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(Movie Reviews) A Hunchback, a Demigod and an Only Child Walk Into a Bar…

Entertainment 150Ryan and I are coming up on the back half of the Disney Renaissance, which reminds me a lot of the risks the animation studio took during the “Dark Ages” of the 70s and early 80s. The storytellers in place at the time were concerned with telling different kinds of stories that were a little darker, a little more complicated. The reason the experiment failed in the 70s and 80s while it (largely) succeeded in the late 90s is absolutely the production quality; while they had to cut corners at almost every opportunity with Robin Hood and The Black Cauldron, their previous successes allowed them to do some really amazing stuff with their animation in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Mulan. That, combined with great stories passionately told, mark a string of underappreciated gems from Disney in the late 90s. They are absolutely worth another look if you’ve been sleeping on them.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996)
This one is a legitimate surprise. Continuing the maturation of the storytelling that started with Pocahontas, Walt Disney Studios adapted Victor Hugo’s classic novel as a G-rated musical adventure. The fact that a movie dealing with the concepts of lust, sin, damnation and religious hypocrisy received a G Rating from the MPAA might be the only proof you need that the ratings board doesn’t know what it’s doing. Still, this turned out to be one of my favorite Disney animated movies — it’s that good.

Quasimodo is the titular hunchback, a deformed young man whose mother was a gypsy killed by a severe judge named Frollo on the steps of Notre Dame. Caught by a priest as he was about to throw the young child down a well, Frollo agrees to “care for” Quasimodo as penance for killing someone on church grounds. In this case, caring for means locking him away inside the church’s bell tower and emotionally manipulating him into fearing the world he so desperately wants to be a part of.

Both Quasimodo and Frollo are legitimately fascinating characters. Quasimodo wants nothing more than to be a part of the world he observes and loves passionately; he adores the people that he sees and wants to be out among them. Frollo, on the other hand, only sees wickedness and sin wherever he looks at the world. They are perfect foils for each other, and perfect examples of the old adage that “you will only see in the world what you see within yourself”.

Frollo’s mission to hunt down and pretty much eradicate gypsies in Paris runs smack into conflict with his feelings for Esmerelda, a homeless dancer who befriends Quasimodo once he sneaks out during a Festival of Fools. The poor hunchback learns some very hard lessons about the world when he finally gets the chance to be out in it, and for a moment it seems that Frollo was right. But his desire to love and be loved overrides his cynicism, and the sheer power of his yearning is at once inspiring and relatable. Even though he is quite possibly the most unusual-looking hero in the Disney canon, Quasimodo is the one that I’ve felt the strongest emotional connection with.

And perhaps that’s because Frollo is so horrific. His “villain’s song” is one of the most intense and disturbing in a Disney movie, wonderfully exposing the warring impulses within him. When he lays himself bare, you sympathize with his fear of falling away from God. You’re still horrified by how that fear has curdled within him, turning him into something far worse than an imperfect man. Frollo’s fear of his own baser nature makes him cruel and intolerant of imperfections in the people around him. That’s frightening because it’s so common in our world.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might be the most nakedly religious of all Disney films as well. The cathedral is such an outsized influence not only in the city at the time, but also in the lives of all its characters; you see how their belief in God is reflected in their actions and desires. Esmerelda’s song, “God Help The Outcasts,” is a gut-check against the self-involved and materialistic in the Church. In a lot of ways, the movie is not only concerned with the influence of religion in the inner world of its characters, but also how that translates into social action. Hunchback tackled themes of social justice decades before Zootopia came on the scene.

Musically, this might be some of the strongest work for long-time Disney composer Alan Mencken and his writing partner Stephen Schwartz. “The Bells of Notre Dame” is a haunting, tight prologue that serves as a mini-story setting up the board for the film; “Out There” is an amazing “I want” song that establishes Quasimodo as a wonderful hero while also introducing us to Frollo’s awful emotional abuse and its effect on his charge; “Hellfire” is nothing short of an epic villain’s war with the forces raging within himself. Each song heightens the emotional narrative superbly, planting its character’s motivations so that we know exactly why they do the things they do.

The animation is similarly ambitious. Notre Dame is as much a character as anyone else, and watching the characters interact with it reveals their inner thoughts while also allowing us to see how it shapes their external world. Seeing Quasimodo scamper and swing across the rooftops is thrilling; when he does his thing, he’s every bit as graceful as Tarzan swinging on the vine. The character design is pitch-perfect as well. Quasimodo is at once grotesque and endearing; Esmerelda is truly bewitching; Frollo is severe and terrible. Even the sidekicks and comic relief are a wonderful mixture of adorable and setting-appropriate. Everything works.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame might just be the most underrated film of the Disney Renaissance. It is an amazing film, even though it doesn’t stick just so to its source material. Disney works with themes that it hasn’t really delved into before or since, and threads the needle with a sensitive, passionate morality tale that challenges its audience as well as it inspires.

Hercules (1997)
After catching so much heat for being too dark with The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Disney swung the pendulum the other way for 1997’s Hercules. This is another risk, especially for the family-friendly studio — basing a crowd-pleasing comedy on ancient Greek myth? Anyone with a passing familiarity with the source material might have trouble explaining the real legend to their children. They ended up going off-script a bit more than usual here, creating what’s essentially a mythological superhero-origin story.

Like Quasimodo, Hercules is an outcast in his society — but for an entirely different reason. He doesn’t know it, but he is a demi-god born to Zeus and Hera; his divinity was (mostly) removed by Hades in order to make sure that the hostile takeover of Olympus went according to plan. However, because he wasn’t given every drop of the poison meant to make him mortal, he retained his godly strength. He just doesn’t have the wisdom or finesse to wield it properly.

When Hercules learns that he is in fact the son of Zeus, he decides to become a hero in order to prove himself worthy of the gods and admission into Olympus. Of course, being heroic is a lot more than fighting monsters and saving innocents, and the movie pushes him towards learning that lesson.

Compared to the wonderful visuals of The Lion King, Pocahontas and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the stylized animation of Hercules is a big departure that doesn’t come off all that well. Disney nails the style that it wanted, but there’s something missing in the backgrounds and the setting; it doesn’t quite come across as iconic or interesting. The Underworld is the most interesting place, visually, and we don’t spend so much time there. Most of the time, it feels like we’re in the world of the centaurs, fauns and dryads from Fantasia by way of modern recreation of Greek art.

The story is fairly straight-forward; Hercules has to learn how to use his strengths first, then overcome his weaknesses before he can truly claim the title of hero. It’s certainly enjoyable, lightened by the gospel-infused Chorus, the cynical and wise Philoctetes and the big goofy Pegasus. Meg serves as the femme fatale here fairly well, but it’s a foregone conclusion how her arc will play out.

I think that’s the ultimate disappointment with Hercules as a film, really — most of Disney’s films are predictable when you get right down to it, but there’s almost always an emotional hook that invests you in the character journey anyway. For just a little while, you allow yourself to forget that good will triumph over evil every time, and you really want the protagonist to succeed while not being sure he will. Or, at least, that he will without paying a fairly high price.

And that’s what Hercules is missing. He literally has the King of the Gods on his side; even when the Titans are unleashed in the third act, they don’t seem like a legitimate threat. And even though Hercules is a fine and studly hero, there isn’t that vulnerability that makes him relatable. You don’t root for him because he’s an exceptional specimen who just won’t fail. Here, he’s a Greecian Superman, and it’s always hard to write really great stories about the Man of Steel.

Maybe Hercules is simply a victim of proximity. It tells the story of a social outcast who desperately wants to find a place he belongs, but must dig deep within himself to overcome the forces keeping him apart and earn not only acceptance from others, but acceptance of himself. While the battle between Hades and Zeus is fun (and Hades does make for a pretty neat villain), it pales in comparison to the battle between Quasimodo, Frollo and God. Hercules simply hits too many of the notes that Hunchback does, and Hunchback did it better.

Still, this is a pretty good movie — there’s certainly nothing wrong with it. But it doesn’t have the same ambition or fire that characterizes the other movies in the Disney Renaissance. It aims to be an enjoyable movie, and while it succeeds that’s all it really is.

Mulan (1998)
This movie is gorgeously photographed, plain and simple. The staging of the shots, the environments that the characters move through, the way the action plays out on screen — it all comes together to produce a visually distinctive movie that calls to mind epic historical war dramas as well as intimate character meditations.

Mulan is the daughter of a revered Chinese war hero; as the only child, she carries the burden of preserving the honor of her family by being the perfect maiden, then wife. Of course she chafes at this; she simply doesn’t fit the rigidly-defined role that her society has made for her. When the Huns clamber over the Great Wall and lay waste to villages, the Emperor calls for one man from every family to fight for their homeland. Making sure her wounded father doesn’t have to go, Mulan steals his sword and armor to fight in his stead. She’s accompanied by Mushu, a tiny dragon fallen from grace as a protector of the family; and Cri-Kee, a “lucky cricket” who serves as Mushu’s sidekick.

Mulan’s problems are very relatable, especially to those of us who don’t fit into the rigid gender roles set out for us by our cultures. She is a woman who doesn’t want to be demure and quiet; she’s smart, she has opinions and she wants to be active in a place that equates femininity with passivity. What’s interesting is how Disney doesn’t pass judgement on this cultural expectation; it merely forms the backdrop for her character struggle. Again, I’m impressed by Disney’s careful handling of other cultures and translating specific influences or attitudes into something universal.

The story isn’t perfect, of course. This was just a couple of years after The Birdcage, and alternate sexualities and gender expressions were still one of those things that were played broad. While masquerading as a man, Mulan indulges in the easiest stereotypes about men vs. women when it really doesn’t need to. Once the film establishes its characters, the best humor actually comes from their specific viewpoints. And the movie is filled with rich and interesting secondary characters that you really come to love over time.

But the animation is the real star of the show here. Disney creates a mythic China filtered through the lens of a spaghetti Western, knowing exactly when to pull back to show off the scale of a battlefield or the bright, vivid perfection of a homestead and when to tighten focus on a character’s facial expressions. One of my absolute favorite transitions is the one out of the raucous “A Girl Worth Fighting For”. It’s a wonderful swerve that makes what comes afterward that much more haunting.

The third act is a wonderful set-piece that’s both intimate, chaotic and simply great storytelling. The arcs of Mulan, Mushu and Captain Li Shang come to a wonderful conclusion here, and there’s just enough room for the denouement to punctuate the way everyone’s changed by their experience.

Mulan is a beautiful, compassionate, well-framed film that’s only occasionally marred by the broad comedic sensibilities of the 90s. I think it’s another one of those overlooked gems that people would really dig if they went back for another look.

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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(Review) A Leprechaun, a Mermaid, and a Greaser

Entertainment 150Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
Darby O’Gill is a walking cliche, that “drunken” old Irishman you find in every pub telling tall tales about his escapades with leprechauns and other Fair Folk. What’s different is Darby doesn’t drink and his stories are all true; so when he is finally sacked by Lord Fitzpatrick, the land-owner whose estate he’s supposed to be tending, his frienemy King Brian steals him away to the innards of Fairy Mountain, where he will naturally live out the rest of his days. Darby, who has a daughter he cares for more than anything else in the world, isn’t having that. So what’s a wily old man to do?

I wasn’t expecting to like this movie as much as I did, which is to say not much at all. When you hear about a live-action Disney film from the 1950s, you naturally think of the corniest all-ages entertainment you can think of — at least, I do. And while Darby O’Gill and the Little People is definitely a G-rated movie, it’s also surprisingly engrossing. The film exists so comfortably in its own skin that if you take it on its own terms you might just find yourself having a pretty good time.

What makes the movie work is how well they’re able to capture the rhythm and flow of a good faerie tale. Sometimes Brian — the King of the Leprechauns — is a friend and confidant, and other times he’s a dangerous adversary with powerful magic who must be outwitted. Darby O’Gill is sometimes a clever old man who tricks leprechauns as easy as breathing, and sometimes he’s a poor mortal wretch so far out of his depth you can’t imagine how he’ll get out of trouble. The dynamics of power and emotional investment are always changing, and even by the end of the movie you’re not entirely sure his experience with the fae is ultimately positive. It’s fun to watch the stakes shift as much as they do.

A pre-007 Sean Connery is the romantic interest here, and he’s so young he doesn’t have any of that urgency or gravitas that we’ve come to know him for. But he does make for a good crooner, and it’s fun to watch him drift in and out of Darby’s narrative. It’s also neat to live in a setting where everyone knows the rules of magic better than you do; their reactions tell you everything you need to know about what’s going on, even though the finer details are missing.

Still, if you haven’t quite gotten into the movies of old Hollywood, chances are this isn’t the movie that’s going to sway you. If you’re more comfortable with the rhythm of old cinema storytelling, this works well. Darby O’Gill and the Little People is an old-fashioned story, but it’s still well told.
Cry-Baby (1990)
John Waters made this film right after the unexpected success of Hairspray, when movie studios were practically beating down his door in order to work with him. The fact that he made this wonderfully insane ode to trash and 50s teen idol musicals just makes me love him more.

Here, Johnny Depp is playing around with his teen-idol image in ways that are actually more effective than burying it under a ton of pancake make-up. He plays the leader of a “drape” gang named “Cry-Baby” Walker; he earned the nickname by squeezing out only a single tear when something upsets him. Cry-Baby is backed up by his perpetually-pregnant sister, Pepper; “Hatchet Face,” a legit crazy woman who steals every scene she’s in; Milton, Hatchet Face’s devoted boyfriend; and Wanda Woodward, a sexpot played by none other notorious porn actress Traci Lords.

Cry-Baby falls in love with a “square,” a good girl being groomed by the stuck-up parents in charge of 1950s Baltimore society. Allison falls for his rock-and-roll singing as well as his single tear trick, and ends up forsaking her clan for the chance to live with the drapes for a while. That’s the basic story, though there are all kinds of detours through it that are surprising and hilarious.

No matter what your expectations coming into this film, Waters manages to upend them. The characters are varied and expertly-drawn, so idiosyncratic that you know who they are by the end of the film’s prologue and opening credits. The fact that their backstories are still surprising when they’re revealed is impressive.

I can’t think of another director who delights in his own weirdness as much as John Waters, and that’s what ultimately makes Cry-Baby so fun. Walker’s gang of drapes are undeniably insane and fundamentally broken, but there is such a passionate and loving bond between them you can’t help but see them as good people. Waters has been the champion of loving weirdness throughout his career, and the fact that he made one of his weirdest and most passionate films as the major studio release here shows a dedication to that vision that’s been simply unwavering.

The third act of the film falls apart a little bit, but it’s still a lot of fun and really engaging. Well-drawn characters are sacrificed to get the “everything and the kitchen sink” finish that Waters wanted, but it doesn’t eat up too much of the goodwill the movie earns. If you’re an neophyte in the ways of Waters, I’d say Cry-Baby is an excellent film to cut your teeth on — if you hate it, then it’s highly unlikely you’ll love anything else he’s written or directed.
The Little Mermaid (1989)
The 70s and 80s were rough on Disney animation; after The Jungle Book, there weren’t too many films that were looked upon fondly before this one. Even though I liked quite a number of the animated films of that period, there is simply no question that The Little Mermaid raised the bar for the company and began a creative high period that would take them through most of the 1990s.

Ariel is the title character, a mermaid princess who is fascinated by the human world above the surface of the oceans. Her father, King Triton, knows the cruelty that man is capable of and wants to protect his daughter from being hurt — his isolationist demands runs counter to her curiosity and optimism. When the terrible sea witch Ursula grants Ariel’s fondest wish — to be human so she can marry a prince she’s fallen in love with, the fate of two kingdoms is suddenly hanging in the balance.

The songs in this movie are some of the greatest in any Disney musical ever. “Part of Your World” is a fantastic, ideal “I want” song; “Kiss The Girl” is the most romantic song that I can think of in a Disney film; and “Poor Unfortunate Souls” is so delightful that it almost gets you on Ursula’s side for a hot second. The animation has to be better just to be worthy of the words, and Disney steps it up in wonderful ways here. Taking fish, crabs and other sea-creatures into anthropomorphic territory is not easy. Sebastian scuttles nervously, and you at once recognize he’s a crab (ew!) and that he has these intense emotional desires (aw!) that endear you to him. Flotsam and Jetsam, Ursula’s hench-eels, are creepy, predatory, yet hypnotic. It’s easy to imagine how naive Ariel could be pulled under their sway.

There are some problems. This time around I found Ariel’s character design a little weird; her head feels really long, accentuating the forehead in this distracting way. And Prince Eric is kind of a terrible character, this wishy-washy dude who seems to be mostly defined by his love of alto voices. Even when Ariel gets Eric in the end, you get the feeling that she could do so much better; the humans in the story are more bland than sadistic, so what was King Triton even worried about there?

The stakes are supplanted by the battle between Ariel and Ursula in the third act, and even then Prince Eric effectively kill-steals the encounter. What did Ariel actually learn through this? How will she be a bit more discerning and a bit less reckless in the future? How did she earn her happy ending?

The argument could be made that this is not that kind of children’s movie, and you might be right. But Ariel’s flaw — the thing that gets her into trouble — is never really identified and addressed through the course of the story. The happy ending feels just a little lessened because of this, even though the rest of the movie is nothing short of delightful.

Still, if it’s been a while since you’ve seen The Little Mermaid, it is definitely worth another look. The songs are amazing, the environments and (most of) the character designs are fantastic, and its ambition is really something to admire. After the long dark time of Disney’s lesser canon, it’s a great example of how you can take Walt’s original passion for telling great stories and update it for modern audiences.

 
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Posted by on March 23, 2016 in Movies, Reviews

 

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My Last Three Movies: Before Sunrise, Ragtime, Snowpiercer

Entertainment 150Before Sunrise (1995)
This is one of the earliest works for Richard Linklater, the writer-director responsible for my favorite film last year, Boyhood. It was a little cult film, though critics love it and it’s still really fondly remembered by film-loves everywhere. I can see why — this is a quintessential Linklater film: the narrative tricks are all meant to strip away anything but the central conceit, and while still a movie it’s really concerned with ideas. It’s as introspective as you can get without being inert.

Here’s the set-up: American tourist Jesse (Ethan Hawke) meets a French woman named Celine (Julie Delpy) on a train and convinces her to get off with him and spend an evening walking around Vienna. There, they talk about their lives, loves, and the nature of each as they see them. The bond they share over the evening — especially as it nears its end — deepens and grows more complicated, and the interactions they have with various people in the city only spurs that along. The decisions they make reflect an opening up to one another, and this singular experience.

It’s a great idea, but it took a little while to convince me it was. I spent a little more than half of the movie hating Jesse, a self-involved, smarmy faux-intellectual who speaks like he has these grand realizations. Really, they’re the ideas you have in college, where your knowledge of reality gets its first great expansion. It can feel like your mind has expanded in these earth-shattering ways, but for those of us on the other side it can be a struggle not to roll our eyes.

Celine, on the other hand, is almost immediately fascinating. She has complicated ideas about what it means to be a woman, how that affects romantic entanglements, and what exactly she wants to be. You can see her struggle between the image of independent, willful man-eater and allowing herself to be vulnerable, to deeply love a man and choose a domesticated life. Her bravado up front clearly masks an almost aching desire to buy into a fairy-tale romance, and it’s fascinating to see.

After sunset, as they walk through an alley, Celine opens herself up to Jesse, who in turn drops the cynical act and offers up a bit of himself. Once he stops holding the movie back it becomes much richer, deeper and engaging, and it’s a lot easier to invest in these characters and entertain their ideas. As the movie follows them through the evening, and they become increasingly aware of the fact they’ll need to go their separate ways, the ephemeral, transitory nature of their evening becomes all the more precious and their resistance to it surprisingly touching.

In the end, it becomes a beautiful movie, and even better, a jumping-off point for your own complex, vulnerable conversations. This is a film you have to see with someone you love, or at least someone you love talking to, simply because it awakens in you a newfound love for simple, earnest conversation. I highly recommend this, with a cup of tea or coffee, and a good walking trail in mind.

Ragtime (1981)
Apparently 1981 was an exceptional year for movies, and I had no idea. The Academy Awards were dominated by Chariots of Fire, On Golden Pond and Reds. Arthur earned John Gielgud an Oscar, and there was also Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman II, Clash of the Titans, Escape From New York and Time Bandits. So many great movies, so many of them threatened with the ravages of time.

My continuing education in 80s film brought me to Ragtime, which was nominated for eight Oscars that year. I had never heard of it, and I’m sorry I hadn’t — this was the movie Milos Forman directed before Amadeus, adapted from the novel by E.L. Doctorow. There are so many great actors in it, from James Cagney in his last film role to an early appearance by Samuel L. Jackson, it kind of blows you away. But the story and performances are what’s really gripping here.

It’s a sprawling movie that drops you into three different entry points to the story: a rich family in a suburb of New York City is enjoying dinner when one of their servants screams at the sight of a black baby left in their garden; a jealous industrialist shoots an artist over the unveiling of a nude statue he believes was modeled after his wife; a street vendor (Hi, Mandy Patinkin!) discovers his wife (Hi, Fran Drescher!) cheating on him and promptly throws her out. The set up is a bit dizzying; the world is chaotic and full of people, and you’re left to determine relationships and conflicts on your own. The plot does not wait for you.

Things get a bit easier as the disparate plots come together. A musician named Coalhouse Walker arrives at the family’s house, claiming to be the father of the baby; the younger brother of that family becomes obsessed with the model of the nude statue, then with Coalhouse’s stand-off against a volunteer fire department who harassed him, then vandalized his Model T car. Coalhouse slowly emerges as the main character, and his run-in with these racist firemen becomes the focal point all of the other stories revolve around.

The racism portrayed in Ragtime is shocking mostly because you’re exposed to so many different forms of it: the casual, matter-of-fact dehumanization of black people by doctors and the law; the blatant and almost cartoonish idiocy of overt bigots; the frustrating stonewall of institutional racism. It shows how this kind of thinking infects almost every aspect of life, and how difficult it can be for black people to escape it even as they struggle to present themselves legitimately and for white people to even understand it in the face of “sudden” black anger and unwillingness to accept one more insult.

This is an incredibly important idea, that the institution of racism has insinuated itself into the fabric of our society, and that relatively good and decent people can still hold racist ideas or support that institution through inaction or preserving the status quo. Ragtime shows the radicalization of victims of racism, and how they’re pushed to these drastic measures simply to be heard. It’s astonishing how the situation escalates simply because the power structure in place cannot understand what is at stake here, and refuse to stop and listen. That’s the tragedy here.

Ragtime is necessary viewing for understanding the black experience in America. I recommend you watch it. No qualifiers. Just do it!

Snowpiercer (2013)
You’ve probably heard about this movie during the summer of 2013, when it was one of those small independent movies that broke through the pop culture chatter to grab a good portion of the hype that year. Mostly, it was described as a smart and crazy mid-budget blockbuster that was like nothing you’ve ever seen. That part is true. But it’s also an intensely polarizing film that’s doing a lot of stuff all at once, and your reaction to it will largely depend on how you’re interpreting the action.

In the near future, attempts to combat global warming with weather engineering via a chemical called CW7 has gone terrifically wrong. The entire world froze, killing all life on Earth save for a small remnant of humanity huddled aboard a train called the Snowpiercer. The track transverses the globe, and the train is designed to complete one loop every year.

Of course, there’s a class system on the train. Those who paid for tickets or contributed to the creation of the project are in the front. Those poor sods who were “lucky” enough to gain free passage are in the back, packed into dirty cars with nothing but protein bars to eat. One day, after enduring the theft of their children to the front and a rather brutal punishment for fighting back, a revolution is organized. The movie follows this resistance as they move from the back of the train towards the luxurious front and the creator of the Snowpiercer, Wilford.

The microcosm of the train is fascinating. Each new traincar offers a surprise that gives us a little more information about the world that’s developed in the 18 years since civilization has fallen, and it’s endlessly interesting to compare that information to the structure of our own society. There’s a mixture of world-building, very solid character moments and vital action that keeps you engaged through the entire film. It’s really hard to think of a single moment that was wasted.

I loved this movie; the plot was great, the stakes were never far from the top of my mind, and the subtext within the story is something that just blows me away. Like so many films that swing for the fences, Snowpiercer might be too over-the-top for some, and that’s fine. It can be really hard to take something this high-concept and make it feel grounded; I feel that director Bong Joon-ho mixes the familiar and the outlandish quite well, but other people might not.

Still, it’s a unique film that I highly recommend. It’s best watching this in summer; the movie is atmospheric enough that you’ll feel the cold despite the temperature outside, and personally I love the idea of stepping outside and feeling the heat. It’s easy to imagine that quick and desperate measures will become increasingly plausible as the effects of climate change connect and multiply; despite its insanity, it’s insanely easy to imagine the world of Snowpiercer becoming our own.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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My Last Three Movies

Philomena (2013)
Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) was a disgraced adviser for the British government trying to determine what he should do next. At a party, he was approached by a woman suggesting he write about her mother, an elderly Catholic who had been forced to give up her son for adoption while living in a convent. Though initially reluctant to do a “human interest” piece, he eventually agrees to meet the woman, Philomena Lee (Judi Dench). Her story — uncovered in fits and starts despite opposition at nearly every turn — proves to be shocking, tragic and almost unbelievable. Of course, most of it is true.

This was a lovely surprise. It was on our radar mainly because it had been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and Judi Dench had been nominated for Best Actress. Honestly, who can resist a great Judi Dench movie? She’s just amazing.

Here, she largely disappears into the role of Philomena, an old, slightly doddering woman who remains devout despite the failings of the Church she believes in so strongly. It’s impressive to see her so ordinary and simple, pulling out only hints of her natural gravitas when she needs to underscore a dramatic beat. It’s unlike almost any other role I’ve ever seen her in.

The movie is directed briskly by Stephen Frears, who guided another British treasure to a Best Actress Oscar (Helen Mirren for The Queen). The more we learn about Philomena’s past, the more sympathy we feel for her and the deeper our desire to know what happened to her son. The answers lie in Washington, DC, and they’re just as surprising. How the film handles each revelation, allowing just enough time for the shock to settle in before moving quickly through the fallout, is kind of a marvel of pacing. This is a film that knows what it’s about, and doesn’t waste time getting there.

Coogan is great as Sixsmith, the prickly journalist who bonds with Philomena through the search but never quite stops being himself. A final confrontation underscores the wide gulf between the reporter and his subject, and while you understand Sixsmith’s reaction (and probably share it), Philomena’s gives us much-needed grace and closure.

If you’re waiting for more episodes of Downton Abbey or Doctor Who, this is going to be your jam.
Tequila Sunrise (1988)
Robert Towne wrote and directed this California crime film, which is pretty confusing. On one hand, he wrote the classic film Chinatown and here he is returning to the genre that made him. But on the other, maybe Roman Polanski deserves all the credit and visibility he gets for Chinatown; while that film’s many, many twists are managed quite nicely, this one feels inert — like we’re standing in one place, spinning in circles, and calling it entertainment.

Mel Gibson, Kurt Russell, Michelle Pfeiffer, JT Walsh and Raul Julia all star in this movie but it’s hard to care about that. Gibson is a former drug dealer who Russell’s detective believes is selling again. They’re at each other’s throats for a good bit of the movie, but it’s hard to care about that either. The dialogue sinks pretty much every exchange, aiming for crackling and witty and landing far short.

After an hour or so, when we see the seventeenth slow-burn conversation between two of the characters, I realized that I had no idea what was going on, why the characters knew what they did or why they were saying what they were saying to each other. Ryan and I turned it off without finishing it, which almost never happens. Life’s too short and there are too many great (or at least more interesting) movies to watch.

I can’t say I recommend this one, but if you want to see an early Mel Gibson movie where he hasn’t quite gotten the hang of an American accent or Kurt Russell looking like he’s auditioning for the part of Patrick Bateman, this is your movie.
Last Action Hero (1993)
The real star of this movie is Frank McRae as Lt. Dekker, the stereotypical shouting black police chief, but Schwartzenegger actually does pretty great work here as well. This is one of those movies that got buried by bad timing and kind of unfair press; it opened a week after Jurassic Park and held up poorly against Sleepless in Seattle later. By the end of the summer, everyone called it a bomb and to this day there’s not a lot of fondness the way there is for other overlooked classics like, say, UHF.

But the movie is a really solid concept held back just a bit by shaking execution. To be fair, it’s a bit of a high-wire act that had never been done before — Last Action Hero tries to straddle the line between a parody of action movies and an homage to them, while also being a parable about the value and nature of storytelling. It swings for the fences, and that earns it my respect, and it mostly succeeds. Everyone gives it their all, and it’s really enjoyable if not quite as emotionally effective as it tries to be.

Teenage movie-buff Danny Madigan finds himself transported into the world of his favorite action hero, Jack Slater, through a magic ticket handed down to him by the elderly projectionist of an old movie theatre that’s about to be torn down. His presence in the film shades the live-action cartoon enough that the stakes are changed, especially when the sub-boss Benedict (Charles Dance!) slips through to the real world and realizes that the rules of the cinema don’t apply. Benedict is a great villain — smart, amoral, calculating, and he makes a nice foil for Schwartenegger’s meathead protagonist, Jack Slater.

Not everything works here — the big scene introducing the magic ticket is pretty corny, and not every self-aware joke lands quite right — but Last Action Hero gets more right then it gets wrong. The action is at once silly and engaging, and the comic timing actually works well slipped in amongst the thrill beats. Schwartenegger is game for self-parody, and he’s a lot funnier than he’s given credit for.

It’s still a minor film in his filmography, but it’s good enough for me to say it’s overlooked. Then again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a lot of Schwartenegger’s panned films; I thought Jingle All The Way is a legitimately-good Christmas movie, and Kindergarten Cop is not great, but fun. The same could be said for Last Action Hero, but I hold it up a little higher because of all it tries to do. It’s a mild success that could have been an unmitigated disaster, and that deserves at least a little love.

If you want to see Schwartenegger poking fun at his oiled-up machismo or the role that probably got Dance the part of Tywin Lannister, I’d recommend this one. It’s a great one to pop in on a Friday night where you just need to decompress.

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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