Gnomeo and Juliet

Yeah, I just had to see it. I love seeing what folks will do with Shakespeare… and sometimes I dread it. This was somewhere in between. It is a kid’s movie aimed at the 6-15 bracket, and that may be stretching it on the high side. There are just enough sly references to Shakespeare lines and plays for adults to stay engaged while their children laugh at the silliness.

The story is Romeo and Juliet–though if they had stuck truer to the plot, it would have helped the movie. The voice talent is extraordinary. The animation is even pretty good. At about 85 minutes it certainly wasn’t a huge time loss for a little humor and Bardic nods. But overall, it just doesn’t rise above enough to make me watch it again.

Skins v3 & v4 (BBC)

Much like the first 2 series, the final two really cannot be discussed separately. Series 3 sets up all the pay off in series 4. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a great deal of value in series 3, there is. But series 4 has matured markedly over its predecessors. Not only are the writing and directing better, but they’ve finally found a balance between the teen and adult worlds that had been far too separate in the previous runs (a concept I outlined as a problem in my post on I Am Number Four).

This isn’t to say that the characters are any less independent or rebellious, or lost… but we get to see the root causes and the very real influences their families exert despite all illusions to the contrary. And the issues that are dealt with are more evolved and complex and real. For all the aspects of the first 3 volumes, the problems always felt like they were being handled outside of the real world. Somehow series 4 manages to ground the flare ups and resolutions without making it feel like adult supervision was controlling everything and so we never lose the power point of view of our main characters.

While there are many powerful episodes, of particular note is JJ’s episode in the middle of series 4. It manages to pack more unrelated references into the final few minutes of the episode, believably, than you’d think possible and is a delightful respite before the final rush of the last two episodes. The overall end point of the series is fairly well foreshadowed, but it doesn’t matter. The finale is deftly directed and you will ride it to the end satisfied.

What I wasn’t expecting was how well all four series come together in an odd sort of arc. Despite the first two being more about shock and awe of what you’ve never seen on TV before and the last two more centered on the relationships and the world around the characters, they come together in interesting ways. I won’t go into how or why as that risks ruining your first time through. Suffice to say that the writers really knew what they were doing… even when I wasn’t sure they did.

I Am Number Four

To start, this is a very weak 3 based solely on f/x, some dialog thanks to Marti Noxon, and my Gleeky fun at seeing Dianna Agron in a different-ish role. There arelly wasn’t a bad performance, though there was some cliched direction. All that said, having settled in with popcorn for what I thought and hoped would be a fun action, skiffy sort of diversion, I discovered instead that I was covered in a syrup of teen angst. Now that isn’t to say that this wasn’t an OK film (barely) but it really is aimed at the 15-21 yr old set. Oddly, the main characters really look older than that (though Pettyfer is just barely so). The casting strained credibility for me as they were supposed to be high school seniors… at least I hope they were to be seniors.

What was interesting was seeing how much more difficult it is to do a movie from the teen point of view than it is the pre-teen/child. There is a level of isolation that small children and most pre-teens have by virtue of the fantasy world they live in… before reality asserts itself. While adults play a role, it is more like the distant gods of Olympus rather than as overseers. A good example is The Spiderwick Chronicles. Teens and young-adults, however, are in the process of trying to break away from adult oversight but still very much underneath it. Portraying this age group without dealing with adults in a believable, if not realistic, manner comes across as absurd (at least to this adult ;-). When the balancing act is done well, it makes the story all the more powerful. Skins (BBC) really manages this in its 4th series (review coming soon).

In addition to the lack of realistic adults, the “science,” if you will, was weak and strained. I have no problem with science fantasy. It’s fun and allows a wonderful sort of mid-ground between magic and science. What will drive me nuts is poor plotting that doesn’t follow its own rules or think through the possibilities. For example, if you can teleport, why can’t you escape someone’s grip? If you can morph, what happens to the extra mass (forgetting the energy needs)? But, I tried to let that go and they did do some clever things with the emergent powers of our teen aliens. However, the entire trope that drives that story… that the kids are being killed off in a specifc, numbered order… well, if the book explains that, I don’t know, but the movie sure don’t and it is absurd without a reason (I managed to come up with a few on my own that could work, but have no idea if any is provided in the book series).

Overall, this was clearly a launching pad for a series–even to the point of not opening a legacy from the dead parents of our male lead that is clearly a central point before the credits rolled. I can see the possibilities, but a better level of script is necessary if they are going to get another bite at this and keep it alive. Given the weak boxoffice, however, I’m dubious they’ll get that chance.

Love is the Devil

I hadn’t intended to watch this movie, but had started it up out of curiosity about the cast (Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig, not to mention Tilda Swinton). Done as a series of vignettes, I was pulled along the story of Francis Bacon (Jacobi) and his rough-trade lover, George Dyer (Craig).

Similar in intent to Basquiat and Prick Up Your Ears, this movie attempts to be both biography and living art in the style of the artist in question. All 3 manage to create the visual and aural equivalents of their subjects. However, unlike Basquiat, the story and character journey is easier to follow and unlike Prick Up Your Ears, the story structure itself is more like the work of the artist: twisted, disjointed, and dark… though somehow also very narrative. And very much unlike Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, this was actually enjoyable to watch. But I could go on forever with comparisons to other biopics and that would eventually get pointless.

If you know Bacon’s work by name, you will instantly see the correlations. I have to admit that I didn’t, and looked him up afterwards. Frankly, a good sign for the movie. While it was obvious that certain shots and choices were live recreations, I was taken with the accuracy of the mirror between the biopic and the works. But you didn’t need to know Bacon’s work or story to appreciate the film and events. It provides enough context and emotion to allow you to watch now and think about the non-fictional implications later if you wish.

All-in-all, it was a pleasant and unintended surprise of a film, though far from light-hearted.

Somewhere

Somewhere is more of an anti-movie than a movie. It invites you to reconsider what you know about movies and stars. There are no flashy chase scenes or emotional bombshells; just a slow burn that ultimately cleanses in a very quiet way. Every design decision pushes you away from what you expect.

In fact, it almost has the feel of a student film with weak lighting choices, off-center framing, and older film stock in feel. Having seen her ability in previous movies, I took these as choices rather than ability and resources. You keep wanting something more exciting to happen, but it won’t. It really just can’t in this story. It is a real look behind the curtain, in many ways, of what it is to be a star outside the camera frame… but without the Hollywood drama of sex and drugs and artistic implosion. This is just a guy who, somehow, became a star.

The main character is obviously very successful, but lives in quasi-seedy residence hotel. His only nod to flash is his Ferrari. He is not a particularly attractive man, yet he is surrounded by willing women and is often bored by the prospect. But this isn’t a typical Hollywood ennui story. It is more about a real guy who is so removed from reality he doesn’t know what day it is, yet he tries to be a relatively normal father to his 11 yr old daughter… to varying degrees of success. But this could have been a story about a suburban father with very few changes. There is no on-set scene, other than a junkette that is more painful than flashy, or big red-carpet party. The few times we see him in the expected element he is more lost than part of it.

Say what you want about Sofia Coppola, she won’t be rushed. It opens with an extended visual metaphor that Coppola pays off in the final scene. Whether or not you like the movie, you have to admire her first and last frames here. I can’t say this is is my favorite film of hers. Virgin Suicides was better material, Marie Antoinette had a wickeder sense of humor, and Lost in Translation was just so different at the time it stood out. However, she is a director who has a story to tell and tells it her way. Always. For that I admire her even if I have quibbles with the pacing.

Vanishing on 7th Street

I struggled with giving this 3 stars, but I did watch it all and it had great atmosphere. The reality, however, is that it is caught between being an ecological comment or an existential scream and it never really resolves into anything by the end. At least, nothing that really satisfied me.

I don’t need closure in all movies, but I do need to have felt a journey of some sort and potential (positive or negative) for the characters after the fade-to-black that I care about. Frankly, none of the characters provided me anything to really care about. Their backstories were muddied and weak. Their motivations were suspect or hyperbolic. Their actions often just annoyingly stupid.

What it did have going for it was some good tension and some excellent, creepy moments that tapped into subconscious fears nicely. No blood or gore, it was all about the dark and being alone. As a study in creating mood and subtle atmosphere, this is worth watching (and thus the 3 stars) but otherwise, you can probably pass it by and spend your 90 minutes somewhere more deserving. I sorta wish I had.

Misfits (UK)

I’m reviewing the first 2 series at once as they’re short (6 episodes each) and I missed the opportunity to talk about it sooner.

Misfits is what you get if Skins and Heroes were blended together by an evil scientist and given a does of growth hormone. The series was a surprise hit in the UK and continues strong with a heavy dose of irreverence. In fact, the Christmas episode at the end of season 2 is possibly the most cynical holiday episode I’ve ever seen. Needless to say, I loved it!

There is little I can talk about without giving away the fun twists and turns and relationship goo that makes Misfits a rapid-fire and wonderfully twisted show. If you can get a hold of a copy, do. The performances alone are worth it–you’d almost swear it is filmed from someone’s webcam the exchanges feel so real. OK, sometimes hyper-real as at least one of the characters is so far over-the-top you just watch in awe. But generally speaking, the series is well thought-out and manages to keep itself both vital and fairly unpredictable for the big stuff. I can’t wait for season 3!

Thor

There are also two parts to this particular review as I saw Thor in IMAX 3D. I want to approach this by splitting the movie from the 3D question, as that deserves special attention.

The Movie

This was always going to be the most difficult of the cycle of films to do well. Unlike Iron Man, Hulk, Captain America, or even Iron Man 2, this has to bridge pure fantasy with our world in a palatable way. As part of the path to The Avengers coming next summer, it was both necessary and challenging. Thor manages to build on the world and mythos that have been laid out in the previous 3 movies with throw-away comments as well as direct nods. Pulling together these various stories is a massive acheivment in entertainment and since the day I saw the tag at the end of Iron Man, I’ve been excited to see if they could pull of what was a very risky endeavor.

My favorite description of what they were attempting to do with Thor was, unlike the other members of the Avengers, they weren’t creating an origin of man becoming a hero, they were instead making hero into a man. A powerful and smart shift. However, this is a much tougher row to hoe. Thor had to explain an entire world and mythos, while the other movies were clearly in our world. Branagh, makes some interesting choices in how to structure the movie to do this; though I’m not sure I agree with all of them. However, it means a huge amount of time is spent providing background of a particular brand of Norse mythology and sacrifices, to a degree, the Earth-bound interaction. In particular, I feel I had more time with Loki and Thor than I did Thor and Jane (Portman’s role). As part of a whole cycle, not such a big deal, but for the individual movie, it weakened the emotions and impact despite some very genuine performances by the romantic leads. The focus also forced the climactic battles to be rushed along in rather unsatisfying ways in order to provide the brotherly confrontations.

Overall, this is not the strongest of the movies… though rating well above Iron Man 2 for me, but still below Iron Man and Hulk. And it continues the level of both humor and suspense that have made the rest enjoyable. One moment, in particular, evoked Galaxy Quest so well I almost fell out of my chair.

The 3D Question

Now to the 3D question. I went to the 3D version simply because I wanted to see this in IMAX but there were no 2D showings in my area of this film in IMAX. I have to say, it added nothing and I probably won’t be spending that kind of money again any time soon. 3D is still nearly pointless. Outside of Avatar, which was a lousy movie, but which was a brilliant piece of technology, no one has produced an immersive fiction that warrants that kind of expenditure by the public. And, dang it, it gives me a headache. It would have been perfectly fine in 2D on a big screen and I suspect I’ll be seeing Captain America that way come later this summer.

3D is still a gimmick and will remain so for quite some time. It worked in Avatar because the world was one of the main characters. I suspect it will be a while, if ever, that we’ll see really good reasons to have 3D films that require glasses. Even Avatar has blown its surprise. I don’t know if Avatar 2 and 3 will have the same impact given that we know what to expect now. But, other than studios wanting to make more money, I can’t imagine why anyone wants to spend double the normal ticket price (nearly) for an effect that adds little to the experience.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

Is it a movie or a painting… you can choose. And both are equally satisfying. Every shot of this rather well-done historical fiction is like seeing a Dutch Master’s work. The lighting and framing are breathtaking. The designers of the film deserve any and all kudos they received and more. The director as well, for both the understated, tense performances and his ability to negotiate between the two objectives without harming either one. But don’t let the art talk dissuade you from seeing the film. The story is as much domestic drama, coming-of-age, and class power struggle as it is anything else.

The performances are all strong. Many of the characters hardly have a line, such as Vermeer himself, played by Colin Firth, or his daughter Cornelia and yet they have huge impact. Of particular note is the titular character. This film was the last before Scarlett Johansson bought into the hype that she was a Siren. She managed to be the beguiling center of this film, coming across as both genuine and innocent. Frankly since, I’ve found her overbearing, snobby, only mildly attractive and often just distracting in her portrayals. But in this film she is seamless in her involvement. Perhaps one day she’ll find this center again.

While based on accepted facts about Vermeer and his life, the story itself is posited from the sensual and somewhat frightened look from the servant in the painting that lends its title to the film. That one frozen moment, in itself a fiction created by the painter, spawned a shadow backstory as a book which was then transmuted into the film. The levels of meta around this are mind-boggling!

As a side note, while well-known, only a handful of paintings exist today that are attributed to Vermeer. Many haven’t even been available to the public viewing for years; they were locked away, until a recent tour I was fortunate enough to see, while their home museum in Holland was being rebuilt. Watching this film was like diving into those paintings and getting to wallow around in the events that spawned them. Though I’m sorry I waited so long to see this film, in some ways, having now seen the paintings up close, I think I got all the more out of it.

Black Death

There are a couple ways to approach this movie, but neither is particularly satisfying.

The first is as an historical suspense-thriller. Frankly, while the elements of the design and locations seem accurate enough, the pacing is just a little off for this kind of film. If you like historical drama, or just like Sean Bean (which is more than enough for a friend of mine to show up), you’ll probably find this mildly diverting. There are even some nice medieval slaughters to watch, though they aren’t the best filmed for my taste. I’m not a fan of quick-cut, shaky-cam approach that attempts to reproduce chaos, but only makes it very hard to see the action.

The other is to see it as both reflection on faith and moral tale. I think it probably succeeds better at this aspect and it has some effectively chilling and sad moments. But again, the pacing and the script just aren’t impactful enough to throughout to pay-off the ending, which is the whole point of the film.

It isn’t that the film doesn’t have its moments nor that any of the performances are lacking–I thought the cast, many of whom you’d recognize, did a great job; especially Eddie Redmayne (whom I’d seen recently in Glorious 39 acquitted himself well again–though I’d like to see him in a film I really like soon) who had the hardest path to trace. And John Lynch provides a very different character than his Sliding Doors appearance. And Sean Bean is, well, Sean Bean; sorry, he’s always good, but he doesn’t get me to a movie as I just see the same character over and over. Even the attempt to show the 1300’s in all their grimy glory was fairly successful. But the 99 minutes of story felt much more like 120, which leaves me with less than a good impression of the director and editor.

I won’t be back to watch this film again. I didn’t feel abused having seen it, but given the subject matter, I would have liked more. I think, perhaps, this would have made a great short story, but expanded to the screen it was overtaxed in its meaning.

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