Garlin, Kristen Schaal, R. Lee Ermey.

RATING: 8 out of 10 lunchboxes

Monday, March 5, 2012

Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian

Year 4, Day 65 - 3/5/12 - Movie #1,065

BEFORE: And so we come to the end of Ben-Stiller-thon.  I wish I could say it's been fun, but it really hasn't - mostly because I'd already covered most of the fun films like "Starsky & Hutch", "Tropic Thunder" and, umm..."Madagascar", yeah.  But I've got high hopes for this one.

THE PLOT:  Security guard Larry Daley infiltrates the Smithsonian Institution in order to rescue Jedediah and Octavius, who have been shipped to the museum for storage.

AFTER: I know it's a kid's movie, but there's a pretty high buy-in, if you ask me.  As with the first film, you have to first believe in a magical Egyptian tablet that can animate a bunch of museum mannequins.  Secondly, you have to believe that said mannequins are animated with the full knowledge of historical events - so the Teddy Roosevelt statue believes that he is the real T.R., and speaks as he would.  OK, fine, I'm still with you...

Once you suspend disbelief to this extent, it's a certain kind of fun to watch Egyptian warriors, Russian cossacks and Chicago gangsters face off against cowboys, Roman soldiers and cavemen.  It's the ultimate historical version of the "Who would win in a fight?" debate.  Here we also throw in another U.S. president, a very famous General, a bunch of aviators, kangaroos, squids, monkeys, etc. etc.  I once read a book that had all kinds of famous dead warriors from history waging war in hell, so it's kind of like that, only with more monkeys.

But here's where the plot lost me - in the original film, Ben Stiller's character was one of at least FOUR security guards at the Natural History Museum.  Then he left to get his telemarketing/home shopping/inventing business going, and the nighttime events at the museum proceeded in his absence.  Who was the night watchman while he was gone?  Did that person fail to notice that the dinosaur skeleton comes to life each and every night, along with Attila the Hun, Sacajawea, etc.?  Or was there a procession of security guards who worked one night each, all of whom were so frightened they left in a white-haired panic in the morning, never to return?

The same issue was raised once the sequel's action moved to the Smithsonian - which is really a collection of 19 museums, each of which comes to life as Stiller's character walks through it while holding the tablet.  Shouldn't each of those museums have a nighttime security staff?  And wouldn't they all be freaked out by the exhibits coming to life?  We see exactly ONE security guard early on in the Smithsonian, and then NONE once the weirdness starts happening.  What gives?

(I know, weird thing for me to focus on, right?  I'm OK with Amelia Earhart coming to life, and flying a model plane across a museum, but my problem is with the fact that no one notices it.)

Perhaps the whole thing is the delusion of Stiller's character - but if that were true, the ending of the film would then make no sense.  All I ask is that in a film in which "magic" is portrayed, a set of logical rules based on said magic is still obeyed.  We hear an astronaut say the phrase "That's one small step for a mannequin..." - which is a great pun, but it implies that he KNOWS he's a mannequin!  So how come the Pharaoh, Napoleon, and Al Capone don't?

Another NITPICK POINT: I support the idea of extended nighttime hours at the museum, but honestly, how realistic is it?  Can a museum compete with primetime TV?  Shouldn't kids be doing homework in the evening, and wouldn't parents be relaxing from their busy jobs?  I just don't think you can justify the extra costs of keeping the museum open at night vs. the moderate bump in revenue.  I realize that some museums have created sleepover events for kids due to the success of this film series, and that's great, but in the NatM fantasy film world, wouldn't kids start to wonder why the "animatronics" don't work during the day?

Still, it's the most fun I've had all week - when does "Night at the Museum: Trouble at the Louvre" come out?

Also starring Owen Wilson (also carring over from "Meet the Fockers"), Amy Adams (last seen in "Sunshine Cleaning"), Robin Williams (last seen in "Bicentennial Man"), Hank Azaria (last seen in "America's Sweethearts"), Ricky Gervais (last seen in "The Invention of Lying"), Christopher Guest (ditto), Steve Coogan (last heard in "Marmaduke"), Bill Hader (last heard in "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World"), with cameos from Jonah Hill (last heard in "How to Train Your Dragon"), Jay Baruchel (last seen in "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"), Mindy Kaling, Craig Robinson (last heard in "Shrek Forever After"), Ed Helms (last seen in "The Hangover"), Clint Howard, George Forman, Thomas Lennon (last seen in "I Love You, Man"), Robert Ben Garant, and the voices of Eugene Levy (last seen in "Father of the Bride II"), the Jonas Brothers, Brad Garrett.

RATING: 7 out of 10 packing crates

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Little Fockers

Year 4, Day 64 - 3/4/12 - Movie #1,064

BEFORE: Ben Stiller week rolls on...

THE PLOT: Family-patriarch Jack Byrnes wants to appoint a successor. Does his son-in-law, the male nurse Greg Focker have what it takes?

AFTER: I suppose this was entertaining enough, mostly the same jokes that were in the last installment, "Meet the Fockers", only with kids.  But they didn't really do too much with the kids - one seems to be smarter than the other, even though they're fraternal twins.  (So, why make them twins?)  There's a sub-plot where the kids interview for a super-exclusive pre-school (even though the girl looks like she's already 12) but I don't think the movie ever said whether they get into the school or not.  So what was the point of that?  Do we have to wait for "Little Fockers 2" to find out whether they made the cut?

Most of the humor here is based around infidelity, older people having sex, or male sexual dysfunction, or sometimes all three at once.  And it's all rooted in miscommunication or misinterpretation that people hoped would lead to hilarity.  But it's all material that's been seen before - except maybe the hot pharmaceutical rep as a new character.

NITPICK POINT: Said pharmaceutical rep is, one would assume, an expert on the effects of the drug that she's promoting.  So why would she herself take a drug specifically aimed at the male impotency market?  Unless there's a recreational side-effect we're not aware of, this doesn't make a lick of sense.

Still, as I've proven already this week, there are worse ways to kill time by watching a Ben Stiller movie.

Also starring Robert DeNiro (last seen in "Ronin"), Blythe Danner (last seen in "Forces of Nature"), Teri Polo (last seen in "Meet the Fockers"), Dustin Hoffman (last seen in "Barney's Version"), Barbra Streisand (last seen in "Nuts"), Owen Wilson (last seen in "Permanent Midnight"), Jessica Alba (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), with cameos from Laura Dern (last seen in "Everything Must Go"), Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, and Harvey Keitel (terribly miscast here, unless his dippy contractor character was supposed to be an ex-mobster in the witness protection program).

RATING: 4 out of 10 bounce castles