His Dark Materials
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This film is a blatant attempt at formula popcorn entertainment, but they chose the wrong characters to do it with. The muddled mess that is The Lone Ranger was awkward to watch, awkward in dialogue, and clichéd in almost every way that isn't fun. The trouble is the whole thing is veering from camp to violent so abruptly that you barely have time to see if the characters are reacting the same way you are. They aren't, which is one of the real weaknesses here. They didn't dare go all the way to comedy, but they also don't serve treat any of the messages of injustice, greed, and inhumanity to Native Americans in any purposeful way. In fact, it's almost like the film-makers are reveling in the horrible stereotypes the film represents, (or they themselves were the characters!) and the film completely fails to deconstruct them. The cast is also divided on whether they belong to the campy side, the historical realism region, or the classic western feel, and that's a huge problem. Almost the only character I liked was Silver the horse. He had the clearest objectives of anyone. In fact, he was a whole lot smarter than any of the human characters, and the most heroic. The large and talented supporting cast is largely wasted. What humor can be found in Johnny Depp's crazy Tonto is also largely wasted, because the film is trying to recoup the audience from another stomach-churning uncomfortable moment seconds before. I now realize that Johnny Depp is clever in another way: By always wearing face makeup in his comedic efforts, he doesn't have to really reveal his facial disdain for being in this film. It's amazing how close I called this by my own numbers: 1 point for the trains 1 point for the sum total of talented cast, and a half-point for the action. People that complain that Disney sugar-coats everything have not seen this film. It's the ugly side of Disney's production house, and that's not a good thing for them at all.
Yellow Submarine is a strange film, no doubt about it. It had a checkered history from the very start, with the Beatles internal problems, lack of money, lack of script, and yet they managed to make a film that's, well, unique. It's almost like opening a time capsule to the era when almost anything that was experimental or different could make it to the screen, and I was glad when I heard that they had shelved plans for a remake in this decade, because it simply would have failed.
As a film, it's a mixture of cultural images from the 1960's, drug culture hangover art, and music from one of the most influential bands of all time. What you get is a strange voyage from grungy 1960's London to the world of Pepperland, which is under siege from the Blue Meanies. You can read the symbolism of who these guys represent many ways. They can be seen as 'the establishment' of pinstriped soulless bankers and accountants, or hawkish, war supporters, or just weird creatures that hate music and art.
Watching the film again now, it still seems relevant. We're still at war with hawkish politics and banks and prejudice and our basic liberties being threatened. It's colorful and the use of the music is kinda cool. Ultimately the forces of good and truth, aided by the Beatles, triumph over the Blue Meanies. You're never really sure what its all about, but its fun to watch.
Wreck-It Ralph is pure fun, with a lot of clever ideas. You just have to kid of go with it, and not look for deep philosophy here, but oddly, the film does have some. Ralph's journey also doesn't really change who he is, but he changes who his friend are, and he has a nice arc of self-discovery, besides getting into some very interesting situations. The world will basically end if he doesn't succeed, so it also has some real feeling of risk to the adventure.
John C. Reilly is a master of being hang-dog, and he's the perfect voice for Ralph. The intersection of the various game worlds is fun to follow, and the level of detail is amazing, too, depending on the game you're in. I was never a big arcade game player, but I can appreciate the inside jokes and game-culture references, and the characters are all distinct and interesting. Even the good guy gets to continue being good, and Sarah Silverman gets to be kid-profane and amusing at the same time.
There's also the Pixar-like quality to appeal to all ages with this film, and there's heartwarming and charming interactions that elevate the film above what might have been just one big chase. You get the chase, too, but it's not like most chases you'll ever see except in an arcade. The movie is certainly able to stand on its own, but there's so many 'worlds' to explore with this now, I actually wouldn't mind seeing a sequel if a good story with enough at stake could be created.
It's nice to go back to Middle Earth. The first installment of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit is another film put together with the same care and thought as the Lord of the Rings, but it's a different story, and any comparisons to the Lord of the Rings trilogy is a bit unfair. This is Bilbo's story, and although there are some deviations from Tolkien canon, it remains faithful to the scope and tone of the adventure, while layering on some slightly darker details that neither Bilbo nor his dwarven companions realize. It remains to be seen how successful the tie-ins to the later Fellowship story will be, but as an adventure yarn, very few films can surpass what was done on the screen.
The story remains largely on the scale of Fellowship, with an episodic journey from place to place and peril to peril, just as the book takes us. For movie purposes, this means that action takes the place of exposition in some places, and its all balanced with some very nice right off the page story telling, and even some of the songs made it this time. The Unexpected Party scene is well handled, as is the first meeting with Gandalf, and the whole 'good morning' sequence. The journey itself displays wonderful vistas as always, and little things like the ponies, an the varied and interesting dwarves really balance the picture nicely. Peter Jackson has added some strategic overtones to figuring out the Necromancer's identity, and that the dragon is more of a threat long term. This is from the supplemental material and leftover writings of Tolkien about the Quest for Erebor. Meanwhile on the pure adventure side, there's plenty of action in the mountains, and the CG seems fantastical, but still organic enough to make you wonder. Even those of us that know the story well have to be impressed with the detail. I also liked the Top Chef trolls. Very amusing.
Performances are all wonderful. We don't get a lot of each dwarf, but certainly Thorin (Richard Armitage); Balin (Ken Stott); and Bofur (James Nesbitt) give excellent support to Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and Bilbo (Martin Freeman). It's an ensemble piece, and everyone has good moments, even the nice cameos by Galadriel and pre-evil Saruman are showcased. Andy Serkis makes Gollum fascinating to watch once more, and the whole Riddles In The Dark sequence is a standout in a film filled with great moments. Martin Freeman is spot-on as Bilbo. As an actor, Freeman is more comic than hero, but when he says a sincere line, as he does perfectly in some key palces, it comes off beautifully. McKellen is flawless as usual.
Yes, it has some weak points, but they're not all that important. The early inclusion of a nemesis for Thorin is a little much, but it helps the pacing on this film, which is long, and it gives us a needed break from the foot slog that the book details. The tone of the film is necessarily much more whimsical, since this is before Sauron actually announces his return, and before the Ring really makes its presence known. As Tolkien wrote, Bilbo's arrival in the caverns started a small avalanche of happenings that culminate in the later Lord of the Rings story, but Jackson has skillfully kept this in the background. The momentous nature of the Ring has yet to be revealed, and even Bilbo isn't very sure of how it can be used. The humorous tone makes the more dangerous sequences more dire, and the heartfelt moments even better, as when Bilbo pledges to continue with the dwarves to get their homeland back. It's just the tip of the hobbit iceberg that we'll see in the next two films. This is all difficult material to adapt, and Jackson and his team have once again lost nothing of their skill ove the last decade. It shows in every frame.
The venerable Bond franchise chalks up another successful venture with Skyfall, and combines the best of the past, as well as an effective update of Bond for the future. Nothing is better than a trained agent to sort out a mystery, and Bond goes through hell and a half again to try to track down a rogue agent that has stolen a valuable list of high-placed double agents. The movie opens with the usual bang, and this high-energy chase ranks up there with the best of them.
The movie then moves into the research phase, and this gives time for some character introspective. Is Bond archaic? Is he unable to balance his job with loyalty. These themes have always run through the Bond franchise, and Director Mendes hones close to Flemings original ideas yet again, and Daniel Craig turns in another stone-faced, yet internally emotional performance as 007. You almost know what the character will do before he does it, because we know this character so well. We can forgive him some failings, and the fact that he's unused to having to rely on a team to do the work, but he leans forward and does his best and with style.
The female Bond girl this time around isn't a twenty-something supermodel, it's Dame Judy Dench, who adds some wonderful moments with Craig as they work out a complex relationship of 'mother and son' in the service of their country. It's great to watch. In fact, the window-dressing females are distinctly secondary in this film, although Namoie Harris has some nice moments helping Bond. Javier Bardem brings a twisted charisma to his villain. He's got mommy issues of his own, but instead of Bond, who trusts his 'mother'; Bardem takes the dark path of revenge. This makes the whole spy realm seem very realistic, since there's never a clear good and evil in this film, mostly that thin veil of duty that keeps the whole spy circuit from unraveling completely.
Mendes also avoids a lot of traps of action films. The movie has a big opening, and a big ending, but has only spurts of action in between. Some might see this as off-pace, but it makes the later sequences more powerful thana sustained and lengthy series of chases all throughout the film. Yes, there are actions in between the beginning and end, but they have real purpose. It's a strong script, with fine attention to detail, and with a strong cast the result is one of the best Bonds made.