Rabbit Hole

John Cameron Mitchell is one of the most unafraid and talented directors I’ve come across in the last many years. This is his third and both most-polished and most mainstream product, but it hasn’t lost what makes him so special: the ability to deal with and present true human emotions. Given the subject matter, most directors would have settled for histrionics and cliches. Mitchell focuses instead on the understated realities and tensions, that do eventually bubble over, but which ultimately just go on. He lets the story tell itself, but manages to acheive an energy level that similar directors, such as Altman, often miss.

All the performances were beautifully restrained. But, frankly I think Weist was overlooked in this movie. Her performance, even more than Kidman’s, was subtle and powerful but Kidman got the Oscar nom. This is not an easy film, but I didn’t feel used or voyeristic when it was over.

If you haven’t discovered Mitchell’s movies yet, I highly recommend them. They are all three different. Very different from one another and different from general, main-stream cinema. Hedvig and Angry Inch (a fantastical, musical romp of self-discovery) and Shortbus (a graphically sex-positive film about emotions and love) are both worth your time and multiple viewings. Particularly Hedvig, which was an adapatation of Mitchell’s own play and how I found him in the first place.

Given the divirsity of subject matter and style, I have no idea what he will come out with next, but that is part of the fun–I trust him to produce something interesting, but I’ve no idea what I’m stepping into when I show up. Kind of like a 90 minute amusement park ride.

 

Kick-Ass (redux)


(even the second time around)

I come not to bury Kick-Ass but to praise him … uh, it. I won’t do this often, but having just re-watched this movie so we could show it to a friend, I was blown away by how much fun it is. Especially just after having just commented on the directing and editing of Happily N’Ever After, this movie is a perfect example of what good timing is for comedy.

Every aspect of this movie is thought through. From music to settings to props and references. It uses everything it sets up, though in all honesty, you may have to watch it a couple times to really catch it all. Frankly it rewatches as good or better than the first time through–but there is nothing quite like your first time, is there? And, yep, that’s topical as well as lewd, but I couldn’t resist. The completely irreverent view of the world that this movie presents will just bring it out in you.

In addition to its comedy and irreverence, what it accomplishes is as close to a non-jaundiced view of super-heroes as you’re likely to see these days and yet still give you a hero. It doesn’t just ask what makes s super hero, it asks what is it really like to try and be one. The ultimate of getting what you think you want… which is another reason that after last night’s movie, this stands out so well and merits a second post.

Both dialog and action try to present this in as real a sounding way as I’ve heard outside of the Whedon-verse (pick your show on that one). But while Buffy, Angel, and Firefly didn’t make you doubt the dialog, Kick-Ass feels less hyper-real and just a tad more improved for our main character.

I know I’ll be coming back to this movie many times over the years. And, should they ever really get it off the ground, I’ll even go to the sequel. If you still haven’t seen this, though, correct that soon, or I’ll have to arrange a visit from Kick-Ass himself to make you!

Happily N’Ever After

Shrek opened a door to the general public for being utterly irreverent about the fairy tales (especially as retold by Disney) we grew up with. But for all its slams at at the mouse, it stayed pretty close to home and the heroes journey and family fare.

Happily N’Ever wanted to go further and cross the lines a little. The primary story surrounds the aspect of desire and expectation versus what is real and satisfying. It never quite manages to do so, but you can see the intent that this should have been a film for adults, or kids in a country not so coddled and protected as ours by the media (forgetting what they experience in the real world). They also had the chance to really have a strong female hero, but back-pedaled in part due to the story they set for themselves and, in part, for marketing.

The animation is marginal. It comes off a tad second tier, especially 6 years later, though some of it is subtly nice. The voice talent is quite good and nail their efforts. The amusement of Geller and Prinze Jr. working as romantic leads to one another just after their marriage was a weak selling point to most, but Geller was the reason I even knew about the film in the first place. If only they hadn’t had her sing her own song for this, she’d have been about pitch perfect as well. There is only one song.. and it is an important one… and the voices are just not Broadway capable, so it comes off weak and the message a bit lost.

More distracting than the rest of the, admittedly overthought, issues, was the directing. Have you have listened to someone tell a joke who just was a little off? Who would wait a beat too long to delivery the punchline and leave you with the knowledge of a good joke, but not the belly laugh? Sadly, the entire film seemed to be a beat off from the start. It is an ineffable quality, but everyone recognizes when it is off. It is the difference between a successful comedian and a bomb. Timing is, well, everything and this director either has a slow inner clock or really doesn’t understand comedy.

For an early evening or late afternoon divirsion, which is how I viewed it, it is perfectly entertaining and appropriate for most kids. I just wish they’d been a bit more brave and had aimed this to young adults and above.

Mr. Nice Guy

Let’s face it, you don’t watch early Jackie Chan films for the acting and script. You watch for the humor (sometimes unintentional) and the choreography. This movie delivers about what you’d expect. Poor script, black-hat criminals, and, sadly, poor cinematography that didn’t really know how to capture a lot of the fights.

By way of context, I didn’t discover Chan until Rumble in the Bronx (1995), along with a lot of this country. Bronx, while entertaining, was really about the astounding fight sequences. Strangely, though this movie is couple years later, it is actually not nearly as good in script or fights. In fact it is even post-First Strike and Thunderbolt. The ending of Mr. Nice Guy is especially disappointing as it drifts from Chan’s skills and goes for a different execution. That isn’t to say that there aren’t some great moments and some truly jaw-dropping risks that Chan takes (see through the credits for the outtakes). As always, Chan is inventive and takes personal risks in order to entertain. If you like Chan and haven’t seen this one, it is worth filling in the gap. If you haven’t discovered Chan, you probably want to start with his later films or skip this one–you’d see the possibilities, but you’d likely be chased away before discovering what he is really capable of.

On a complete side-note, have to say I was expecting a riff off an older Jacky Chen film (1979) Of Cooks and Kung Fu, which is amusing in its own right with some fun choreography. But not the tact they took, though I really do think they had it in mind…

The Tourist

Every so often there is a movie that understands what it is. The Tourist is definitely one of those. It knows it is a comedy and love story with a bit of action thrown in. Unlike Knight and Day, there is a grounded sense of tension and whimsy to the story that allows it walk the line it set for itself.

While not much more than a good popcorn film, at least I felt I knew what I was in for. Even when I was way ahead of it (which was most of the time as it is a stock thriller plot), it was still fun. The film is well-crafted and keeps enough mystery to keep you wondering and enough smolder to provide focus. Despite the moments where Depp slips into Jack Sparrow and Jolie into some of her stock characters, they work well together and it was an inspired pairing.

The Tourist won’t waste your time, but whether you return to Paris and Venice with the team for a subsequent vacation will be a question only you can answer.

A Summer in Genoa

Haven’t had much time to watch movies for the last week due to visitors and work deadlines. It is a shame that this was the first on my docket after the pause. It made it to my disc player thanks to some intriguing teasers on other rentals that were good. And it had a couple performers that can usually bring me to the table: Firth and Keener.

However, and you knew that was coming, this movie just never comes together, despite a promising start. I understand what the director was attempting, or think I do, but the movie isn’t quite slice-of-life, isn’t quite suspense, isn’t quite coming-of-age. It is really not quite anything and ultimately never gels despite solid performances by the entire cast. Add to this lack old film stock, or the look of old stock, which is too dark and washed out to really see some of the action (let alone Genoa) and weak editing that leaves much to be desired and it is an overall miss.

It has been a long time since I was so led astray by both trailer and Netflix ratings, but it is bound to happen at times. Though it wasn’t so bad that I didn’t watch it till the end hoping it it would resolve into something more than its jumbled parts, I cannot recommend this movie on any level.

Frankenstein (National Theatre)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to see a recorded, broadcast performance of the National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein, adapted from Shelley by Nick Dear and directed by Danny Boyle. The production starred Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller. They are not the only actors in the play, but they are very much what all else hangs on.

What has made this production so well known, other than its director, is that the main actors swap parts each night, one playing the monster and the other Victor Frankenstein. By Boyle’s own admission, it was to help emphasize the blurred lines between creator and created that Shelley explores in her book.

In addition to its clever casting ploy, Dear’s adaptation approaches the story from the monster’s point of view almost exclusively. He is our protagonist and main narrator. In part, Dear wanted to return to the monster his voice that has been lost in most media adaptations. This presents a number of challenges for the play and the audience. I don’t know about you, but it has been years since I read Shelley’s book. And I have seen dozens of versions on screen… all quite a stretch from the original material. But most of those movies riffed on elements in the book, such as the blind pauper that befriends the creature. As soon as this character appears, how can you not think of Gene Hackman in Young Frankenstein? Even if you haven’t seen the Brook’s classic (and if you haven’t, rent it tomorrow!) the scene has been excerpted countless times for various events. It is Dear and Boyle’s challenge to rewrite that, and even more popularly, Karloff’s turn in Whale’s original version, in our minds. Suffice to say they rise to that challenge and succeed.

An additional challenge is squeezing an epic into two hours (without intermission, BTW, probably a nod to Boyle’s film life). And on this challenge, we are provided a breathless sprint that is over before you even realize the time has passed. However, it also means that we skip along the surface of events and have to change venues and through time often.

The beginning of the play is the creature’s birth, his initial confrontation with his creator, and his escape. That’s all in 5 minutes, and then the monster runs off. This is probably the biggest issue I had with the show as it failed to teach me about what was to happen and how to experience it. For me, it was unclear that the creature had left Frankenstein’s lab. Suddenly the creature is in the world on his own and begins his journey of learning about how to walk and talk and, more importantly, what humanity is really like. This journey, which lasts more than a year, is done in a the sort of scenic montage that works great on film, but not always perfectly on stage. Eventually, I caught up to what was going on, but it caused me some confusion and frustration until I did.

Despite phenomenal design elements (and I shall spoil none of them as you just have to see how a generally simple space can be made glorious), it really was on the designers to make the time and place shifts work better that they did in the first part of the play. It was Boyle’s job to see that they weren’t succeeding and force that issue. This failure is my biggest frustration with the production. Not much of an issue in the scheme of it all, but worth noting.

Alone, having Boyle’s abilities pressed once again to the stage after a long string of films that started with Trainspotting and Shallow Grave and most recently recognized with an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire and a nomination for 127 Hours, was too good to miss. I have been following Boyle since his beginnings on screen and have only been disappointed once (Sunshine). He is a master storyteller and understands that plot and action are important, but that characters are essential. He is great at both.

Though both leads are British, each is already known on American screens. Lee Miller in and as Eli Stone as well as a recent turn on Dexter. Cumberbatch as Sherlock in the newest take on the infamous detective by Steven Moffit. The version I saw had Cumberbatch as Frankenstein and Lee Miller as the monster. I can’t even imagine the roles swapped. And this is part of the intrigue, and my fervent hope that when they release this on blu-ray they will include both versions of the show. If I could see the next airing tomorrow night, I would, but I am not able to attend (and it is sold out anyway).

You do not often get to see a performance that will become part of theatre legend. And, until recently, if you were unable to attend, all you could do was read reviews or in textbooks about them. Filmed stage is not a perfect substitution for live, though this version is impressive, but it is a great technological gift that the craft is being captured and shared. If you can see this during its final general broadcast on or disc (hopefully) later, do.

Tron: Legacy

Movies that are pure spectacle have to provide something more than that to survive in the long term. And a sequel that comes almost 30 years after the original has a mountain to climb. Now Tron, the original 1982 flick, was a cheesy and silly movie that showed us something no one ever had before. A near-completely green-screen filmed story. In fact, you can think of Tron as the Avatar of its day in that respect. It was the first all-electronic (OK, nearly all) scenery. It lives on for many of us due to nostalgia more than its brilliant script.

So fast-forward to the near present and you have its sequel. I didn’t go see this in IMAX 3D, though I had planned to, because the reviews just weren’t enticing enough to get me to spend the $13/tik. I knew I would be seeing it at a disadvantage on the relatively smaller screen at home. And, clearly, it is designed for shock and awe in the world of the Grid. And it was pretty. In fact, the transfer is very nice and preserves the IMAX screen ratios by adjusting as necessary (and it was very seamless for me). But there were distractions.

The plot was thinly thought through and confused. The relationships were cliches. The characters, cookie-cutter. The script was, fortunately, never painful, but it never engaged. And the F/X…

OK, I’m going to break a rule here and discuss a small spoiler. It’s small in that it happens early on and, frankly, wasn’t that surprising. But it had a huge effect on my enjoyment. So if you must preserve the integrity of your experience, skip past the next paragraph.

<SPOILER>
F/X are always the blessing and curse of films. It can become all about the F/X. Remember Kevin Costner’s hair in Waterworld? A fortune spent making him look less bald, when they should have really just done a better story. In Tr2n, the issue for me was Bridges’ evil counterpart being painted with his 30 years younger face. It never looked quite right and, while the idea was good, it pulled me out of the story every time he took off his helmet or purposely shot it so they wouldn’t have to spend the money to paint his face. Perhaps if the original Flynn wasn’t still around in the story, it would have felt more a taunt to the younger Flynn, but it had the same “dead eye” problem that Polar Express and similar mo-cap films suffer from and the skin wasn’t quite alive either. It just wasn’t working seamlessly.
</SPOILER>

Overall, it was a pretty popcorn film. And, yes, popcorn was had while we watched. But you know what, so are most Roland Emmerich flicks (e.g., 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla [1998], etc.), however he provides fun dialog, emotional ties, and slightly more complex challenges. He is far from my favorite film maker, but he manages to get me to rewatch films, just for the silly fun… at least on disc.

Not that Legacy is unwatchable, it just isn’t very rewatchable for me–not even Olivia Wilde in skin-tights is going to do it. But given that it was announced this week that TR2N has minted the highest grossing, first-time director, there is sure to be a TR3N. I can only hope that between the desire of Disney to make $$s and the effort to create the animated bridging series and the marketing machine to sell toys and games, that maybe, just maybe, they’ll give us a better film the next time around and lose their love affair with the shiny.

I Love You Phillip Morris

“This really happened.” “… really, it did.” starts off this bleakly dark, but somehow weirdly sweet tale. And yet, much like Catfish, I don’t think you believe it. Even at the end.

There is a lot going for this film. It is quirky. Unafraid. Different. Funny. Touching. Twisted. And there is no doubt in my mind as to why it sat on the shelf for a long while before it found its way to release. There is just no good way to sell this story to the general, or even targeted, public. The base of the story, two men finding true love in jail, implies one kind of story, but well, it just isn’t really a gay love story. It’s just a story about love. Sort of. Maybe. And the hype over its delay and ultimate release may have colored my viewing.

That said, did I enjoy it? Yep. Despite Carrey’s penchant for over-acting and McGregor’s occasionally overly-fey portrayal, they stuck with their choices. And, given some of the exploits, perhaps they were true to the real-life counterparts. I really don’t know. And the pacing is rough, to say the least. But even with these distractions, you are carried along for the wild ride that was their lives and choices. And, ultimately, you sort of root for them and are angered by the world around them.

But, it really isn’t that straight forward. Honestly, you’ll just have to figure this one out for yourselves; and you may never view clouds the same again.

Fingersmith

A mix of Jane Austin meets Dickens with a smidgen of Lady Chatterly’s Lover and a few other oddities. From what I understand, the book is much more complex and interesting, but I’ve not read it yet. I can say that it is a much slower and less intriguingly told story than Tipping the Velvet, which was the previous adaptation of a Sarah Waters book we’ve seen. And, which in fact, got us to purchase Fingersmith and rent this mini-series.

Overall, a very well done series with twists and turns and a fabulous cast and performances. The story is definitely unique. And, despite its 2-part, 3 hour length, we watched it straight through to the end. Due to the pacing, you’re likely to have to enjoy typical BBC period drama to settle in, but the road does diverge from expectations rather radically and the story will have you rethinking what you’re watching often.

Unlike Tipping the Velvet, however, I don’t think I’d be driven to rewatch this series. While good, the interactions aren’t entertaining enough in their own right to bring me back. They’re true to the story and charged with emotion, but I have to admit a desire for witty dialog in these types of drama.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…