Tue, Nov 29, 2011

: The Muppets

I vaguely remember the Muppets’ TV show, but I’m sure I only watched it a few times. When I first heard about this film I was the opposite of excited, feeling like it was just more retro-retread from unoriginal Hollywood. But it really is fun, feel-good nostalgia.

The film’s humor is very fourth-wall, self-referential type, the kind you either get and love or hate. Characters wink at the camera and talk about being in a movie. Some of the classics include things like “travel by map” (where an animated line on a map shows where the characters go).

Some of this humor takes time to adjust to, so that the first few minutes of the movie are a little flat and odd as you aren’t sure exactly what’s going on. Characters are deliberately stereotypical, people break out into song just like in a musical, and the self-awareness of people can be a little confusing (such as the hilarious bad guy, oil tycoon “Tex Richman,” who just says “Maniacal laugh” instead of doing it). But once you relax and just go with it, everything starts to click.

The plot is absurdly simple: the Muppets old studio is in danger of being torn down for an oil well so they must regroup and put on one last show to raise the $10 million needed. We get to track down all the old Muppets and find out what they’ve been doing (such as Fuzzy being part of a crude Muppets clone act in Las Vegas). The plot’s a little thin at times and I worried they wouldn’t have enough material for a whole movie, but somehow they managed. Things pick up once the telethon starts and that’s definitely the film’s best part. (Once they play that Muppet theme song, you really get into it.)

Speaking of music, there are some new numbers that are pretty good. I liked the “Everything is Perfect” song and “Man or Muppet” was the best filmed. (While I liked Amy Adams’ “Party of One” concept, the whole segment felt too much like filler.)

Overall, this was surprisingly enjoyable. It reminds me a lot of the Brady Bunch movie where the shtick was that the family was still stuck in ’70s mode even though it was the ’90s. In this case, the film acknowledges that the Muppets aren’t popular any more and don’t fit into today’s world… and then proceeds to prove that wrong. Great fun even if you’re the biggest Muppets fan.

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: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger

Director: Woody Allen Writer: Woody Allen

I was just going to explore a few minutes of this out of mild curiosity, as the meandering plot about psychic predictions didn’t interest me very much, but to my surprise I got hooked early on and watched the whole thing. The story follows the lives of several interconnected people: an elderly couple breaking up, with him off seeking vitality in a younger woman and her going to a psychic for advice; and their daughter, who is married to a failed writer, with both of them being tempted by affairs. Naturally the writer’s story intrigued me the most, with his first novel having modest success but never being able to duplicate that and that failure causing marital problems. There was a degree of angry arguing that I didn’t like, but mostly the film switched stories nicely and kept things at a quirky, intriguing level.

Unfortunately, the film ends abruptly, literally with the narrator saying something like, “Okay, we’ve spent enough time with these people now.” Most of the stories still seemed unfinished and while that was intentional, it left me severely unsatisfied and frustrated. Mostly the whole thing seemed utterly pointless in the end. I believe that was the whole point and that’s clever in a way (pointing out the pointlessness of predicting life), but it doesn’t make the film pleasant or fulfilling. I liked it quite a bit until the end, then it fell off a cliff and I actively disliked it.

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Sun, Nov 27, 2011

: The Cleaner

A surprisingly decent little crime drama about a former cop who now runs a crime-cleaning service. He gets set up to clean up a crime scene for an unreported murder, not realizing he’s erasing key evidence, and then he’s trying to figure out who did the crime. The pace is slow and the plot too predictable, but what I really liked was the relationship between the cleaner father and his teenage daughter. A more subdued role for the usually action-oriented Samuel L. Jackson and a nice change of pace. Worth a look if you keep your expectations modest.

Topic: [/movie]


: Gnomeo and Juliet

I avoided this in the theaters because it sounded so bad and I was wise to do so. It’s a punny retelling of Romeo and Juliet with gnomes, and that one-joke premise is worn out in the first ten minutes. The whole movie is awkwardly set to Elton John songs, only one or two which actually fit the story. The rest feel bizarrely out-of-place and shoehorned into place. There are a handful of moments that genuinely work and it struck me that this would have been fine as a half-hour short or perhaps an hour-only TV special, but the much of the story is meaningless filler as the premise is stretched well past breaking. Best skipped.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 25, 2011

: Just Go With It

Like many Adam Sandler movies this one is flawed but with a good heart. This is one of his better ones. Though the plot is obvious from a mile away — a lying plastic surgeon falls for a young woman and gets his assistant and her child to pretend to be his ex-wife and family to explain the fake wedding ring he uses to pick up women — the actual events are interesting and fun. The ending is telegraphed but still feels good. Pleasantly surprising and with an impressive cast.

Topic: [/movie]


Wed, Nov 23, 2011

: Hugo

I knew very little about this going into it as the trailers don’t reveal much. That’s fine, because it’s a hard story to explain without ruining it. All I knew was that it was about an orphan boy in a Paris train station in the 1930s and there something about a robot his father built. Well, it turned out his clockmaker father didn’t build the robot — only found it and repaired it — and it’s not a robot at all, but merely an automaton. Though the trailers made this feel like a story about magic, there is no magic here as everything is very grounded in reality. I liked that. The magic is in the story and the emotions of the characters, not in the events.

That story starts out as a troubled boy’s journey to discover a message from his late father and turns into a quest to help another human being. That, in turn, heals the boy. It is a wonderful, wonderful story.

That quest takes him and his friend back to the dawn of cinema, where we experience the wonder and magic of silent film. This is brilliantly done as we experience both wistful nostalgia and learn to appreciate the true miracle of the first moving pictures.

The ending is truly heartwarming, but the journey to get there is an amazing experience. This is a film and story all about the visuals, from intricate clockworks and the mechanical man to the grand Paris train station filled with dozens of fascinating characters.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of the film were all the tiny side stories, the little love story between the fat man whose advanced are continually foiled by his love’s little yappy dog, and the seemingly evil crippled inspector too shy to meet the attractive flower seller. These stories take just seconds here and there throughout the film but they add such heart and context to the story, grounding everything in humanity, and yet enveloping the entire setting in a cloak of magic.

My vote for must-see film of the holidays. If you can only see one film this season, make it this one. A magical film the whole family will enjoy.

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Tue, Nov 22, 2011

: Drive Angry

I avoided this in the theaters because it seemed so bad, but it wasn’t as terrible as I expected. It’s certainly not a very good movie. It’s strange and poorly done in countless ways, from B-level acting and directing to a silly and incomprehensible plot (something about a guy escaping Hell to come and rescue his kidnapped baby granddaughter before she’ll be murdered by a cult leader), but if you’re in the mood for a “no thinking allowed” movie, this could be your ticket. It’s just fun dumb action with pretty people and there are a few cool scenes that are worth seeing.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Nov 18, 2011

: The Windup Girl

Author: Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a strange and fascinating book. While it’s beautifully written, it’s dark and depressing, with bad ends for just about every character. It’s science fiction set in a decrepit Thailand, in a future world devastated by food plagues that mean that calories are scarce. In this violent and unusual world, almost anything goes. There’s bribery and corruption everywhere, with everyone scheming on how to make a buck and get ahead.

Our characters include a Westerner, a “calorie man,” meaning that he works for a giant agrigen company that is seeking out disease-free seeds of fruits and plants that it can genetically modify and reproduce for world-wide distribution. There are also a couple of military people, an old Chinese man who is the foreman of the calorie man’s factory, and a genetically manufactured girl that is the source of the book’s title. She is “New People,” built and trained in Japan where her kind is accepted, but hated in Thailand where she lives in secret and where she’ll be destroyed on sight if anyone realizes she isn’t human.

The book has relatively little plot. While you’re reading it seems like much is happening — there’s political upheaval, a revolution being plotted, money-making and robbery scheme planned, escapes attempted and thwarted, and so on — but in the end nothing much has changed or happens.

I found much of the book confusing. Though I love science fiction and I thought the unusual Thailand setting interesting, the combination often left me baffled as to what was going on. There’s unfamiliar sci-fi technology as well as strange Thai customs and little of it is ever explained. (For instance, I never could figure out what the calorie man’s factory produced. They grew vats of algae but I have no idea what for.)

Some of the confusion happened because I listened to the audio book version: many times the narrator referred to “loading lamps with jewels” (apparently to charge them with power) which I thought was strange, and it was only much later I realized this meant “joules” as in units of energy.

The book is slow and ponderous, and while the writing is gorgeously descriptive, that sluggish pace, combined with baffling events, and the irredeemably depressing nature of the story, turned me off of the book. I did finish it, but man was I happy to be done!

Others may like it better than I did. It’s well-written and innovative, and the atmosphere and setting is certainly interesting. There were many individual scenes I thought were amazing. But endless descriptions of human filth, horrible violence and murders, vivid depictions of a ruthless world utterly without a conscience, and the hellish degradations forced on the titular character were just too depressing for me to enjoy much else about the book. It often left me feeling like I needed a shower or to go and look at something pretty just for the respite.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Nov 11, 2011

: The Immortals

The trailer for this made it seem absolutely dreadful, but I was still slightly curious and it’s the type of film I’d see regardless of my expectations. To my shock, it’s actually quite good. I enjoyed it very much. The visuals are stylish and unusual and worth the price of admission. I wasn’t as enthralled with the story, which is overly convoluted and too predictable, but the writing and performances were done so well that it was entertaining to watch. Mickey Rourke was terrific as the bad guy King who’s waging war against our peasant hero. He utterly evil and cruel, yet mesmerizing. The rest of the cast was terrific, too, which surprised me because in the trailer the acting seemed very poor. But the trailer’s all lines of dialog taken out of context and that’s why it feels so awkward. In the film, the lines actually work.

There’s definitely a “style over substance” feel to this film, but there’s nothing wrong with that. A few times the style is too much. It’s usually over-the-top, but occasionally it outdoes itself. For instance, there was one transition from a face mask to a rowing boat — clearly digitally altered so that the mask morphed into the moving boat. Clever and interesting, but there was no point to the effect. The scene was not dramatic or critical, and a transition wasn’t important, so it seemed superfluous.

But I reserve my main criticism for the story, which has lots of interesting aspects, but doesn’t explain enough and doesn’t properly explore some of the philosophical questions it raises. For example, Zeus has a law forbidding interfering in the lives of humans — yet he seems to do it himself with impunity. The other gods seem very interested in helping out the humans, too, which seems to run counter to what we know of the Greek gods (who were passive and selfish). I didn’t at all understand how these “immortal” gods could die, either (since that would make them mortal and by definition they wouldn’t be gods).

This isn’t a classic film or great literature. It’s not even quite up to the heroics of 300, though it has a similar feel and a lovely, distinctive style. But it is enjoyable, unusual, and the rich visuals and wonderful sets more than make up for other lacks. Definitely surprising and much better than I expected.

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Fri, Nov 04, 2011

: Tower Heist

I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this. It’s not a laugh-a-minute kind of film as the topic is seriously handled, but it is funny and entertaining. The premise is right out of the headlines — a rich guy pulls a Ponzi scheme and rips off half of Manhattan, including the entire staff of the luxury high-rise where he is under house arrest. Our hero, the manager of the tower, decides the guy is hiding the money and decides to outwit him and steal it. He forms an inept motley crew of tower employees and the chaos proceeds from there. Over the top for sure, but in a fun way. It goes on a little long, there are a few awkward moments that don’t work, and the ending is too pat, but overall it’s well done and worth seeing.

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Thu, Nov 03, 2011

: In Time

I really wanted to like this. The scifi premise is intriguing: people have been genetically engineered to stop aging at age 25, but since that leads to overpopulation, people are also built with a genetic clock that causes them to die one year later. Thus time becomes invaluable, and the new currency. People pay with time — a cup of coffee, for instance, is four minutes off your life. Thus the wealthy can live forever by buying time from the poor who run out of time and die.

The problem with the film is that this interesting idea is poorly implemented. There are aspects that are fairly well done, but much isn’t explained and makes no sense. For instance, the genetic clock glows and ticks down on the person’s arm just like a digital clock. And somehow the people can shake hands a certain way to transfer time from one clock to another — that’s how things are paid for. But the way this works is bizarre, for sometimes it takes seconds to transfer centuries and other times just transferring a few minutes of time takes longer. Characters even “time fight” and are able to steal time from another person, yet we’re given zero explanation of how time is transferred. (If a person has to will it, then how could you still from them?)

What annoyed me the most is that the value of time is also inconsistent. If we equate it to dollars and use a $4 cup of coffee as our exchange rate, that means one minute of life is equal to a dollar. Under that rate, a whole day would be $1,440, a week $10,080, a month $43,200, and a year $524,160. A century would be about $50 million. As you can see, the value accelerates. Yet our characters start throwing out months and decades of time as though it’s not worth that much. Like when our hero goes to the rich part of town he gives the waitress a week’s worth of time as a tip when his meal cost a month! That doesn’t make much sense.

The story is also cumbersome, an odd mixture of the predictable and the interesting. As so often happens with a gimmicky premise, the writer seems to think that just having ordinary characters in this gimmicky setting is all that’s needed. There are a few scenes that stand out — the poor boy-rich girl love story is not bad and the Robin Hood premise also works. But the obvious flaws outweigh the good.

For instance, the main couple become bank robbers, stealing time and donating to the poor. They somehow manage these robberies with remarkable ease, often just waving a gun and receiving time capsules. Yet outside death is all around with desperate people with just minutes left to live before their time runs out… and not one of them decides to rob a bank to gain more life? You’d think in a society like that the violence would be uncontrollable.

The film ultimately succumbs to heavy-handed preaching on the evils of the rich versus the poor. These obvious lessons are doled out as though precious treasures, overemphasized and exaggerated to make sure we don’t miss them. This is ham-handedly done with zero attempt at subtlety: the rich are all portrayed as evil and the poor are all heroic. There actually is some gold to mine in this topic — I would love a serious exploration of some of these ideas — but this film handles it so ineptly that it’s pretty much a joke.

With the writing and acting all over the map (some good, some terrible), some over-the-top dramatic moments that are so silly you have to work to not burst out laughing (you know the moment’s supposed to be somber), and too much of the science fiction world left vague and unexplained and inconsistent, I can’t recommend this film at all. It has some intriguing ideas, but sadly it’s just wasted potential.

Topic: [/movie]