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The Muppets (2011)
A loving take on the Muppets
There are very few of us twenty-somethings who grew up without the Muppets. Between Sesame Street, Muppet Show reruns, and videocassettes of the various Muppet movies, we saw these guys all the time. We even had one or two theatrical releases of our own during the '90s. (My personal favorite of those is The Muppet Christmas Carol, which is still annual holiday viewing.) In recent years, since the very underwhelming Muppets from Space, we've seen them pop up now and again, mostly in similarly underwhelming TV projects and in short (yet hilarious!) YouTube videos. I am quite happy to say that, in this newest movie, the Muppets are back in a big way!
The movie starts by introducing us to a new Muppet, Walter, and his strangely human brother Gary. Gary has planned a trip with his girlfriend, Mary, to Los Angeles, and he is taking Walter along to visit the home of his heroes, Muppet Studios. They find the studio to be in disrepair, and hear of an evil plot to destroy it. Can the Muppets, and everything we hold dear about them, be saved? To get my one complaint out of the way, I do feel that this movie was a bit rushed in places. I wanted more time with these awesome characters, and it did feel as if they were trying to get from one place to the next a bit too quickly.
That said, I spent nearly the entire movie with a smile on my face. These are the Muppets that I grew up with, doing what they are best at doing, with that gently edgy humor at which they have always excelled. While there are some moments that are very touching, it is mostly very funny, with lots of nods to The Muppet Show and The Muppet Movie. While new little Muppet fans should enjoy this, it will be much more meaningful to those who have a history with Kermit and Co.
Clearly made with love for Jim Henson and his creations of fur and felt, The Muppets is the most delightful movie I've seen in theaters this year.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
A good story that packs an emotional punch
In the beginning, Dreamworks Animation had excellent 2-D films such as The Prince of Egypt and Road to El Dorado. I thoroughly enjoyed these films, and they were just as good as what Disney was putting out at the time. These films, while they had good comedic scenes, seemed to have a more serious overall tone to them, and they packed a good emotional punch. Then came 2001, with the release of Shrek. Everything changed for Dreamworks at this point: mostly CG animation, broader comedy, a greater focus on celebrity voices and topical humor. Shrek itself, and its first sequel, were very funny and enjoyable uses of this formula. However, Dreamworks soon pigeonholed itself into that sort of movie, becoming known as second-rate to Pixar in the process.
Then came How to Train Your Dragon. This movie is about Hiccup, the son of a Viking leader whose village slays the dragons that steal their food. Hiccup longs to be seen as a man, but he has not shown the skills or strength that a dragon-slayer normally would. One day, he does manage to catch a dragon, whom he eventually names Toothless. Toothless proceeds to change his life, and the life of Hiccup's village, in the process.
How to Train Your Dragon felt like a return to the Dreamworks movies from the '90s/early '00s. There were certainly comedic scenes, but the story was focused on the relationships between the characters in a very meaningful way. Through the course of the movie, we see how Hiccup's relationships with Toothless, with his father, and with the other youths in his village grow and develop. Seeing how these characters relate to each other gives this film a certain power that has been missing from many of the more recent Dreamworks films, and it was so much the better for that.
In addition to the story, the visuals in this film were remarkable. A good deal of attention was paid to the details in each character, especially in the different types of dragons that were created for the film. And the scenes in which the characters flew were absolutely breathtaking. It helps that I saw this film on a big screen outdoors; the visual and aural spectacle is certainly compounded in that format.
If you, too, have felt burned by Dreamworks Animation in recent years, don't hesitate to come see How to Train Your Dragon. It is absolutely a pleasant surprise.
The New Daughter (2009)
Ridiculous, but forgettable
An author, John James, and his two children move to rural South Carolina after his wife runs off with another man. The young son, Sam, goes along with it willingly, but Louisa, the young teen daughter, is much less eager to live out in the middle of nowhere. As the family tries to adjust to this new life, strange things begin to occur around their land. Plus, Louisa is beginning to grow more and more angry with those around her.
This movie earns a few stars for the cinematography. South Carolina looks beautiful or creepy, whichever the story calls for in a given scene. Also, the performances are very good, especially from Kevin Costner as John and Ivana Baquero as Louise. With these two actors in the leading roles, the film progressed more believably than it otherwise might have.
Mostly, though, this was a pretty ridiculous movie. I noticed this especially in how the characters were written. From the beginning of the film, Louisa was quite unlikeable; I know it's hard for teenage girls to adjust to big life changes (been there, done that), but she still came off as being kind of whiny. Because she started off as irritating and petulant, I didn't feel quite so sorry for her when she started to undergo the events of the film; I would have felt more if she'd started as a more sympathetic character. The other characters in the film felt pretty underwritten, despite good performances from the cast.
A lot of the other ridiculousness stemmed from the details that were not paid attention in putting this film together. Mostly, well, they're in rural South Carolina, but no one has a southern accent?? Really?? Well, I guess it's better not to have them at all than to have them done badly, but still...it definitely took me out of the movie to realize that. Also, as a teacher, I'm surprised that Sam's teacher was allowed to get quite so...cozy with the parent of a current student. Especially a single father. Like the issue of the accents, it's a small detail, but it's distracting.
Overall, the film had the standard "evil ancestral burial ground" plot and a lot of weakly written characters acting against it, along with the nit-picky but distracting issues mentioned above. Some good performances and good camera work save this from the bottom of the barrel.
Obsession and the unexpected
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a comment about another Hitchcock classic, Rear Window. Tonight, I had the chance to see Vertigo for the first time. While I must admit that I didn't like it quite as much as the former film, Vertigo is still a masterfully crafted work of suspense by the man who did it best.
John "Scottie" Ferguson has just retired from the police force, but he has been persuaded to take on a case privately. A college friend is concerned about his wife who has been acting more and more strangely, and Scottie must follow her to discover where she goes in her frequent flights. What follows is a tale of obsession and the unexpected.
The one thing that I liked more about Rear Window than about Vertigo is that we got to know the characters better. In Vertigo, most of the characters are either undergoing insanity or pulling off a deception, meaning that we don't really have insight into who these people are. This does not detract from the intrigue or excitement, but it's just something I personally didn't like as much here.
On the upside, though, I do believe that Hitchcock created another great work of suspense here. To me, the film was most enhanced by the wonderful cinematography of Robert Burks and the as-always-expressive score of Bernard Hermann. Everything that is seen and heard in the film enhances the story Hitchcock is presenting to us, and it's really a treat for eyes and ears both.
Vertigo is a film full of suspense that will keep you guessing throughout. It provides more evidence of the genius of its director.
Toy Story (1995)
The one that started it all
Toy Story will forever be remembered as the first feature film to be fully animated by computer. Since its debut in 1995, dozens more have joined it, including a sequel (soon to be two sequels as of this writing), as well as several other excellent films from its animation company, Pixar. However, for its unique accomplishment, Toy Story stands alone. It doesn't hurt that even beyond the technical achievement, the film is charming, well-written, and touching.
The toys in question belong to Andy, who has a huge variety of them scattered around his room. The unofficial head toy is Woody, a cowboy toy who has "been Andy's favorite since kindergarten". Woody loves being the favored toy, but the order is shaken up when Andy receives a surprise present on his birthday: a Buzz Lightyear action figure, who causes Woody to become jealous when he begins to take over the #1 toy position in Andy's playtime.
There's a lot of good stuff in this film: The animation, which mostly still works 15 years later; the voice acting, which is carried out excellently; the story, which keeps viewers engaged throughout. What gets me most about Toy Story is the way that both Woody and Buzz must grow throughout the movie. Woody has to let go of his jealousy and accept that things change when someone new enters the mix. Buzz has to learn (the hard way) that he really is a toy, but that he has a very important role as such. This is better character development than we see in some "more mature" films. It was here that Pixar began a long line of memorable, excellently crafted characters.
Pixar has released ten feature films in the past fifteen years. Toy Story 3 this summer will make eleven. They've maintained a very high standard of quality during that time. It definitely helps that, with Toy Story, they were off to an excellent start.
Rear Window (1954)
Alfred Hitchcock is known as the "Master of Suspense". By now, this seems a cinematic cliché, but it is so very true. The man knew how to direct films that keep you riveted to your seat, wondering what will happen next to the characters he has presented to you. Rear Window is a prime example of this.
Rear Window is the story of L.B. Jefferies (James Stewart), a photographer who broke his leg while on assignment. While confined to his apartment in a wheelchair, he has three main links to the outside world: his nurse, Stella (Thelma Ritter); his girlfriend, Lisa (Grace Kelly); and his large rear window, which provides him a view of many goings-on in the surrounding apartment buildings. Jefferies comes to know a lot about the daily routines of these neighbors, and he becomes suspicious when one man begins to act in ways out of the ordinary.
In this film, the suspense is layered thickly. There were parts during which I sat with my mouth agape, wondering what would happen next to the characters investigating this potential crime. However, Hitchcock makes this more than simply a suspense film. There is *a lot* of character study here; we learn volumes about both the main characters and the neighbors that they view from the window. There is speculation on the nature and ethics of voyeurism, whether Jefferies, Lisa, and Stella really should be doing what they are doing. There is also a message about what a neighbor truly is, and how that sort of relationship has grown weaker in our modern world. (How much more so now, over 55 years after this movie's release?)
Rear Window is quintessential Hitchcock. Admittedly, I have not yet seen many of his films. (Other than this, I have only seen Rebecca and Psycho.) I think it's safe to say, however, that this film provides the same combination of elements that make his other films great: gripping suspense, characters we can really get to know, and thoughtful exploration of the things we humans do.
Lost in Translation (2003)
A beauteous film
There is a beauty that is pervasive throughout the film Lost in Translation. I see it in the gorgeous photography that shows us the city of Tokyo in all its glory. I hear it in the expressive soundtrack that enhances the emotions experienced throughout. Most of all, though, I feel it in the connection between Bob and Charlotte, two lonely Americans drifting through a brief stay in Japan's capital.
Bob is an actor doing promotional work for Santorey Whiskey. Charlotte is accompanying her photographer husband on a job that brings him across the Pacific Ocean. Both characters are married, but experiencing bumps in their marriages and doubts about their spouses. And both are feeling isolated in a city of millions. A series of chance meetings in their hotel draws them together. They are soon experiencing the city together, enjoying each other's company.
One of the concerns I had going into this movie was the potential for, for lack of a better word, "squick" between Bill Murray's and Scarlett Johanssen's characters. Murray is old enough to be Johanssen's father, and I was afraid that the movie was going to take us to very uncomfortable places with that age difference. Thankfully, no such "squick" occurred. There is certainly an intimacy between them in the way that they share their feelings and concerns, but nothing that feels inappropriate.
Overall, Lost in Translation is quite a lovely film. It may take a viewing or two to truly understand or appreciate it; it took me five years before I really got it. But once you get it, it's certainly worth the watch.
The Princess and the Frog (2009)
Back on the right track?
Could it be? Is Disney back to releasing...quality films?? Much like Disney's most famous previous outings, The Princess and the Frog is a fairy tale of sorts. On a visit to New Orleans, Prince Naveen is transformed into a frog by Dr. Facilier, the Shadow Man, a practitioner of voodoo. Meanwhile, an ambitious young lady named Tiana works endless shifts as a waitress to fulfill the lifelong ambition shared by her and her late father: to open a glorious restaurant that will be the talk of New Orleans. These very different individuals cross paths at a pre-Mardi Gras masquerade; life will never be the same for them again.
I fully, thoroughly enjoyed this movie. Of the ones I've seen in the past decade, this is definitely the best Disney movie to come out in a long time. Of course, I was a girl who grew up on the Disney musicals like Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid, so it was refreshing to see them return to that format. In so many ways, this movie had a lot going for it.
Visually, The Princess and the Frog is very stunning. I have never been to New Orleans personally, but I can say that it looks gorgeous in this film. I also liked the use of different artistic styles throughout the film, such as the art deco of Tiana's fantasy sequence and the near-psychedelia in the Shadow Man's voodoo ceremony. Although the characters definitely had the "Disney look" about them, it was very cool to see some branching out into different directions.
The vocal cast of this movie was excellent as well. Anika Noni Rose has a powerful, emotional voice that brought life to the character of Tiana, and Bruno Campos performed the part of the prince with charm and humor, something that doesn't always seem to be apparent in Disney princes. Both of these characters seemed to be real people with foibles and flaws, and I think the voice acting went a long way toward giving them dimensionality. Keith David provided an appropriately menacing performance for Dr. Facilier. Especially, though, I appreciated the supporting cast. They added humor and support to the story without going too over-the-top or becoming annoying, a problem in many latter-day Disney films.
The music of this film was greatly appropriate, highlighting the many musical traditions of the American South, from jazz to zydeco. While I liked Randy Newman's songs and score, I don't think it was quite up to the level of many previous Disney efforts. I didn't walk out of the theater humming any of the specific songs. All the same, though, I would willingly listen to the soundtrack if I had the opportunity to do so.
With The Princess and the Frog, I believe that Disney is getting back on track. I'm hopeful that we will see great things from them again in the next few years!
At Wit's End
The first Pirates of the Caribbean film, The Curse of the Black Pearl, was a great bit of fun. It was a pirate film, pretty rare at that time, and it had a bit of everything enjoyable in it: romance, humor, great characters (except, oddly enough, for the two romantic leads), and a few chills. It was a fun watch, and deservedly a huge hit.
The second film, Dead Man's Chest, was still pretty cool. The Davy Jones subplot brought a lot more story to the film, which weighed it down a bit, but overall it was still a fun watch. The humor was certainly still there, and Johnny Depp continued to shine as Jack Sparrow. Plus, there were some very memorable scenes and visuals, like the fishy crew of the Flying Dutchman.
This review, though, is about the third film, At World's End. The third film in a trilogy has the major task of bringing closure to the story lines that have been introduced throughout the series while still leaving open the possibility for another film in case the filmmakers decide to go for a quadrilogy. Sadly, it is my belief that At World's End did not do this in a satisfactory way.
It may have been due to the fact that I hadn't seen Dead Man's Chest in a couple years and kind of lost the story. It may have been because I was watching it on TV, where it was frequently interrupted by commercials and possibly edited down for time. However, to me, it seemed that At World's End was kind of a messy film. By this point, there was soooo much story that the whole endeavor seemed to have been weighed down with the effort of dealing with so many plot lines. To me, it seemed that this was a failed attempt to bring an epic scope to the Pirates of the Caribbean series. Instead of feeling grand, it just got really muddled.
This is mostly due to the many dealings with the politics of the pirate world. Trades and alliances and power struggles...this was touched on in the first film, but it never got in the way of the main story. Here, it felt like these elements of the story took up too much time, and they definitely dragged the film down.
Even with those elements aside, we still had so much to juggle: Davy Jones/the Flying Dutchman; Bootstrap Bill and Will; Elizabeth's ascension through the ranks of piracy; Calypso's release; the various anti-pirate Englishmen whose names I now fail to remember...I'm all for complex, rich films, but by the end of this one, my brain hurt pretty badly. These elements were all thrown at us hard and fast, which made the film pretty messy in the end.
On the positive side, the special effects were still wonderful. Also, there were some pretty cool fight scenes, which helped to keep the film from completely becoming bogged down in itself. By the same token, the wedding of Will and Elizabeth was pretty cool, though, according to the final scene, it appears that their married life won't quite be what they were expecting...
On the whole, though, this convoluted film was the weakest of the entire Pirates series. And, help us all, they're making a fourth one...I think I'm all pirated out now.
Banal biopic with a couple of redeeming points
The main word that comes to mind when considering this film is "dodgy". This is a low-quality film biography of one of the most iconic performers of all time. The Gloved One deserved better.
Before getting into the meat of my thoughts on this biopic, I have to say that there are two things I found effective. First was the use of actual fan footage and interviews at certain points in the film, especially in the scenes depicting the first set of child molestation allegations. I feel that this contributed a certain authenticity that was *severely* lacking throughout the rest of the film. Second was the sequence depicting the courtship of Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie Presley. I will not comment on whether I believe the marriage was a sham, but by many accounts, it was a relationship where care and affection existed between the two parties involved. That really came across in this film; Flex Anderson and Krista Rae had decent enough chemistry to pull it off. These successful points are enough to keep Man in the Mirror away from 1-star status.
That said...there was very little else here that worked. Very few of the actors looked like the people they were supposed to portray, most egregiously those playing Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Jackson, and Diana Ross. Also, the absence of Jackson's music was a huge loss. How can you effectively tell a story about him without his music?? I understand that they were unable to secure the rights to it with this being a low-budget, unauthorized production; it seems, though, that if you can't have the man's music in a film about him, you might as well pack it up and go home, because you're missing out on an extremely important part of his life story.
This film's characterization of Jackson bothered me a little, too. I won't argue that he was troubled and may have been a few fries short of a value meal, but here, he was portrayed as something close to mentally disabled. I don't believe that Jackson, known to have been a shrewd businessman, would have been quite as naive about how the adult world works as he was made out to be in this film.
Finally, the way this film was written was nothing short of disgraceful. Many lines or exchanges of dialogue were either extremely corny, like Michael and Janet's "Tinkerbell" exchange, or nonsensical, like the "Blanket of love" comments made by Michael. Also, the screenwriters don't exactly have a knack for subtlety. There was a lot of telegraphing of upcoming events ("What could possibly go wrong??" sorts of lines) and extremely overt hammering of themes and motifs in the film (if I'd heard the word "believe" one more time...). This is what ultimately hobbled the film as something that could be considered awesomely bad.
Perhaps when we are a few years, or even a decade or three, removed from Jackson's death, someone will be able to bring his story to life in a more deserving film. By that time, we might have a better perspective on his life, and someone will be able to present a truly thoughtful examination of who Michael Jackson really was and what he's meant to the world of entertainment. This very dodgy biopic was not that film.