Friday, November 30, 2012

A Reel Review: HITCHCOCK


In 1959, author Robert Bloch penned a suspense novel by the name of PSYCHO, which was based on the bloody murders committed by Ed Gein in Wisconsin just two years before. In 1960, despite objections from the studios, famed director Alfred Hitchcock decided to adapt PSYCHO into a feature film. Here in 2012, we have director Sacha Gervasi’s HITCHCOCK, which aims to tell the story of how all it all came about.
Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), is fresh off the success of his latest film, but is feeling very much his 60 years and wants to do something fresh and new. With the help of his wife and film-collaborator Alma (Helen Mirren), he works to adapt the novel PSYCHO to the big screen, despite the financial and personal risks, and the objections from studios.

HITCHCOCK marvelously re-creates the settings from PSYCHO so well, fans of the famous film will instantly be thrilled, and non-fans will be inspired to finally see it. It is a treat to see such famous scenes re-created and what went on behind-the-scenes (and the shower curtain) to make them happen. However, HITCHCOCK smartly keeps those peeks behind the walls scattered and few, as this is a story of not just how PSYCHO got made, but why. It is very much Hitchcock’s story, as great and good lengths are taken to show and tell what was driving him to make what was considered to be such a risk back then. HITCHCOCK evolves into a family drama; as the strained relationship with his wife goes, so goes the production of the film.
Director Sacha Gervasi (in his first fictional film) manages to take things a level deeper; there are several peeks into the mind of Hitchcock himself. Hitchcock re-imagines the murders committed by Gein in his mind; extensive peeks in which he himself has conversations with the mass murderer. The imagined scenes never feel out-of-place, as they eventually help Hitchcock find his inspiration, which in turn moves the overall plot forward as he makes his film.

As smart as things are, HITCHCOCK never seems to break away from anything seen before as far as dramatic arcs go. Gervasi seems to be following the standard blueprint (rise, fall, rise again), and as enjoyable as the film is, feels small and simple by the time it wraps.
But keeping the simplicity afloat are the incredible performances by the cast. When casting actors to portray historical figures, finding look-alikes is half the battle, and HITCHCOCK knocks it out of the park with Hopkins (who vanishes inside Alfred Hitchcock), and Scarlett Johansson (who is a dead-ringer for Janet Leigh). Film fans who are familiar with the work of these two Hollywood heavyweights will think that the two had grown young again. Helen Mirren is memorizing, and the rest of the cast, which includes Toni Collette, Danny Huston, Jessica Biel, Ralph Macchio (!), and James D’Arcy (who creepily looks a lot like Anthony Perkins).

In keeping with Hitchcock tradition, the film is “hosted” by Hitchcock himself. It’s a clever and humorous move which will have film-buffs smiling from ear-to-ear. HITCHCOCK will thrill hard-core movie fans, and it will also generate interest for newcomers in one of the most important people in movie history.


Wednesday, November 28, 2012


“Here’s looking at you, kid”
This month marks the 70th anniversary of Michael Curtiz’s CASABLANCA.

CASABLANCA is always found near the top of any list of all-time greats. Based upon an unpublished stage play and set during World War II, the film starred Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, and Paul Henreid. Its focus was a simple, yet effective story of a man caught inbetween love and virtue. With its noir-style of classic shadow and lighting effects, it was a marvel to look at in black-and-white, but it was its blend of drama and romance which really made it stand out.
CASABLANCA would go on to win three Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Long term, the American Film Institute (AFI) ranks it as the third-best film of all time, and it was selected for preservation in the U.S. Film Registry in 1989 for its historical and cultural significance.

Of all the great things CASABLANCA does, it is perhaps its screenplay (which won an Oscar) which is the most overlooked. The film is the source for many of the greatest quotes in movie history. The AFI’s list of Best Movie Quotes has six lines from CASABLANCA:

“Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship” – 20th

“Play it Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By” – 28th (often paraphrased as “play it again Sam”)

“Round up the usual suspects” – 32nd

“We’ll always have Paris” – 43rd

“Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine” – 67th


Any student (or blogger) of film would be well-served to study the writing of CASABLANCA. Its script isn’t just very quotable; it tells a simple, yet important story effectively. A lot of what the movies are today comes from CASABLANCA.



Monday, November 26, 2012

A Reel Review: HOLY MOTORS

Elusive French film director Leos Carax’s HOLY MOTORS has been making serious waves in 2012, having received sweeping acclaim at the Cannes film festival, and the right to a claim as the best-reviewed film of the year. It breaks the mold of the standard three-act film and has a style never seen before. It is a deeply, personal film for Carax; one that might not be accessible to many.
Oscar (Denis Lavant) travels by limousine around Paris to a series of nine appointments, transforming into new characters at each stop. With each character comes a new storyline, a new supporting cast, and a new style of film.

HOLY MOTORS hooks you early on with the fascination of seeing Oscar transform into a new character every fifteen minutes. He goes from a business executive to a motion-capture artist to an assassin (among others) without much explanation as to why he is in this situation. Eventually, little hints are dropped towards something bigger at work, and that adds to the ongoing intrigue. Also, each new storyline is presented in a different film genre; everything from noir, monster films, musicals and melodrama.
If that weren’t enough, the segments in HOLY MOTORS are completely off-the-wall bizarre; ranging from naked leprechauns to domesticated chimps to dragon-sex. Not to mention transitions utilizing vintage black-and-white vaudeville clips and an intermission filled with an accordion band (led by Oscar himself). With so much going on, the promise of an explanation is enough to keep your eyes glued to the screen.

Unfortunately, HOLY MOTORS tries to get smarter than it actually is. The explanation behind all of the wackiness is never given. The finale offers nothing but even more head-scratching; a completely ambiguous ending to an ambiguous film and you cannot help but to walk out of the theatre in utter silence and/or disbelief. Carax doesn’t offer any sort of point to the film, and it just feels odd for the sake of being odd.
The best thing about HOLY MOTORS is the performance from Denis Lavant, who transforms in front of our very eyes playing ten different characters. He isn’t just an actor playing multiple roles, he is a character playing multiple roles; there is a depth Lavant reaches which propels him to one of the best performances in 2012. The supporting cast in the form of Kylie Minogue, Edith Scob, and a sexed-up Eva Mendes are also very good.

There is usually nothing wrong with a film which challenges the audience to draw their own conclusions or take away their own meaning, but that only works if you give them something to latch onto. HOLY MOTORS does no such thing. Somewhere, buried underneath all the rubble of disconnected movie, there is likely meaning which only Carax and Carax alone can understand. That means HOLY MOTORS is an inside joke which never should have been let out of the clown car.


Friday, November 23, 2012

A Reel Review: LIFE OF PI

Without a doubt, Ang Lee’s adaptation of LIFE OF PI is the Taiwanese director’s most stunning visual achievement. Its perfect blend of CGI, practical effects and live-action animals will significantly raise the bar in the film industry; much in the same way AVATAR raised the bar in digital environments and THE LORD OF THE RINGS changed the game in CGI characters. It is breathtakingly beautiful, and its incredible style often outweighs its important substance.
Pi Patel (played by four actors; Ayush Tandon, Gautam Belur, Suraj Sharma for the majority of the film, and Irfan Khan narrating the story as an older man), grows up an inquisitive boy searching for truth. He finds inner peace by adapting his favorite aspects from different religions. His family runs a zoo in India, and when financial troubles force the zoo to close, his father decides to relocate. On the overseas trip, the ship hits a storm and capsizes. Pi is the only human survivor, left alone on a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan, and a tiger named Richard Parker.

PI spends a great deal of time in the first act setting up Pi’s backstory prior to the shipwreck. It drags in some places, but there is always some intrigue going on as the story is told by Pi himself; a story being told with a promise of something important at the end. The backstory, as tedious as it is to sit through, eventually pays off after the shipwreck, and Pi has to survive alone in the mighty Pacific with untamed animals. The film doesn’t let itself become another CAST AWAY by focusing on clever survival techniques. Although that aspect is there, the real focus is on the eventual developing relationship between Pi and the tiger, Richard Parker. It is a relationship that doesn’t get sappy where the two become cuddle-buddies, but instead goes to a mutual respect where they both need each other to survive.
Ever-present throughout Pi’s journey is his steadfast faith, which keeps him focused and motivates his will to live. As powerful as it is, it comes dangerously close to capsizing the entire film. The third act, and eventual finale, goes into an ambiguous ending which questions everything that has happened throughout the entire film. It is frustrating because there is a significant amount of emotional investment in both Pi and his tiger-friend, and although the ambiguity of it all is supposed to be a lesson in faith, as a storytelling device it falls flat and feels unnecessary. It’s not as bad as the old trick of the hero waking up to discover his entire adventure has been a dream; in fact, it’s much worse.

Despite the clunky ending, LIFE OF PI is piloted by a master craftsman. Ang Lee does tremendous work with some startling visuals which have to be seen to be believed. Where many filmmakers rely on CGI as a crutch, Lee uses it as an important tool to tell his story. His camerawork and transitions are nothing short of amazing.
Equally amazing is the CGI and practical effects work, in particular bringing the tiger to life. The tiger is a true character in the film, and there are many moments where you cannot tell where the CGI begins and the live-action animal ends.

It’s difficult to say if the ending of LIFE OF PI is flawed enough to derail the entire film, although it is very tempting. A person with a deeper understanding of faith and/or philosophy may be able to dig deeper and make sense of it, but in broad strokes, it may ultimately prove that filmmakers shouldn’t ever be afraid to make changes from the source material for the sake of the film. LIFE OF PI has to be recommended for being one of the most beautiful films ever made, and one of the most challenging to find meaning in.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

A Reel Opinion: The Importance of Lucasfilm Phase Two


Kathleen Kennedy, the new President of Lucasfilm and successor to George Lucas, recently announced that the new merger with Disney will ultimately produce up to two or three films per year. This new high-rate of film production will kick-off with a seventh STAR WARS film in 2015.
More movies (especially quality movies) are always a good thing; especially when they come out of the studio(s) which have brought us TOY STORY, THE AVENGERS, and STAR WARS. However, this ambitious new plan goes beyond Buzz Lightyear, superheroes, and that far away galaxy.

It in the late 1960’s there was a renaissance going on in San Francisco as young filmmakers looked to experiment more and more with their craft; creating new technologies and moving the industry in different directions. In 1969, Lucas, with his friend and collaborator Francis Ford Coppola, founded American Zeotrope. Zeotrope produced Coppola’s THE GODFATHER PART II (1974), and APOCALYPSE NOW (1979), along with Lucas’ AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973), which would eventually pave the way for STAR WARS.
After the success of STAR WARS, Lucas went on to establish Lucasfilm, which would continue the ideas of Zeotrope in pushing film technology; things we take for granted today like digital cinema, CGI, THX and Skywalker Sound, and ILM all sprouted from Lucasfilm. Zeotrope would go on to focus on filmmaking, eventually earning 15 Academy Awards and 68 nominations since its inception.

The merging of Lucasfilm, the technology innovator, and Disney, the most productive movie factory ever, harks back to the original ideas of Lucas and Coppola. Disney will now have the advantage of nearly-endless innovative technology, and Lucasfilm will have the benefit of strong filmmaking and storytelling. Fifty years ago, Zeotrope and Lucasfilm changed filmmaking forever. There is no certainty that will happen again, but be damn sure the opportunity exists.
Even better still is Kennedy’s ambitious new plan. That many films per year can only mean more opportunities for talented filmmakers. Disney is not the type to hire any old meathead to helm their films, so it is reasonable to assume that the three films per year can and should be written and directed by some of the best names in the business.

Historically, the merger has brought things back full-circle, and there seems to be no ceiling. There is a bright horizon to look away to.

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Reel Review: LINCOLN

Steven Spielberg’s LINCOLN is nothing like the typical Hollywood biopic which begins at the birth of the person and ends at their death or triumphant moment. It is instead an honest, intimate and revealing look at the last few months of Abraham Lincoln’s life and Presidency. On the surface, the decision to begin the story of President Lincoln in the 4th quarter of his life seems to be a head scratcher, but as LINCOLN unfolds, it becomes clear that this was the only story to be told; the most important deed ever done by Lincoln, which defined him and the country he loved.
The Civil War is nearing its end, and Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) is pushing the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery, despite the doubts of his wife Mary Todd (Sally Field) and his Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn). Lincoln knows he must pass the Amendment before the war ends, and must ally himself with radical members of Congress such as Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) to get the necessary votes.

Based on the novel TEAM OF RIVALS by Doris Kearns Goodwin, LINCOLN unfolds unlike any other drama to hit the big screen. It spends most of its time dealing with political maneuvering to get the necessary votes to abolish slavery. This maneuvering consists of backroom deals and negotiations just coming short of a bribe. It’s a fascinating look at the way the government was run back then, and it often feels like Spielberg found a way to get C-SPAN into the offices and chambers in the 1860’s. It is often dry and dense, and comes close to feeling like a drawn-out, feature-length LAW AND ORDER episode. However, there is no melodrama here, no embellished events to force an emotional response, no sappy bookends or overdrawn weepy speeches; just raw politicking.
However, Spielberg never forgets who or what the human center of the film is; Abraham Lincoln himself. The character shoulders the burdens of the war-torn country, his grieving wife, his oldest son who probably hates him (played brilliantly by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the peace negotiations with the Southern armies, and the backlash from his want to abolish slavery. On top of all these burdens he must carry, Spielberg makes excellent strides in making Lincoln a likeable human. Using history as a reference, Lincoln is a lovable family man with great intelligence and penchant for telling stories to get his point across. He is an extraordinary man in extraordinary circumstances, but above all else he is human, and LINCOLN never lets us forget that.

And bringing Abe to life is the extraordinary Daniel Day-Lewis, who absolutely vanishes inside the character. From the moment he first appears on screen to the moment he fades away, the fact that it is Daniel Day-Lewis is forgotten. He dominates the screen and pulls you in, making you feel every ounce of his burden. As great as he carries the man, perhaps his best moments are when he does not speak at all; it is tempered to the point where as he listens, you feel like you are listening along with him. There is a deep spirituality to the performance which Day-Lewis has not ventured into before. It is nothing short of breathtaking.
Surrounding Day-Lewis are outstanding performances by an outstanding cast. Sally Field is great as Mary Todd, and their scenes together are great, albeit so real it almost hurts to watch them. Acting is out-of-this-world from the cast; David Strathairm, Tommy Lee Jones, Hal Halbrook, Jackie Earle Haley, Gloria Reuben, and Jared Harris (as General Grant) are all incredible.

Backed by John Williams’ pretty-good score, Spielberg’s touch in LINCOLN is very gentle; probably his most tempered work to date. It is powerful but never forces anything; earning every bit of payoff it offers. And when that payoff comes, the most important moment in the history of the United States is made clear by LINCOLN the film, and Lincoln the man.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Reel 20

“Do you believe in destiny? That even the powers of time can be altered for a single purpose?”
This month marks the 20th anniversary of Francis Ford Coppola’s BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel had seen many film adaptations prior to 1992, with many having only remote connections to its source material. Coppola, then only a few years removed from his GODFATHER PART III, focused his efforts on the first-person narratives of the book, making it more of a personal story as opposed to the monster-movie adaptations which had come before. Coppola compared his vision to an alternate take on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, which brought in sympathy for the devil in his film, making Dracula more than just a set of fangs.

DRACULA also brought in an all-star cast which included (a then nearly unknown) Gary Oldman as Dracula, along with Winona Ryder, Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Cary Elwes, and Tom Waits. Making many parts of the film feel like an erotic dream and relying on practical effects (CGI was just coming around at the time), the film was a visual marvel. DRACULA would eventually win three Oscars (Costume Design, Sound Effects, Makeup), and also won four Saturn Awards, with Best Director for Coppola and Best Actor for Oldman.

As a young college student preparing a paper on the differences between the mythical and factual Count Dracula, this Blogger was pleased (and most impressed) at just how much both sides were represented in BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA. Both myth and legend are given equal representation and put to good use, making DRACULA not only a great book-to-film adaptation, but the absolute best package-deal for the Dracula legend. The film also began this Blogger’s fascination with the other legend, Gary Oldman. And this Blogger also maintains that DRACULA’s score (by Wojciech Kilar) is the best score for a horror film ever written.
Vampire films have been a dime-a-dozen over the past decade or so, but there are none which have done it better over the past twenty years than Francis Ford Coppola’s vision.
“The blood is the life…and it shall be mine.”


Monday, November 12, 2012


The last couple of decades in the career of Christopher Walken can fairly be described as zany and screw-bally. Earlier this year, Walken, in his dramatic (and sometimes comedic) role in SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS, reminded us that he does have an Oscar on his shelf. Now, in the thick of Oscar season, Walken fires another reminder at us with a full-on dramatic performance in A LATE QUARTET.
A world-famous string quartet is heading into their 25th season. It was founded by Peter (Walken) and Daniel (Mark Ivanir), and includes Juliette (Catherine Keener) and her husband Robert (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). As they begin to plan a new tour after some time off while Peter mourned the death of his wife, Peter is then diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and decides that he will leave the group if he cannot physically play any longer.

A LATE QUARTET sets itself up as a one-man’s journey movie, seemingly ready to focus on Peter’s physical and emotional struggles as he copes with his new, debilitating disease which threatens to destroy everything he has worked so hard for. However, rookie director Yaron Zilberman keeps the theme of a quartet in mind, and shows us the ripple effects of Peter’s situation. Peter’s situation puts the group into drama usually seen in rock-bands; packed tightly with betrayal, extra-marital affairs, trust issues and the fear of an unknown future. What really works over and over is that each action by the characters leads to another situation, and long-time annoyances which have been simmering for years reach their boiling points.
Zilberman also keeps a musical theme cruising along just underneath all of the drama. The film’s title derives from one of Beethoven’s String Quartets (a piece of music the group struggles with playing throughout the film), which is a long piece which is meant to be played without pause. As one character explains, the instruments slowly go out of tune during the playing of the piece and the musicians must make the adjustments as the performance continues. The idea here is that the piece of music mirrors human relationships and how we adjust, and when it is all over, we tune back to where we need to be. It’s a bit of a heavy-handed metaphor, but it works.

The films performances are all outstanding, with everyone getting plenty of screentime and opportunity to flex their muscles, but it all belongs to Walken. He carries the pain and torment of a man near the end of life as he has known it perfectly, and he conveys the physical changes his disease brings along in heartbreaking and realistic ways. Catherine Keener and Phillip Seymour-Hoffman (two more Oscar nominees/winners) are also at the top of their game, but the show is nearly stolen by young Imogen Poots, who plays Juliette’s daughter who eventually has a love affair with Daniel. Poots is an emotional ball of flame, and shows that she has a very bright career ahead of her.
The third act sets itself up as a typical sports-film in the vein of rise-fall-rise again, but then reels itself back and dips its toes in reality for a bittersweet and proper ending. It overall shows its maturity with its storytelling and especially its acting performances. Walken owns the movie, but there is a lot more to enjoy in this quartet.


Friday, November 9, 2012

A Reel Review: SKYFALL


Understand this about SKYFALL, the latest 007 film in the Daniel Craig era; by the time this film ends, the James Bond that the world has come to know over the past 50 years will finally reveal himself, very much making Craig’s previous Bond films (CASINO ROYALE, QUANTUM OF SOLACE), prequels to the character. In the grand scheme of things it works, as further adventures of Craig’s British secret agent will now carry more weight and have more meaning. That will ultimately be the legacy of SKYFALL, but how does it fare as a movie…?
After a failed attempt by Bond (Daniel Craig) and his fellow agent Eve (Naomi Harris) to recover a hard-drive with the identities of all the secret agents spread out across the world, Bond is presumably killed and goes into hiding. The list has been stolen by Silva (Javier Bardem), an old friend from the past of the head of the British secret service, M (Judi Dench), who must now fight for her job and her life.

The plot of SKYFALL in the early goings is simple; recover the list of stolen identities before Silva can post them all on the internet, which would lead to many agents being exposed and killed. Director Sam Mendes, in his first Bond outing, is wise enough to not let that storyline serve as the real guts of SKYFALL. When M is threatened in her job and her life, Bond switches into a son protecting his mother (mum). The transformation practically happens on camera, and gives the film the needed and heart and weight for people to really care.
The film goes a level deeper with the arrival of new Bond villain Silva, whose connection to M makes for interesting character development for everyone. The contrast between Bond and Silva, M and Silva, and M and Bond nearly takes center-stage, and makes this a very unique Bond film in that the characters and what they have to deal with becomes more important than the old save-the-world-from-the-monologuing-bad-guy.

Mendes handles his Bond-verse with the experience of a director who has been 007-ing it for 50 years. The film is saturated in James Bond-lore, with plenty of winks and nods and in-jokes towards previous films. None of that ever distracts or derails the film, and Mendez also directs some outstanding action sequences (there is a motorcycle chase which has to be seen to be believed) which are spread out enough to keep things from turning into a headache.  Things are further augmented by the outstanding cinematography by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins. Deakin’s work with natural light, shadows and silhouettes make SKYFALL a beautiful film to look at, and without a doubt the best-looking Bond film ever made.
Daniel Craig really comes into his own as Bond here, giving all the charm, roughness and tender caring that the character needs. Javier Bardem is a great, flamboyant villain who takes some unexpected turns which could not have been pulled off by anyone else. He is unfortunately a little underutilized; appearing in only a handful of scenes. The show is nearly stolen by Judi Dench, whose M character is finally given something to do other than sit behind a desk. The supporting cast in the form of Ralph Fiennes and Albert Finney is also excellent, as is the performance by young Ben Whishaw; Bond’s perfectly-casted new (Q)uartermaster.

The third act is preceded by an outstanding assassination attempt, which is so good it overshadows the eventual final battle, which feels a little drawn-out and tacked-on. That final sequence is a very much a departure from the rest of the film, but by its end its purpose is clear in several vital ways. Its impact is permanent and important, making SKYFALL not just a great James Bond flick, but more importantly, a great movie.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

A Reel 50

This month marks the 50th anniversary of Lewis Milestone’s MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, which starred Marlon Brando, Richard Harris, and Trevor Howard.
The film, while not very successful, holds a place in history for being the first movie shot with the Ultra Panavision 70 Widescreen format (a new widescreen format at the time), and for being one of the first filmed in the South Pacific. It is also known for adding to the legend of Marlon Brando, who effectively took over directing duties and was blamed for the film falling behind schedule and over its budget.

More noteworthy is that MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY’s 50th anniversary also falls just after the loss of the film’s centerpiece, the full-size working replica of the Bounty.

The Bounty was the first large vessel built from the ground-up for a film using historical resources. After filming, she was scheduled to be burned, but Brando protested, and the ship was saved. After a short career as a tourist attraction, she went back to the movies; used during the filming of TREASURE ISLAND (1989) with Charlton Heston, and eventually the PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN films.

In late October of this year, just a few weeks before MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY’s anniversary, Bounty sank in rough seas while trying to sail away from Hurricane Sandy. Going down with the ship was her long-time captain, Robin Walbridge.
The loss of such an important piece of film history is insignificant to the loss of human life. It is safe to say that Captain Walbridge understood Bounty’s importance, and also understand what an old sailing ship really is. To paraphrase a certain fictional ship Captain; A ship is not just sails and a keel. That’s what a ship needs. But what it really is, is freedom.



Monday, November 5, 2012



Animated films have to accomplish a lot these days. Thanks to the success of Pixar over the past two decades, the bar has been raised to the point where an animated film needs to keep adults entertained just as much as the kiddies. Many films try to walk that fine line, while others just go right for the kids. WRECK-IT RALPH is a film which takes place in the setting of classic arcade-style video games, which means the door is wide open for adults to come in and enjoy some nostalgia. But how does it play for the young-ins…?
Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly) is the bad guy (but not a bad guy) in the video game Fix-It Felix Jr. Growing tired of being the villain and looking to prove his goodness, Ralph begins “game-jumping”; jumping from one game to another, including Hero’s Duty (a first-person shooter game), and Sugar Rush, a racing game in a candy-land world. In Sugar Rush, he meets Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), and the king of Sugar Land (brilliantly voiced by Alan Tudyk), and discovers that his game-jumping has threatened every game in the arcade.

RALPH is a film that is saturated in video-game mythology, and the film is at its strongest when it spends time behind-the-scenes of the arcade. The questions of what video game characters do when their game is not being played, or what is just off-screen are brilliantly answered; the film can easily do for arcade games what this year’s CABIN IN THE WOODS did for horror films. The cameos of classic video-game characters are a pleasure to see, and the screen is literally packed with familiar faces; picture a STAR WARS Creature Cantina only on a bigger scale with characters you have gamed with for years.
When Ralph begins game-jumping, the fun of the video-game mythology gets even better, but then comes to a literal screeching halt when his jumping stops at Sugar Land. While the design of the candy land is exquisite and the characters interesting enough, the film completely steps away from its own mythology and nearly goes into a whole new movie. It’s a bit of a disappointment that no more game-jumping occurs once the Sugar Land stuff starts as the film did such a great job in the early goings setting up a great universe. The happenings in Sugar Land do serve a purpose, and the characters do go through some excellent (albeit predictable) development and drama, but again it is such a departure from the stronger first act it’s enough to jar you out of the film. Also, when the film drifts from its own video-game mythology, its shifts gears into a kiddie flick, and adult audiences will be instantly bored out of their minds. RALPH also seems to shift away from its main character and over to Vanellope; often coming dangerously close to becoming the goddamn Sarah Silverman Show.

What it all boils down to is WRECK-IT RALPH is one-half of a good movie; older audiences will love the nostalgia but will snooze through everything else. Younger audiences will be thrilled at the cartoonish hijinx, but the in-jokes involving 30 year old video game characters will go right over their heads. Nostalgia can only get you so far in a film like this, and you have to revert to story to add substance, but for RALPH the blending could have been better. There is plenty for young and old audiences to enjoy; it just comes one level at a time.

PS The animated short PAPERMAN, which runs before, is a work of genius.


Friday, November 2, 2012

A Reel Review: FLIGHT


Fans of Oscar winning director Robert Zemeckis (FORREST GUMP, CAST AWAY, BACK TO THE FUTURE) have been waiting impatiently for him to step out of his decade-long fascination with motion-capture film (which has produced THE POLAR EXPRESS, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, and BEOWULF) and get back to the world of live-action. With FLIGHT, Zemeckis does just that with moderate success, but forgets to bring along some extra jet-fuel which made his earlier work and even his motion-capture films better than good.
Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is an airline pilot with a drinking problem. After a heavy bender, Whip snorts cocaine to sober up and boards his flight for Atlanta, of which he is Captain. The flight encounters a mechanical failure, and Whip pulls off a skilled and miraculous crash landing, saving all but 6 of the 102 lives on board. After being hailed as a hero, Whip’s toxicology report reflects his physical state (drunk), and he is faced with many moral choices while facing his addiction denial.

FLIGHT spends a lot of time with Whip as he drinks and stumbles and lies his way around the consequences of the flight and eventual crash. He is eventually faced with some excellent moral choices which would help him support his denial and get away from the incident without any prison time (the feds tend to frown upon airline pilots flying drunk). Whip denies his problem, storms out of AA meetings, and pushes away the people who try to help him.
With that stage set, FLIGHT seems set for some excellent drama. Unfortunately, the film never digs deep enough into the issues of addiction, denial, and faith and only presents the tip of the iceberg. We see Whip go through the motions, but never deep enough to really pull you in. Also, for as much time as the film spends with Whip (there are only a handful of scenes without him), we never really learn much more about him other than he likes to drink and lie about it; it brings about an emotional detachment which ultimately means who cares. That and the shallowness of the exploration of the dramatic themes makes FLIGHT feel very routine and run-of-the-mill.

There is still a lot to enjoy about FLIGHT. It is funny, sad and tragic in spurts, and Zemeckis does excellent work in crafting the film together. His talent for picking the right music for the right time hasn’t lost a beat, and he directs a spectacular performance out of Denzel Washington and his excellent supporting cast (Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood, Kelly Reilly, and a fantastic John Goodman). The real highlight of the film is the plane crash itself, which runs nearly 10 minutes and will have anyone clenching their seats in fear.
The shallowness of FLIGHT again makes it feel very routine, and the ending can be seen coming from a mile above the Earth; it overall feels like a movie made specifically to be shown at AA meetings and MADD/SADD gatherings as it explores only just enough to get a message across. FLIGHT is a trip you can walk away from, but not one you would be so eager to take again.