Saturday, March 24, 2012


Year 4, Day 83 +84 - 3/23 + 3/24/12 - Movie #1,083

BEFORE: I'm counting this as a movie, but it's really a 6-episode BBC mini-series.  Which makes it three hours long, so I'm spreading it out over two nights, but only counting it as one film - I think that's a fair compromise.  It was written by Neil Gaiman, who later turned it into a novel (not the other way around).  Some of Gaiman's other books have been turned into films, most notably "Coraline" and "Stardust".

If you don't know who Gaiman is, he's also the author of the famous and wonderful "Sandman" comics, and other novels I enjoy, such as "American Gods".  And if you are a comic book/fantasy geek, then saying Gaiman writes great fantasy stories is a bit like saying that eggs are an important ingredient when making omelettes.  I'm placing this film here because I think he fits in the pantheon of fantasy authors along with Lewis Carroll, J.K. Rowling, and, um, the author of tomorrow's film.

Linking from "Alice in Wonderland", Timothy Spall was in "Vanilla Sky" with Laura Fraser (last seen in "A Knight's Tale").  Tomorrow I'll neatly link out of the film through its other major star....

THE PLOT:  Richard Mayhew leads an ordinary life in London when one day a girl named Door falls, injured, across his path. The next thing he knows, his life is gone and he's pulled into the fantastical world of London Below.

AFTER: Hmm, three fantasy films in a row set in the U.K.  Funny how I just noticed that...

I did read the novelization of "Neverwhere" a few years ago, and I have to point out that the book was much more detailed.  Like Alice moving across the chessboard, the story details a fantasy quest that travels through London's literal, and figurative, Underground.  If I remember correctly, the names of the tube (subway) stations were very important, with actual Black Friars found at Blackfriars, and a station stop named Angel, Islington inspired a character named Islington who is (what else?) a real angel.

There's a mythology that riffs off of the fact that London's homeless are "invisible" to most ordinary people - so here they are literally invisible, and contact with one of them rubs off on the main character.  To his friends, co-workers and fiancĂ©e, he essentially ceases to exist.  He seeks out the girl that he helped in order to try to get his old life back, but instead gets pulled into a complex fantasy world with its own set of unlikely rules.

Unfortunately, the production values are quite low.  1996 must have been a tough year at the BBC.  The special effects are minimal, and even the regular live-action scenes look only marginally better than you'd see in, say, a low-budget porno (or slasher film, take your pick).  As a result it's difficult for the series to illustrate the magic powers of Door, who can open almost anything, and create doors in walls.  You can only accomplish so much with careful editing, and the story suffers as a result.

The lead actor, Gary Bakewell, is best known for playing Paul McCartney in "Backbeat", one of my favorite films (and also in the TV movie "The Linda McCartney Story").  As a result I have trouble seeing him as anyone BUT McCartney - I have the same problem with Ian Hart, who played John Lennon in the same film.  As an actor?  Well, I think he actually improved over the course of these 6 episodes - at the start, his character was supposed to be confused about the goings on in London Below.  But he played it so laid back, it seemed like he didn't care - and if he doesn't care, then how is the audience supposed to feel?  By episode 5 and 6, he started to show some passion, which I guess is easier to do in fight scenes.

I'm reminded of the original "Lord of the Rings" film, the animated one.  It only told half the story (the story wrapped up in a made-for-TV animated "Return of the King") and the animation quality was questionable (rotoscoped orcs?) but without it, Peter Jackson might not have been inspired to make the big-budget live-action version.  There's enough good intent in "Neverwhere" that it should warrant a big Hollywood version, or at least a sequel. 

 Also starring Hywel Bennett, Clive Russell (last seen in "Sherlock Holmes"), Paterson Joseph (last seen in "In the Name of the Father"), Tanya Moodie, and Peter Capaldi.

RATING: 5 out of 10 candles

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Year 4, Day 82 - 3/22/12 - Movie #1,082

BEFORE: Like "Robin Hood", there are about a zillion versions of this classic story, even a few more "adult" versions made in the swinging 1970's.  It seems like every few years the BBC or some U.S. cable channel rounds up a bunch of out-of-work actors and makes them dress up like the Mock Turtle or the Walrus and Carpenter, and think somehow they're making high art (they're not).  Then we've got the more recent video-game versions that think what the story needs is more gore and more goth (it doesn't).  But tonight I'm only interested in the Tim Burton version.

This makes FOUR films from 2010 in a neat row!  And a bunch of actors carry over from last night's "Harry Potter" film, more on that later.

THE PLOT: 19-year-old Alice returns to the magical world from her childhood adventure, where she reunites with her old friends and learns of her true destiny: to end the Red Queen's reign of terror.

AFTER: I generally enjoy the films of Tim Burton - from "Ed Wood" to "Sleepy Hollow", and "Batman" to "Beetlejuice".  I thought "Mars Attacks" got a bad rap, and even "Big Fish" had its merits.  But this adaptation of "Alice" I found to be almost complete rubbish.

OK, OK, so it's not a direct adaptation, it's one of those "based on" or "inspired by" deals - but that just gives people free rein to break someone else's toys, doesn't it?  Disney (and really, that's who's at fault here, the Disney machine) has been strip-mining all of Western literature in the past few decades, chewing up classic stories like "Tarzan", "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", etc. and then spitting them out for the masses to swallow.  Well, thanks, but I'm not that hungry.  Then they have the nerve to put their big logo above the title - excuse me, but it's Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland", not Disney's.  I hope the ghosts of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Victor Hugo haunt the homes of Disney corporate executives.

Corporate politics aside, the problem with the story here is that in depicting a fantasy realm, where nearly anything can be made to happen, the too-easy trap is to assume that it is a "nonsense" realm, when nothing should be further from the truth.  If you put a character (Dorothy, for example) into a fantasy realm (Oz, let's say) and give her a quest (defeat the Wicked Witch) things still need to progress in a logical manner, according to the potentially different, but still very logical, rules of that world.

This film, however, is just a random collection of characters and small ideas thrown together.  There's simply no connection between one plot point (and I'm being generous by using that term) and the next.  Lewis Carroll's 2nd Alice story, "Through the Looking Glass" was based on a chess game, and what's more logical than that?  You can put pieces on a chessboard while reading the book, and plot Alice's progression across the board.  When a pawn (Alice) reaches the other side of the board, it even becomes a queen!

And that reminds me of what else is missing here - any sense of gameplay or puzzlecraft.  The Wonderland stories are filled with anagrams, acrostics, riddles and rhymes - for the best depiction of this, read the book "The Annotated Alice" by puzzle genius Martin Gardner.  Without the riddles and such, the story feels like it has lost its soul.

OK, so they left in one riddle - "Why is a raven like a writing desk?"  Unfortunately, it's the one that Lewis Carroll never wrote an answer to.  Other people have supplied answers over the years, such as "Edgar Allen Poe wrote on both of them" or "They both have inky quills".  But even when Carroll found an answer he liked, which was "Because they both can produce notes, although they are very flat, and they are both NEVAR put with the wrong end in front."  He included this answer in a later version of "Alice", but his proofreader corrected "nevar" to "never", and in so doing, killed the punchline.

Beyond that, it's tough to even say what the moral is here.  Yes, Alice needs to stick up for herself - what a terrible burden it must be, being the only person in the Victorian era who thinks like a modern feminist woman.  But damn it, Alice, if you know you need to take control of your own destiny, then nut up and DO it already.  Wasting time imagining a fantasy realm is just that, a waste, unless you're going to write children's books of your own.

But wait - was it a dream, or not?  Yes, I admire that you want it to be read both ways, but I think maybe you've got to take a stand on this.  And saying that the real name of Wonderland is Underland doesn't really count as a deep insight on the matter.  Especially when this is more like "Blunderland".  See, that pun, as bad as it was, was more clever than anything in this film, sad to say.

NITPICK POINT: "Jabberwocky" was a poem WITHIN the original "Alice" story.  The Jabberwock was not a real character in Wonderland, it was merely a metaphorical allegory or something.  But it wasn't walking around interacting with the Dodo and the White Rabbit.

Starring Mia Wasikowska (last seen in "The Kids Are All Right"), Johnny Depp (last seen in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), Helena Bonham Carter (carrying over from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1"), Anne Hathaway (last seen in "Valentine's Day"), Crispin Glover (last heard in "Open Season 3"), and the voices of Alan Rickman ("Harry Potter" again), Timothy Spall (ditto), Imelda Staunton (ditto), Michael Sheen, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry (last seen in "A Civil Action"), Christopher Lee.

RATING: 3 out of 10 flamingoes

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Year 4, Day 81 - 3/21/12 - Movie #1,081

BEFORE: Again, it's tempting to go off my schedule, and follow up "Gulliver's Travels" with something like "The Incredible Shrinking Woman", but I've reached sort of an interesting point with my list.  Now that fantasy films, followed by superhero films, have percolated up to the top of the list, I'm really looking forward to some of the films coming up - maybe 10 out of the next 20 or so are making my expectations run high.  It's an odd feeling, after so many films that I felt I HAD to see, it's a real switch to watch films that I WANT to see.  Yet, some people choose films all the time based on their whims, what an odd concept.

I have seen all the films in the "Harry Potter" series so far, but I've never read the books.  Still, this is the children's lit chain, and this counts, so let's roll with it.  Linking from "Gulliver's Travels", Billy Connolly was in the great comedy film "Still Crazy" with Bill Nighy (last seen in "Pirate Radio") and Timothy Spall (last seen in "The Last Samurai").

THE PLOT: As Harry races against time and evil to destroy the Horcruxes, he uncovers the existence of three most powerful objects in the wizarding world: the Deathly Hallows.

AFTER: Again, I'm not a Potterphile, but I do appreciate these films, the same way that I appreciate the James Bond series, sort of from a distance.  I don't memorize all the details, and I just need to know who to root for, I don't need to know how all the gadgets work.  Bond's always got the right gadget at the right time, and Harry Potter and friends always come up with the right magic spell, or the magic totem at the last second.  Oh, and both film series tend to have characters with funny names - Bond's got his Miss Moneypenny and Pussy Galore, while the Harry Potter series keeps bringing in new people with names like Luna Lovegood and Frumious Bundersnatch.  I can't keep track of them all...

Just give me the main story points, and I'll be fine.  What are we looking for this time?  Five horcruxes, magic sword, check.  Various potions that do impossible things, flying broomsticks, wands, I don't know what all you kids are into today.  In my day we rolled dice and tried to outwit a dungeon master, and these days you what, practice spells together?  I don't get it.

I won't get into the major (or minor) story points, because they're already widely known among those who go for this sort of thing, and if not, I'm not going to be the spoiler.  But I wish these teens with funny accents would speak more clearly, and more slowly so I can understand them - particularly that Hermione girl.  I think I've missed a third of her lines over the course of this series - does she mumble, or is my hearing starting to go?

It's a very action-packed film, but there were still some breaks in the action.  I suppose that's what you get when you split a book into two movies, and you need long expositional dialogue scenes to pad out the first film.  Really, this is two hours of set-up - I suppose releasing it as two films is not just more profitable, but also prevented a four-hour running time?  Today's kids can't sit still that long, obviously.

NITPICK POINT: Didn't they make a big deal in the earlier films about people choosing the right magic wands?  Or, rather, letting the wands choose them?  There's quite a bit of wand-swapping going on in this film, so is the magic in the wand, or the words of the spell, or the person casting the spell?  Tell me what the rules are, and then please stick to them.  There's also a bunch of wand-shooting without any spellwords at all, so at that point, the wands might as well be guns, right?

NITPICK POINT #2: Regarding the Ministry of Magic, it always seems like it's been corrupted, or at least easily taken over.  I suppose that's what you get with a Ministry - but in the long run, wouldn't a two- or three-branch form of government be a better way to go?  You know, some checks and balances in the system?  Or is that too American for you people?

Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint (all last seen in "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince"), Ralph Fiennes (last seen in "The End of the Affair"), Helena Bonham Carter (last seen in "Sweeney Todd"), Rhys Ifans (last seen in "Greenberg"), Alan Rickman (last seen in "Michael Collins"), Fiona Shaw (last seen in "Three Men and a Little Lady"), Richard Griffiths (last seen in "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"), Robbie Coltrane (last seen in "Nuns on the Run"), Brendan Gleeson (last seen in "Far and Away"), David Thewlis, John Hurt, Imelda Staunton (last seen in "Taking Woodstock"), Julie Walters, Michael Gambon (last heard in "Fantastic Mr. Fox"), Jason Isaacs (last heard in "Cars 2"), Miranda Richardson (last seen in "The Hours"), Warwick Davis.

 RATING: 6 out of 10 death-eaters

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gulliver's Travels

Year 4, Day 80 - 3/20/12 - Movie #1,080

BEFORE: Arrgh, it's really tempting to change my plans, after watching Cate Blanchett in "Robin Hood" - I could so easily follow that film with "Elizabeth", and keep the theme of kings and queens going.  But no, I'm going to make a distinction between historic(-ish?) fiction and more factual (I assume) bio-pics.  No, I started a children's literature chain about two weeks ago, and I'm determined to finish it.

I should point out that it's a very personal definition of what constitutes children's lit.  The Narnia books, Treasure Island, and Robin Hood - these are, of course, some of the books that I read as a kid.  I discovered books like "The Three Musketeers" and "Mutiny on the Bounty" later on, so movies based on those novels will be part of a later chain.  These are my rules, I make 'em up.

Linking from "Robin Hood", William Hurt was in "Syriana" with Amanda Peet (last seen in "2012").  See, that wasn't so hard.

THE PLOT: Travel writer Lemuel Gulliver takes an assignment in Bermuda, but ends up on the island of Liliput, where he towers over its tiny citizens.

AFTER: Arrgh again, I'm really kind of torn on this one.  First, the positives: it's relatively amusing, it's got some heart, and Jack Black (last seen in "King Kong") is only about half as obnoxious as he's capable of being.  So, if you need to amuse some kids for a while, I think you could do a lot worse than show them this film.

Now, the negatives (and you knew there'd be a bunch, right?):

First off, in the original novel, Lemuel Gulliver went to FOUR strange lands.  Lilliput, Brobdingnag, the flying island of Laputa, and the land of the Houyhnhnms.  This film simplifies things by only having him visit one (OK, two, but really, one), and of course it's Lilliput, the one most everyone knows.  Plus it's the one with the little people, so Jack Black can be a giant, and hilarity will ensue (that's the plan, anyway).

Then we come to the film's message - which is what, exactly?  Be a man of your word?  Stick up for yourself?  Don't be afraid to ask a girl on a date?  Yeah, I guess they all kind of coincide, but it's really muddled somehow.  Jonathan Swift was a master of satire, which means everything in his novel had a deeper, allegorical meaning, even if we're not sure these days what they all were.  He had a REASON for putting Gulliver in a land where people have heads like horses.  It was a metaphor, dammit.  By comparison, saying "There are no small jobs, only small people" seems kind of lame, and fairly off message.

Look, I realize you've got to put asses in the seats, and these days you can do that by finding a piece of classic literature, and making it accessible.  But that doesn't mean you have to dumb it down and undershoot the audience's intelligence level.  I think they were on the right track with references to "Star Wars", "Titanic", "Avatar", etc., even though that's parody and not satire.  That's going to draw kids in, but once you've got their attention, it's time to make them think, not just make them chuckle.

In the film world, the benchmark for this thing is probably "The Wizard of Oz".  There's no place like home - yeah, that's a message we can all get behind (unless your home life sucks for some reason, I guess).  And even though Dorothy's time in Oz was a dream, she learned something about herself from it.  (Did Dorothy REALLY go over the rainbow?  That depends - did you want her to? I guess you can read that film either way.)  We're supposed to believe here that Gulliver's time in Lilliput was real - I guess kudos for not resorting to "Oh, it was all a dream", but couldn't it have been?  Shouldn't it have been?

Anyway, I'm left questioning whether Swift's novel really needed more ass jokes and pee jokes.  And if I take Disney to task for putting talking gargoyle characters in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame", then I've got to take points off this film's rating for messing with the original story also.

NITPICK POINT: And the film forced my hand, by telling me it wasn't a dream - what did Gulliver eat while in Lilliput?   He's thousands of times bigger than the tallest Lilliputian - wouldn't he devour all of their land's resources in just a few meals?

Also starring Jason Segel (last seen in "Knocked Up"), Billy Connolly (last seen in "Treasure Island"), Emily Blunt (last seen in "Sunshine Cleaning"), Chris O'Dowd (last seen in "Dinner for Schmucks"), T.J. Miller (last seen in "Yogi Bear'), Catherine Tate.

RATING: 4 out of 10 life preservers

Monday, March 19, 2012

Robin Hood (2010)

Year 4, Day 79 - 3/19/12 - Movie #1,079

BEFORE: The last of the Robin Hood films on my list, but is it the best?

THE PLOT: In 13th century England, Robin and his band of marauders confront corruption in a local village and lead an uprising against the crown.  Linking from last night's "Robin Hood", Uma Thurman was also in "Be Cool" with Danny DeVito, who was also in "L.A. Confidential" with Russell Crowe. 

AFTER: The pieces re-shuffle again - tonight's film calls the main character Robin Longstride, and instead of placing him in England while King Richard is away on a crusade, it makes him an archer in the crusade.  Richard's army is on the way home, but they're taking the long route to England, and pillaging along the way.  Robin catches the attention of the king for being an honest man, but perhaps a bit too honest when he questions Richard's wartime actions.

But this Robin is also something of a charlatan, playing an early version of the "shell game" to pass the time with the troops.  He then returns to England by impersonating Robert of Loxley, and once he arrives, the Earl of Loxley has his own reasons for asking him to continue with the charade.  This means he gets to pretend to be married to Maid Marian, maybe that's why this "honest" man chooses to live a lie.

It turns out that I know one of the screenwriters, so I'm going to try and be kind on this one - but I felt there were simply too many factions here, between the Normans, the Saxons, the Barons, the French, Robin's men, the forest outlaws, etc. etc.  And the climax felt too much like someone was trying to turn the movie into "Braveheart".  Plus the whole thing sort of felt like Robin Hood's backstory - it was a long way to go just to find out why he became an outlaw.  Seems to me that's almost where the movie should start, not finish, unless they're planning a sequel.

Hmm, 10 years of an unjustified war, which takes its toll on an overtaxed economy.  I wonder if this was someone's thinly veiled dig at the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?  (Which leads me to wonder - why does everyone blame those sub-prime mortgages for the recent U.S. economic crisis, and not a decade of costly wars?  I'm just sayin'.)

NITPICK POINT: So the English army is in France, headed back to England.  Robin + his men strike out for England first, and obviously arrive first.  The movie proceeds, but the rest of the army never seems to make it back, even though the reason for them to be in France is essentially over, and England could really, really use their help.  What the flick happened to them?  Did they all decide to marry French women and settle down?  You'd think after 10 years away they'd be anxious to get home, no?

Starring Russell Crowe (last seen in "American Gangster"), Cate Blanchett (last seen in "The Missing"), Max Von Sydow (last seen in "Needful Things"), William Hurt (last seen in "The Big Chill"), Mark Strong, Danny Huston (last seen in "Edge of Darkness"), Mark Addy (last seen in "Barney's Version"), Matthew Macfayden, Kevin Durand (last seen in "Legion"), Scott Grimes.

RATING: 5 out of 10 flaming arrows

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Robin Hood (1991)

Year 4, Day 78 - 3/18/12 - Movie #1,078

BEFORE: I missed it by one day, but here's PATRICK Bergin (last seen in "Treasure Island"), who actually is Irish, for St. Patrick's Day...  Linking from last night's film, Errol Flynn was in "Lilacs in the Spring" with Sean Connery, who was also in "The Avengers" with Uma Thurman.

THE PLOT: Another version of the classic Robin Hood epic, with some variations.

AFTER: Yes, some things stay the same in every version of Robin Hood - how Robin met Little John, how Prince John was an overbearing prick, and the dispute between the Saxons and the Normans.  Some things are different here - there's no archery tournament, and the Sheriff of Nottingham is barely mentioned.  Instead the villains are Baron Roger Daguerre, and his visiting guest, Sir Miles Folcanet, to whom Maid Marian is engaged.

What's not believable here is showing Marian disguising herself as a young man in order to learn more about Robin and his men.  In no way does she look like anything but Marian, just with different color hair.  Here's where casting Uma Thurman (last seen in "Percy Jackson & The Olympians") may have been a mistake, because there's no disguising her unique face.

The story of Robin Hood is really an economics lesson, though the old "rob from the rich to give to the poor" explanation seems a bit simplistic.  In last night's film, a ransom was needed to free King Richard from captivity, and thus the Saxons had to be taxed (though who can say if the money would have been used for its intended purpose...).  In tonight's film, there's no mention of ransom, so it's just more tax-and-spend economics - did people believe in the "trickle-down" theory even back then?  Robin clearly doesn't, so he helps things along - but at least there's a stated motivation for returning the tax money to the poor.  If they didn't, some starving villager might have turned Robin in for a reward.

I guess that makes sense - as I figured, we're dealing with the same pieces tonight, they just fit together in a different way.

Also starring Jurgen Prochnow (last seen in "The English Patient"), Jeroen Krabbe (last seen in "The Prince of Tides").

RATING: 6 out of 10 handmaidens