Change Your Image
Upload An Image
Crop And Save
Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)
Boldly going where other movies have gone before
I'm going to say right off the bat that I had big expectations for this film. Having seen two other summer movies that turned out to be terrific, and being teased by every new trailer for months (who the heck is Benedict Cumberbatch supposed to be?!!), I was set to have my mind blown, or at least be entertained. As it turns out, my mind is still intact, and now I'm floating out in the dark nebulous between satisfied and underwhelmed.
Watching this film is a lot like watching scenes from Back to the Future Part II, where Michael J. Fox is back at the Enchantment Under the Sea dance, only now it's shot at a different angle. Star Trek Into Darkness does some clever and exciting things with familiar tropes and story lines, but even though it's reminiscent of another original scene, the new version frequently comes up the lesser of the two. The first movie was rife with lip service to fans- mentions of offscreen characters, the Kobayashi Maru, Leonard Nimoy's cameo as future Spock, lines that everyone thinks they remember ("Dammit, Jim, I'm a doctor, not a *fill in the blank*")- but they still came up with an original story, to ease us into the idea of an altered continuity for our favorite characters.
That film was solidly entertaining, but the plot came second to characters and set pieces. The sequel goes further, with lip service in story. When we learn that the villain is involved in Section 31, I was expecting a high-stakes chase after a rogue former agent, a la Skyfall. The bombing scenes in the beginning were certainly similar to that movie, but, much like Christopher Nolan's third Batman film, the director kept the story a mystery, then lied about what it was when fans started to figure it out. I wouldn't say Cumberbatch is miscast in his role necessarily, but the script doesn't give him much to work with, and fans will probably be loath to accept him as the new version of an iconic character. This is not to say that rehashed plot points don't ever pay off. Simple reversal of which characters are in a situation and how the events play out can be highly effective and rewarding.
More frustrating, though, is that the film doesn't stand alone. The way that it ends kicks off a new saga, without really resolving much of what was at stake before. They literally stick the antagonist in a refrigerator like leftovers to use in a later film. It's understandable, given how big-budget films basically get handed a franchise these days if they make back their budget, but a two-hour movie is too dissimilar to a television serial to be treated like one.
So why don't I hate this movie? Because although I disagree with how the story was handled, I still think that it had a lot of great aspects. The enemy in the last film was the Romulans and their giant mining drill, plain and simple. In this one, the antagonist comes from many directions, and the Enterprise is always outnumbered and under pressure, which leads to some exciting action scenes and clever maneuvers. The main protagonists are wonderful as always; Kirk comes into his own as the shrewd mind that we know and love, and the supporting cast is perfect. And in spite of the grimmer tone promised by the title, there are a lot of laugh-out-loud funny moments between characters, as well as some very solid drama.
In spite of divisive attitudes about JJ Abrams as a director and Star Trek as a franchise, I think there's definitely an audience for this movie, if the excited Trekkies down in front were any indication. It just wasn't the thrill ride I hoped it would be throughout, and I was disappointed when it was over. The trailer promised heavy consequences for the ensuing conflict, and while we got a lot of action and a lot of peril, potentially game-changing events didn't really pop out. There was no equivalent to Vulcan's destruction, and even though the threat of danger keeps you on the edge of your seat, it doesn't go as far as it could.
The Great Gatsby (2013)
Beautiful adaptation that goes down like champagne
Although I've only read The Great Gatsby twice, both in school, I connected with it instantly, and it's stuck in my mind ever since, which is something a lot of stories don't get to do. One of the most striking things about it, in my opinion, is how mercurial it is: the ecstasy of a party at Gatsby's mansion lit by fireworks is always measured by a profound sense of loneliness and despair. This is a world where happiness is fleeting and sincerity and truth are rare commodities.
So, with that being my impression of the book, I was thrilled to hear that Baz Luhrman was directing a new film version. Just as predicted, he lets the words of the book literally shine through everything else (as in, they're right there on the screen), and his decadent, hectic style is ideal for the world being depicted. The intro of the film is classic Luhrman, beginning in grainy black and white, before exploding shortly thereafter into tinted newsreels on fast forward, with Jay-Z's rhymes over the images. The party scenes are somewhat reminiscent of his opus, Moulin Rouge, complete with anachronistic music rearranged for a jazz orchestra. One favorite moment was the soundtrack fading from an anachronistic hip-hop/electronic jam, to Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" to accompany a fireworks display. Lana Del Rey is also a perfect fit for the movie's soundtrack, with her bluesy voice and lyrics about sadness in the midst of excess. The fast cuts that Luhrman is so fond of almost have the flickering effect of an old film reel on fast forward in here, and the over-saturation of colors is reminiscent of a black and white photograph with bright pigment added in. More importantly, the novel's visuals carry over much better in film; anybody sick of hearing about the green light while reading may appreciate it better when it's in front of their eyes.
As for the way the source material is treated, the only criticism I can honestly come up with is that, when it comes to past adaptations, i.e. Romeo+ Juliet, while the director kept the source material the same, he tweaked the setting and context of them in a way that made them interesting and new. With his version of Gatsby, he is faithful almost to a fault. Dialogue and narration are borrowed almost word for word, and the voice overs from Tobey Maguire's Nick, while an effective display of Fitzgerald's poetic language, become overbearing, and often redundant. When the audience can see the look in an angered Gatsby's eyes, they can interpret for themselves that he "looked like he just killed a man."
While there are some striking visuals in this film, it only feels like a Baz Luhrman picture for the first ten minutes or so. Our introduction to the Buchanans, Myrtle Wilson and her social circle, and to Nick himself play in that fast-paced, cartoonish style that the first half of Moulin Rouge had, which can give you a headache. Not that such a style is advisable for any film's whole running time, but as the story progresses, the film's pace slows down, and it starts to feel more like a mainstream movie than an art film.
In a certain sense there's not a bad thing, if the purpose is to focus on character development or story. But the story, while heavy with themes, is empty of much plot, and the whole point of characters like Daisy, Tom and Jordan is precisely that they ultimately don't have a lot of depth. The film solves this somewhat by imbuing Daisy with more warmth than in the book, and focusing on her relationship with Gatsby. In a strange way, at least for me, it almost became the story of her loss as well. Just as Gatsby is too stuck in the past to move forward, she doesn't see a way to go backward, and the audience sees her fear and uncertainty in everything she does. While ultimately still a shallow, careless person, Carey Mulligan's performance creates such a sweet persona that it's not hard to imagine how men could believe that they're in love with her. What I expected to be the weakest part of the film- the love story and relationships between characters- turned out to be the emotional core of the whole thing.
In addition to the visuals and script, the cast of The Great Gatsby is incredibly strong, embodying iconic characters on a spectrum of competent to amazing. Leonardo DiCaprio's Jay Gatsby conveys both the charismatic showman (complete with an affected New England accent) and the nervous, awkward youth, delusional in his obsession over his lost love. I didn't find anything wrong with Tobey Maguire, except that Nick comes off much more snarky and self-aware in the novel, and here he seems much more naive and swept up in it all, which is supposed to make his eventual depressive state more poignant. As a framing device, it's highly effective, drawing a parallel between F. Scott Fitzgerald's life and the fictional life of his author avatar, which creates a synergy between source and adaptation. The title of the film/book even appears superimposed on the green-lit fog at the end. As a fan of the book and the director, I loved watching it, but I understand why it's so polarizing, since most people tend to dislike one, the other, or both.
The phrase that best sums up The Great Gatsby for me is the old chestnut, "Life is what happens when you're busy making other plans." It's a poignant and melancholy story about lost opportunities, and reaching for the moon before realizing how lonely it is at the top. Finally, an eclectic adapter of well-known stories has found a perfect match, in a gilded star-crossed love story with a hollow center that stays in your mind long after it's ended, like a forgotten dream.
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thrilling movie for fans of the Iron Man franchise
Ever since Batman Begins in 2005, cinema fans have been living in a world ruled by what I have termed Dark Knight Syndrome: Action-adventure and comic book movies nowadays are expected to be cerebral and dark, and not in the way of the noir-ish, theatrical Batman films of Tim Burton.
While action movies have always had a high body count and buildings exploding, the consequences weigh heavier on today's mainstream movie hero: Loved ones suffer and die. The hero is put in a situation where he is stripped of his power, all his secret weapons, and forced to literally fight for his life. Themes run throughout of revenge and atonement, facing inner demons and past mistakes. And while such themes are powerful, all that brooding weighs as heavily on the audience as it does the characters. Which is why, for as much as I love the complexities of films like the now-completed Dark Knight Trilogy and the rebooted James Bond, I truly enjoy Iron Man for its ability to keep the pulse racing, but also to laugh at itself and its over-the-top situations, and keep spirits high.
Iron Man has been framed from the outset as the story of Tony Stark's path toward redemption. Like Batman, he chooses to use his wealth and power for good, but rather than fighting crime as the result of a personal tragedy, he becomes a hero in the hopes of cleaning up his act, while somehow never losing his hedonism and arrogance. This third film continues the theme of reckoning for past sins, opening with narration from Tony himself featuring the usual old hat about the past coming back to bite you in the ass, and inner demons and so on. We see Tony focused on his own vulnerability and mortality in a much more believable way than the previous film (where, ironically, he was actually dying), as he throws himself into creating more mech suits, sleep deprived and plagued by nightmares. The focus here is on the man, not the mech, as the two are treated as almost separate characters, especially here, with the suit being able to move on its own (or dragged through the snow like a sled when de-powered). Also similar to The Dark Knight Rises is the film's interpretation of the Mandarin, an all-too-familiar mishmash of foreign affectations and over-the-top mannerisms, and the inevitable twist reveal of who really holds the power.
Where this film differs from, and is in a certain way superior to, other blockbusters of a similar nature, is in the humor and high spirits it has throughout. Iron Man as a film franchise has always had a quirky, out-of-left-field sense of comedy, which can hit its target or miss completely, and come even in dramatic or intense scenes. Even though the films' attempts to make connections with the War on Terror and the Iraq War can frequently seem crass, if not downright exploitative, I believe that, if this film is any evidence, the effort was to heal, rather than to traumatize. The theme throughout is one of healing and reconciliation (Tony's anxiety attacks are all related to the alien "terrorist" attack in New York that occurred in The Avengers), and suspension of disbelief is stretched far enough that it's hard to call BS when the main players all get happy endings.
As a serious movie, Iron Man 3 is uneven, to say the least. In this case, though, I'd say being an entertaining and interesting movie is more important. The action scenes are absolutely brilliant, with shining moments for the supporting cast. Gwyneth Paltrow's scene in the Iron Man suit is sadly brief, but she gets a few great moments later on; meanwhile, Don Cheadle as Rhodey gets some truly impressive action stunts sans armor. Though some may find it repetitive, I loved the innovation of the coded armor, which flies through the air and assembles piece by piece. If nothing else, it made the fights more interesting, and was certainly better utilized than the suitcase-portable armor from the second film.
Overall, coming from someone who's a fan of fun, interesting movies, even when they don't know the source material very well, I give Iron Man 3 a solid thumbs-up. If a movie has you jumping up and down in the aisle after it's over, it's doing something right. The first movie, I felt entertained; the second, I felt nothing. Third, I was grinning like an idiot. "Tony Stark will return," the stinger promises, and I'll be quite excited to see what he'll do when he does.
Sita Sings the Blues (2008)
Sita Sings the Blues is an exercise not only in art and animation, but also in storytelling. Rather than try to take the best or most important parts of the "Ramayana" and put it all together in a linear story, Nina Paley's inventively animated piece chooses to layer all viewpoints together, giving each world ample time to present their version of events. First is the scholarly approach, wherein the story's finer details and plot elements are scrutinized by a witty cast of silhouette-like beings, with Terry Gilliam-style amalgamations of photograph and illustration acting out their words. After those segments, two different illustrated worlds are presented: the fairytale, rendered through stiff Mughal-era prints hopping stiffly through static backdrops, and a goofy cartoon musical, which brings to mind the animation of the Fleischer Brothers (Sita's saucer eyes, exaggerated curves and musical bent are reminiscent of Betty Boop), the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine" and Richard Williams. Finally, there is the story of the filmmaker, Nina Paley, presented in a drab but charming scribbled newspaper comic style. The movie's structure plays fast and loose with all these styles, and somehow keeps continuity while deviating constantly, such as with the fever-dream imagery in the opening and middle of the film.
Annette Hanshaw's blues catalog, which makes up most of the movie soundtrack, compliments the surreal animation much better than one would think, and the pathos of Sita's story comes through loud and clear with Hanshaw's recording of love-and-loss blues standards, which the animation both compliments and contrasts brilliantly. Each song is allowed to play until the last note in every musical sequence, which means that her tuneful voice can be heard saying "That's all!" just as the cartoon cuts off. Such a simple phrase provides an interesting contrast to a strangely contrived, often surreal adaptation of an epic poem that is so dense, even the paper cutout shadows that serve as narrators can't come to an agreement about what really happened.
"That's all!" serves as a wry summation of the epic themes of the poem, which are both taken for granted ("Do not challenge the stories!" one narrator says, before later turning skeptical himself) and scrutinized by the film, through the framing devices of Paley's experiences, and the comical, cartoonish tone. Mainly, the film examines the supposed perfection of Rama and Sita's unconditional love, which, in the epic, is presented as pure and perfect, akin with devotion to a god (Sita, while a captive of Ravana, prays for her husband, an avatar of Vishnu, every day unceasingly). While the film doesn't completely reject this notion, the musical segments highlight Sita's emotional suffering, with the songs themselves having a running theme of being hopelessly in love, no matter how badly her lover treats her, making Rama's later treatment of Sita come off as abusive and cruel. This is a divisive interpretation of the story, since the filmmaker deliberately makes parallels between Sita's suffering and her own relationship with her all-too-mortal disinterested husband, and is openly critical of the idea of Rama being the "ideal man."
Sita's damsel-in-distress role is given agency through singing the blues, even though she is often robbed of agency in her story, being kidnapped by Ravana mainly to insult her husband by stealing his "property." Likewise, the rather abrupt conclusion to such a rambling film, could be interpreted as a feminist reading of the tale, with Sita returning to the womb of Mother Earth, ending the turbulent love affair after years of patience and fidelity. With the way Paley parallels Rama and Sita's relationship to her own rejection by her ex-husband, and her eventual growth and transformation out of grief, it doesn't seem too far-fetched that she thought this was a happier ending for Sita than being an exiled queen. This reclaiming of power is emphasized through a piece of animation at the end, which shows Vishnu (Rama) now kneeling and massaging Lakshmi (Sita)'s feet, where before the roles were reversed.
Obviously, I found this film very evocative, thought-provoking and, if unusual, than at least able to hold my attention. For art lovers, academics or just people who like experimental cinema, this film would be a "Yes" for me, but anyone who has limited patience for older styles of music, repetitive story techniques and languid pacing might have a low tolerance for this particular kind of art.
Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
"The kids call me retro, which I think means 'old, but cool.'"
To be honest, as fun and imaginative as this film looked in the trailers, I was hesitant to see the movie, since I was concerned that the humor and subtext (if there was any) would be largely lost on me, a non-gamer. When I finally got to see it at the dollar theater, it reminded me why I love animated films so much. What these movies excel at is retelling a familiar story in an unfamiliar setting. Children's and family media has plenty of "villain" protagonists, from How The Grinch Stole Christmas to Megamind, and plenty of underdog stories- specifically, the journeys of misfits proving their worth to society and to themselves. Wreck-It Ralph has both these elements heavily influencing the plot, but almost never comes off as contrived or repetitive.
One reason why is, as I said before, the setting. The art shift between the arcade game worlds, whose designs are all distinct, but are all believably interconnected in the network of tubes and code that links all the arcade games together in "Game Central Station." The jerky movements and the rounded, egg-like shape of the townspeople in "Fix-It Felix, Junior" is just as familiar and real (or rather, unreal) as the "Hero's Duty" soldiers' stiff, lumbering gait, or the bounce and skip of the anime-esque inhabitants of "Sugar Rush Speedway." Even if you've never played a video game, it's easy to recognize all the styles and aesthetics as authentic, if decidedly enhanced for a higher-quality medium. The viewer is allowed to explore the world of each game along with the characters, getting to experience a variety of landscapes through the journey. It was a joy to be immersed in those almost-too-bright colors and the variety of textures (something still lacking in many live- action films which use CGI) that created the confectionery landscape of "Sugar Rush". The arcade world is full of humorous, inventive touches, such as an explosion generated by Mentos stalactites falling into a spring of acidic Diet Coke, electrical cords acting as a literal "tube station" between games, and storytelling conventions' impact on characters (Sergeant Calhoun is "programmed with the most tragic back story)". The rules of the arcade (what few we get), and the threat of being "unplugged" if the game breaks down and can't be fixed, is evocative of Toy Story and other such films, and they impact the plot in a similarly dramatic way.
The story was well-executed, in that it followed the pattern of quest/journey to a reward/happy ending (the plot of most classic video games as well, incidentally), but it threw in a few good twists and turns. There's a moment in the film where two characters have a misunderstanding, one thinking that they've been betrayed. This is something that's done a lot to extend a story, and mainly, it's a waste of time for everyone, since the characters just spend the whole time moping until they make up. But there are consequences to the misunderstanding in this film, and it progresses the action, rather than slows it down, with everyone coming together for the finale.
Likewise, a main plot point is the shared bond between Ralph and Vanellope, who both want to change their destiny, but the worlds they live in won't let them. However, the prejudice against them, while shown as a negative thing, is given a valid reason. Being the bad guy is literally Ralph's job, and if he isn't there to do it, the game doesn't work. Vanellope's story, however, turns out to be the much more interesting one. She is an outcast for being a glitch in the game, which, in the other racers' eyes and the king's, means she isn't a real character in the game, and shouldn't be allowed to race. It seems like a typical plot with the bullies just being bullies just because, but then the king gives what sound like a logical explanation, which Ralph and the audience can accept.This revelation raises some questions, and it takes a while before the whole truth is clear. There were a few things that could arguably count as plot holes, but it's hard to quibble when it's a cartoon world whose rules are only explained in a basic sense, especially when the characters are so entertaining.
Standout performances come from John C. Reilly as Ralph, Jack McBrayer as the hilariously innocent, naive Fix-It Felix, Jane Lynch, delivering funny drill-sergeant one liners as Calhoun, and an almost unrecognizable Alan Tudyk, doing his best Ed Wynn impression as the flamboyantly sinister King Candy. Sarah Silverman gave appropriate spunk and wry humor to the mischievous Vanellope VonSchweetz, but hearing that raspy adult woman voice coming out of a rosy-cheeked little girl is a bit distracting at times. The chemistry between all of them created some truly funny and sweet stand-out moments, and my only complaint is that there wasn't enough time to fully develop everyone. Specifically, Calhoun is pretty underplayed, and while there are many obstacles, a real villain doesn't emerge until the last fifteen minutes of the movie .
Wreck-It Ralph is an inventive story that presents a rather literal take on destiny (it's in your code!) finding your place (being a bad guy isn't so bad if you feel loved), and what it means to be a hero (surprise, it's your friends, not a shiny medal). I recommend this film to all fans of animation, gaming/geek culture, and having a good time. It's a relief to find all-ages movies that can play with the formula, and don't rely on swearing or (a lot of) toilet humor to get attention. Disney is always a little "retro," but here, they definitely know how to make it work.
Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)
A mixed bag of Hollywood magic tricks
"Ordinary people can accomplish great things," a fellow theater-goer told me. "That's what the message of the film is." I believe that was the intent of the film, but it's also a story that's been done a lot, with mixed results. And this version of the story, like the magician Oz's parlor trick collection, can succeed or fail to deliver that message, depending on the audience. It ultimately utilizes its talents to make something impressive and fairly enjoyable, even if you can see the wires sometimes.
The visuals, of course, are amazing, with the lush color saturation not only dazzling to the senses, but also a fitting homage to the 1939 classic, along with the black and white opening scenes (one of my favorite parts of the film). The big difference, of course, is CGI, which gives everything in the land that superficial, plastic smoothness lacking in the era of soundstages. The ingenuity of the cyclone effect from the original film still can't be beat. Thankfully, the special effects, while plentiful, are rarely distracting, save for the flying objects thrust out for the benefit of the 3D crowd. At their worst, they're manipulative, not enhancing the atmosphere as much as giving the feeling that you're already in the virtual reality theme-park ride Disney will most likely produce. What made me cheer the most- indeed, brought the film back from the brink- was the simple utilization of a screen projector on a billow of smoke and fire to create the head of the "Great and Powerful Oz" for the first time during the razzle-dazzle climax of the movie.
Like Tim Burton's Wonderland, this Oz uses the original books' contents for atmosphere and characters, but mainly sticks to public consciousness for everything else. The film shows us a gleaming Emerald City already there when Oz arrives, but in the books, the Emerald City was his idea, and simply appeared green, because all its citizens wore tinted glasses- another con. By contrast, the film's more positive view of the "humbug" Oz works for the "ordinary people can become great" moral, and I'd be lying if I said that the climax, with artificial magic, spirit and cleverness triumphing over "wickedness," didn't make me smile with the way it was executed. I enjoyed the performances of all the supporting cast (the most important part of a fantasy movie, in my opinion), and the leads all turn in decent to above-average performances, with Mila Kunis, sadly, being the weakest link.
As many critics have harped upon, the ingenuity of the visuals and mythology of Oz is somewhat lacking from the development of the plot and characters. In spite of the title of the film, I think that it would have been a much stronger story if the focus had been on the power struggle between the witches, something barely touched on until the final battle, where it is reduced to a single duel between Glinda and the scheming Evanora. The witches' power and capability is never fully utilized, as even the wise and motherly Glinda waits passively for the next move of a Wizard that everyone suspects (and that she knows) is a fraud. It's possible to argue that she was in control the whole time, secretly testing his character as she did with Dorothy, but the film never explores that idea, even though she's one of the main protagonists. Likewise, Mila Kunis's Theodora could, and should have been as fascinating as an iconic villain always is. The notion that she was once an open-hearted, loving person, manipulated into evil by wrath and envy (her skin being tinted green in her transformation) is, on paper, rather compelling, but the flat caricature we get reduces *the* wicked witch to end all witches to the jilted psycho ex-girlfriend of a philandering James Franco, with no real motivation of her own to speak of. That's not only insulting to a great character, but downright sexist.
As clever, charming and plucky as the future Wizard of Oz is in this film, in a different version of this story he would have been a pawn in the witches' political games, not fawned over by them for his con-man charm. He might have discovered some inner strength, but he would probably have ended up a largely symbolic figurehead, not rewarded with a romance with Glinda for his good heart. And part of me would really like to see that movie instead, but part of me is just happy this got made in the first place. Overall, I'd give it a watch. It's not as bad as you probably think it is, but it's not the best movie I've ever seen. I hope that we get more creative Oz stories in the future that are just as entertaining, but aren't so mainstream Hollywood.
Mirror Mirror (2012)
Not all re-tellings have to be "edgy"
I was really interested in seeing this movie from the start, but the negative press and the corny trailer made me lower my expectations somewhat. There was something about it, though, that still made me want to go see it, even if it turned out to be good for nothing except eye candy. However, my initial skepticism went right out the window at the stunning opening sequence, recounting the prologue in animation that was part puppet theater, part illustration.
Indeed, the visuals in this film are stunning, as are the costumes, both of which are fully on display, but the actors are never overwhelmed by their sumptuous surroundings. Julia Roberts is clearly having a wonderful time as the kind of character she should have been self-aware enough to play a long time ago. Lily Collins turns in a sweet, earnest performance that comes off as the perfect compromise between the traditional and "modern" fairytale princess. Her dedication to what could have been a phoned-in ingénue is actually rather impressive. The supporting cast wears somewhat thin (namely, a few of the dwarfs), but the director thankfully realizes that this is a fairytale, not a cartoon, and the audience is spared from most painful mugging.
The main weaknesses of the film, then, are the comedy and the storyline. While I had plenty of giggles, and the dialogue isn't nearly as bad as the trailer made it seem, between the dwarfs and the queen, there are more than a few gags that get repeated over and over, and lines that, depending on who you are, will elicit a chuckle or a groan. While the Snow White story isn't altered radically, and most of the revisions come off as embellishment, there are a handful of set pieces that clash with the tone, and come off as contrived or pointless. Still, several of the changes are more than welcome, even if they come at the cost of the more iconic points of the story being overlooked. For my part, I believe that this plucky Snow would handle the poison apple scenario exactly the way she did here, and it made me smile to see it in the finale.
I'm a big fan of fairy tales, whimsy (in healthy doses), and visuals as big as the imagination, so I recommend "Mirror Mirror" to fans of the same, and appreciators of films like "Enchanted" and "MirrorMask". It's a fun, heart-filled escapist artwork, good for more than a few viewings.
A Little Princess (1995)
Not MY Little Princess, but better than Shirley Temple
I hesitated in seeing this film for a very long time. I wasn't aware of it when it was in theaters, and I adored the book so much, and the BBC-produced miniseries starring Amelia Shankley, that I didn't want to ruin my image of the book by seeing a Hollywoodized adaptation, even into my teens. However, I'll try anything once, and the number of fans that it seems to have made me think that it might not be so bad. And it really isn't. Compared to a lot of live- action "family entertainment," which can be obnoxious and formulaic, it's exquisite.
The cinematography is lush and warmly lit (perhaps a little too warm, when it comes to depicting Sara's somewhat gloomy life in poverty), and what the studio was able to do with such a small budget is more than some people could do with ten million to spend on a movie- ironic, considering the theme of wealth, or lack thereof. I found myself really warming up to the film's focus on the relationship between Sara and her father as they struggled to carry on in the midst of two very different sets of trials, as well as the emphasis on Sara's childhood in India, such as the "Ramayana" fantasy sequences, and the sitars reverberating alongside the more classical instruments on the soundtrack. The acting was at least passable throughout, though it sometimes veered into community theater-level skill. Even Liesel Matthews gave an endearing performance as Sara- certainly less stoicism and solemnity than the original, but thankfully with none of the dimple-faced pouting of the 1937 Shirley Temple film, which I couldn't stand for more than the first 30 minutes. At least Matthews's Sara is a real storyteller, and has the presence of one, rather than arbitrarily pretending things for her own amusement.
The bad news is that, while a significant improvement on the aforementioned Little Princess "adaptation," this movie is nonetheless an Americanized version of a classic British children's novel, and its roots definitely show as a stereotypically Hollywood effort. Namely, since the screenplay resets the story in America- I suppose to make it more relatable to stateside audiences- it also deems it necessary to put "spunk" into a character who is supposed to be tenacious, but reserved, even having her occasionally talk back and pull pranks. Thankfully, this never goes into Home Alone territory, but is very uncharacteristic of someone who strives to behave like a princess. Finally, there is the much-maligned happy ending pulled straight from the Temple version, which I only had a problem with because it was too over-the-top, where most of the time, the movie had the sense to pull back and have an occasional reflective moment.
To make a very, very long story short: Not my favorite, has no nostalgia attached to it for me, but I can accept it, and even enjoy it.
Dancer in the Dark (2000)
Bjork: the ultimate triple-threat entertainer
Over the years, I have discovered a penchant for "oddball" movies. Movies where what's real is subjective, and incongruous genres of film are side by side, and movies that are, if not seamless, then at least evocative. This film is one of those. Selma's color-saturated dream life is jarring, often amplifying the tragedy of real life, but comforting to a viewer bogged down by the dreary, "camcorder" look of the rest of the film.
Most striking about this film, to me at least, is not the talent of the director, but of the star. Already an amazing musician, Bjork's contributions to this film as an actress were a revelation. Her talent is completely raw, in every sense of the word, and it is that unfiltered, emotional quality of her unique voice and unrestrained acting that enables such intense feelings of joy and despair. That is to say nothing of the score, which she also penned. "I've Seen It All" and "Scatterheart" are chillingly lovely at their height.
In terms of characterization, however, the film suffers. This is one of those films for which critics will often use the Eight Deadly Words: "I don't care what happens to these people". Further, Lars VonTrier's visualization of the hopelessly naive, fanciful Selma as a character who operates on exclusively "female" instinct comes off as a misogynistic arrogance. It is this and the unrelenting grayness of the better part of the movie that lowers my rating.
Where the film truly shines is in the heart that it has: the direction, the music, and the gut- wrenching, tour de force performance given by Bjork as Selma, succeed at reaching the viewer on an emotional level, however broadly, in a simple but sad story that shows an imaginative, loving spirit's struggle to follow her heart, and the consequences that come of it.
Sucker Punch (2011)
"Where is my mind?"
It's been three weeks, and I still don't know what to think. There is a kernel of truth in this film, but it's buried deep beneath what seems like a lot of nonsense. The wisdom of the opening and closing narration and the enigmatic Wise Man's one-liners are misplaced, eclipsed by generic video game-style action sequences and the heroines'exploited beauty.
Sucker Punch, like its female protagonists, struggles to do better and have a voice among the distracting, head-scratching elements that make up a majority of the movie. It's an action movie with a message- several messages- about escapism, sexuality, and turning weaknesses into strengths, but where they are to be found is different for everyone. The characters are flat, but they don't need to be their own people- they are like figures in a dream, in an allegory, and their virtues (courage, wholeness, loyalty) and their vices (lust, cowardice, betrayal) are universal.
I would love to see Sucker Punch as a book, or a graphic novel. I would love to see what was left on the cutting-room floor for it to earn a (pointless) PG-13 rating. But at its best, it's a stunning synchronization of visual and audio, a true music video movie, with a little bizarre philosophy on top, like oil in water. It's destined to be watched late at night over and over again, dissected and discussed, until the viewer finds something deep and meaningful, or a load of garbage.