Sunday, May 24, 2015

Video review: "Strange Magic"

“Strange Magic” was a 15-year passion project by George Lucas, who said he wanted to make a movie for his daughters after all those science fiction odysseys. This animated musical filled with fairies and goblins and elves, though, ends up as a derivative and largely joyless romp through the enchanted forest.

The animation is decent to look at, with Lucas’ animation outfits in Singapore and California combining efforts. And it’s got an impressive voice cast, including Evan Rachel Wood, Alan Cumming, Kristin Chenoweth, Alfred Molina, Elijah Kelley and Maya Rudolph.

The story centers on Marianne (Wood), heiress to the fairy throne. She rejects her fiancé,  Roland (Sam Palladio), for being a cad, then is horrified when her sister, Dawn, is kidnapped by the evil Bog King (Cumming). His realm is the dank and shadowy antithesis to the fairy world of light and laughter. But somewhere in that crusty old chitinous shell is the beating heart of a guy who’s been knocked around by love.

There’s also the Sugar Plum Fairy (Chenoweth) creating love potions that wreak havoc, a love-smitten elf (Kelley), and the Bog King’s scolding mom (Rudolph), who just wants her son to settle down with a nice frog.

“Strange Magic” seems like an excuse to have faeries and princesses and goblins and get them all to burst into pop music standards, including the title tune. At times it seems like the characters finish a song, speak six lines of dialogue, and then start singing again. The story is just a weak thread in between the warbling.

Little kids might like it, but this is one for parents to pop in the DVD player and leave to go do other things.

Video extras are pretty skimpy. They consist of two making-of featurettes: “Magical Mash Up: Outtakes, Test and Melodies” and “Creating the Magic.”



Thursday, May 21, 2015

Review: "Tomorrowland"

Maybe you’ve seen the trailer for “Tomorrowland,” in which a young woman touches a pin and is instantaneously, breathtakingly transported to another place. Like me, you probably found it highly intriguing, but after watching it you didn’t really feel like you had any idea what the movie was about.

Well, I’ve seen the whole film now – and I still don’t have a clear picture of it.

It’s a weird cotton candy concoction. It wants to be fun and fluffy, but the film also has this determined air of mystery to it, like it resents sharing its secrets. And there’s some late portentous stuff that seems way too sour for what came before.

This is surely one of the most disappointing movies of the year, given expectations and the talent involved: star George Clooney, who seems to instinctively gravitate toward quality material or vice-versa; director Brad Bird, one of the top animation filmmakers (“The Incredibles”) who successfully made the jump to live action; Damon Lindelhof, co-creator of the TV show “Lost,” who wrote the script along with Bird.

I’m afraid this may also prove a disappointing review, since I feel like I can’t tell you very much about “Tomorrowland.” Its entire appeal is steeped in guarding its enigma, then slowly – too slowly – revealing itself. Even though I found the movie underwhelming, blurting out its secrets seems a disservice both to the film and its audience.

I’ll stick to things that are shown in the trailer, or you can figure out easily. Given the title and that it’s from Disney, you can guess that it has something to do with the utopian vision of the future from the ubiquitous theme parks. Touching one of these odd ceremonial pins immediately teleports you to a magical, soaring city of arches and scientific advancement -- at least for a while.

Casey Newton (Britt Robertson) is a smart and gutsy teen who comes to be in possession of one of these pins, and tenaciously follows the thread of its mystery. This includes gaining the companionship of a strange young girl, Athena (Raffey Cassidy). She in turn leads Casey to Frank (Clooney), an isolated inventor who appears to be very, very angry at the world.

Together they have all sorts of adventures involving rockets, robots, cross-dimension travel and guzzling Coca-Colas. For a while it almost seems like a science fiction version of “The Da Vinci Code,” with famous locales and figures revealing long-shrouded purposes.

The movie takes a long, long time to get rolling. It feels like a roller-coaster in which two-thirds of the ride is clickety-clacking up that first big rise. The last 45 minutes or so are pretty engaging, but some of the twists are more jerky than thrilling.

Clooney is dyspeptic and missing his usual facile charm. Robertson is buoyant and enthusiastic, though the script often has her saying or doing patently ridiculous things. Young Cassidy has terrific screen presence; somehow she speaks in a very clear British accent, yet I struggled to understand her words.

“Tomorrowland” is a story for and about dreamers, those who dare to strive for something better and never give in to the naysayers. It’s a beautiful sentiment, but the problem with that is sometimes the naysayers are right. And though I dreamed of adoring this movie, I must say: nay.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Video review: "American Sniper"

When I wrote my initial review of “American Sniper,” the movie wouldn’t hit theaters for another month. I opined that it might not do well commercially given its subject matter, the Iraq war, and its portrait of a man who kills prodigiously for a living.

A half-billion dollars and a half-dozen Oscar nominations later, I’m glad to pronounce myself totally off the mark. One of the best movies of 2015, “American Sniper” is the deeply affecting story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL credited with 160 combat kills.

Bradley Cooper, known for playing smooth operators, is barely recognizable as Kyle. An unapologetic patriot, Kyle uses his sniper skills to take out threats to his comrades on the ground. Sometimes this involves dreadful choices, such as whether to shoot a boy holding a grenade running toward American soldiers.

It’s perhaps the best performance of Cooper’s career, totally submerging himself into the part of an unremarkable guy who discovered that he was the perfect instrument of war. Needless to say, this wreaks havoc on his private life back home with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids. In between four tours in Iraq, Kyle struggles to fit in amid a staid world of lawnmowers and kids’ birthday parties, sensing threats on the wind.

The actual combat scenes are the real heart of the film. Rather than taking us into the midst of chaos, director Clint Eastwood shows the eagle’s-eye view of the sniper, perching on rooftops to get the best vantage point for their kills. The editing, camera work and sound effects are all top-notch.

It can be a tough movie to watch, but “American Sniper” is well worth your time.

Bonus features are a bit on the modest side, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions. Both come with two making-of documentaries: “Making of American Sniper” and “One Soldier’s Story: The Journey of American Sniper.”



Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: "Far from the Madding Crowd"

I will admit to an embarrassing aversion to a lot of 19th century Western literature in general, and the British kind in particular. I've always found much of this writing long-winded and self-indulgent, as if the authors took pen in hand more for the idolatry of their own prose than crafting a compelling story and vivid characters for their readers.

Even short books like Bram Stoker's "Dracula" seem needlessly inflated with a sense of self-importance. Why write 300 words, the thinking seems to be, when 3,000 will do?

Movie adaptations of this oeuvre tend to do well though, since the process of turning a book into a film is largely a process in elimination -- whittling the narrative down to its purest essence. I've not read Thomas Hardy's "Far from the Madding Crowd," but I have an inkling I like the movie version more than I would the novel.

Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba Everdene, a spirited young woman who inherits a large farm in the English countryside. A sort of proto-feminist, Bathsheba sets about running the enterprise and a small army of workers on her own, resolving to bring successful crops of wheat and barley seed to market and strike deals with her male counterparts. She will rise before anyone else in the morning and be the last in bed.

"It is my intention to astonish you all," Bathsheba informs her farmhands.

But love, as it is wont to do, invades the Everdene farm. Bathsheba finds herself the object of not one, or two, but three urgent male suitors. Left to her own devices she would prefer not to marry at all. But whether out of a sense of propriety, necessity or just pure whim, she begins to negotiate the minefield of romantic intentions, many of them misplaced.

The first is Gabriel Oak (Matthias Schoenaerts), a sturdy and stoic shepherd who pitched his woo when Bathsheba was still a penniless helper at her aunt's farm. He proposes marriage after they've shared only one or two conversations, and apparently this was not unusual for the time. Back when people saw marriage as a mutually agreeable accommodation; you got hitched and then worried about falling in love.

Bathsheba rejects Mr. Oak, somewhat haughtily, and later he loses his entire flock and becomes a wandering laborer. He eventually finds his way to Bathsheba's farm, and becomes her employee. Their relationship is confusing and strained -- at one point she seeks his advice about a personal matter, then dismisses him after he responds with counsel not to her liking.

(In this, I see that the thought patterns of modern women are not dramatically different from those of their fictional 19th century counterparts.)

In a girlish fit, Bathsheba sends a valentine to William Boldwood (Michael Sheen), a rich and stodgy middle-aged bachelor who reputedly had his heart broken long ago. He interprets this as a romantic overture and, you guessed it, immediately responds with a proposal of marriage. He promises her whatever she wants, including her independence in continuing to run her own farm. She recognizes the promise of such an offer, but again demurs -- after stringing Boldwood along for a few months.

Finally there is Frank Troy (Tom Sturridge), a hot-headed sergeant who gives up the military life to seduce Bathsheba. He had nearly wed Fanny (Juno Temple), one of Bathsheba's former workers, but sees the  monetary benefits of aiming higher up the social scale. Predictably, once Troy and Bathsheba are wed he quickly becomes bored with the life of a country gentleman, drinks and carouses, running up large gambling debts.

Directed by Danish filmmaker Thomas Vinterberg based upon a screenplay by David Nicholls, "Far from the Madding Crowd" is a gorgeous-looking film, lush with color and beautiful imagery.

The story is all restrained emotions and unspoken declarations in that very British way. This is the sort of the movie in which characters take an hour and a half to say, "I love you," and even then they don't just blurt it right out.

It's sort of a pastoral version of "The Remains of the Day." Carey Mulligan is an endearing screen presence as always, and her three would-be husbands all display some aspects of the Byron-esque romantic ideal man, though they all are found wanting in other areas.

I enjoyed the movie for what it is, which is to say if you've "Remains" or "Room with a View" or "Little Women" or any of a few dozen other films, you pretty much know you are getting the same thing.

Review: "Mad Max: Fury Road"

Some movies distract and entertain you; others leave you bored or strained. A few bedazzle, or puzzle us with their flaws, but many more start to fade the moment you leave the theater. What's truly rare is a cinematic experience that is utterly transporting, that captivates you so completely the guy sitting in the seat next to you could have a heart attack and you might not notice.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is one such film. People walked out of our screening in a daze; they were winded and tired. It's like finishing a marathon: the first thing you do is catch your breath.

Watching this sequel/reboot to the storied apocalyptic death race series, the first from writer/director George Miller in 30 years, is such an assault on the senses it will leave you battered.

It's essentially one two-hour-long chase, with former cop Max Rockatansky unwillingly caught in the middle. It's an orgy of blood and fire, horsepower and hand-to-hand combat, a nightmare pastiche of humanity's last ride played out on the scorched Australian desert. (Actually, Namibia.)

The screenplay by Miller, Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris paints a dense, detailed world that we only get tiny glimpses of at any given time. We experience characters and make up elaborate backstories to go with them. This is the sort of movie you have to see several times to completely rap your brain around.

Max is, of course, played by Tom Hardy, the first time Mel Gibson hasn't occupied the role, having gotten too old and rant-y. Hardy fashions his version of the character closer to the vest, motivated less by rage at a world that has robbed him of everything so much as haunted by those he failed to save.

His Max is mad, but mostly at himself.

When we first see him he's still riding the sun-beaten pan in his iconic black police V-8 Interceptor, searching for gas, food and a moment of respite from roving bands of scavengers. But that lasts just a few minutes, as he is captured by the War Boys of Immortan Joe, a local warlord who controls the flow of water from his mountaintop citadel. Max is turned into a "blood bag," a source of clean blood and organs for Joe's soldiers.

Immortan Joe is played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who also was the main villain in the original "Mad Max." He's a terrifying vision, a Darth Vader-esque figure who's viewed as a god by his stable of chalk-white War Boys, but he's actually a decrepit old man held upright by his armor and breathing mask, which is fashioned into a fearsome death's head grin of fangs.

Joe sends regular runs to nearby Gastown to trade for fuel, heavily armed convoys centered around a war rig piloted by one of his chief lieutenants, called Imperators. Furiosa is one such, a fearsome woman with a prosthetic arm played by Charlize Theron. But Furiosa has betrayed Immortan Joe by stealing his bevy of "wives," actually sex slaves who are used to breed his twisted sons.

Max gets brought along for the pursuit by Nux (Nicholas Hoult), one of the War Boys, who live very short lives due to their mutations, reliance on rage-inducing drugs and dreams of entering Valhalla with Joe's blessing. Through a series of circumstances, Max throws in with Furiosa and her distressed damsels. They voyage toward a "green place" in the east where they can live free; but as we know from these sorts of tales, apocalypses have few oases.

The car chases and combat scenes are simply breathtaking. Miller attained much of them using old-fashioned stunts and practical effects, augmented by computer generated imagery. We see cars reduced to bits of junks even as they're still hurtling forward, with bodies flying off this way and that. Furiosa proves herself Max's equal -- at least -- in survival skills and sheer badassery.

The film is a technical marvel, with vivid cinematography by John Seale, crisp editing from Margaret Sixel and a thrumming heavy metal musical score by Junkie XL.

I loved how Miller uses imagery and themes from the three previous Mad Max movies and weaves them into a new synthesis that feels organic and evolutionary.

For instance, the War Boys, with their skull-like paint, seem an offshoot of Scrooloose, the odd boy among the lost children from "Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome." And Max is propped up on the front of a car like the hostages in "The Road Warrior." The vehicles are all bastardized combinations of salvaged pieces, such as Immortan Joe's death machine, which is two 1959 Cadillacs welded on top of each other.

"Mad Max: Fury Road" is the rare remake that matches its predecessors in audacity and originality. This is what movies are made for.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Germany, Year Zero" (1948)

Roberto Rossellini was as responsible as anyone for creating the style known as Italian neorealism -- in which filmmakers explored the rubble of post-World War II Europe using naturalistic photography, minimalist narratives and even employing non-actors in leading roles. But "Germany, Year Zero" was attacked as abandoning the neorealistic aesthetic because he mixed in studio shots with the more vérité footage from outdoors.

I think the criticism is unwarranted -- cinematic purity, like the ideological kind, always ends up being self-defeating. Besides, it's really difficult to shoot indoors without proper lighting and angles, unless you don't mind a bunch of murky scenes with shitty composition.

At a spare 73 minutes, "Germany, Year Zero" was the final film in Rossellini's unofficial WWII trilogy -- the others being "Rome, Open City" and "Paisà," both regrettably unseen by me. While the first two were set in Italy during the latter stages of the war, "Year Zero" takes place in Berlin during the months after the German surrender.

These Germans are not racked by guilt over the Holocaust or all the casualties caused by the Third Reich, but simply are trying to survive day-to-day. Food is extremely scarce, and rampant currency inflation means a family's life savings are often not enough to furnish them all with a single meal.

I wonder if some of the resentment against the film is because it seems to depict Germans as victims, at a time when the rest of the world was not terribly sympathetic to its post-war struggles. This would be a thing even decades later -- I remember the widespread reservations about the glorious "Das Boot" because it dared to depict German submariners in a gritty but decidedly heroic light.

The story of "Germany, Year Zero" is quite simple, and revolves around 13-year-old Edmund Kohler, who tries to cobble together a living to help support his family. He works illegally without a work permit, and dabbles in black market trading, later falling in with a crowd of juvenile con artists.

His father (Ernst Pittschau) is old and bedridden, while his big brother Karl-Heinz (Franz-Otto Krüger) is a soldier hiding out from the occupying Allied forces. He served in one of the SS units and refused to surrender until the very end, and fears that he'll be executed if he registers with the Americans.

As a result, Karl-Heinz receives no ration card, so long-suffering sister Eva (Ingetraud Hinz) has to somehow feed a family of four with food only meant to barely sustain three. They're slowly starving to death with few options for respite. Father is too weak to work, and spends his days berating his eldest for not confronting his problems.

Eva goes out every night to carouse with American and British soldiers, in hopes they'll share their standard-issue cigarettes, which she palms and later trades for food. Many of her friends have resorted to outright prostitution, but so far she has resisted.

Edmund is played by Edmund Moeschk, a young circus acrobat Rossellini chose due to his resemblance to his own son, who had recently died. Edmund is depicted as the pure spirit of a child on the verge of entering manhood, who is given to great emotional impulses.

After being kicked off a cemetery detail digging graves for being too young, Edmund happens upon a former teacher, Mr. Henning (Erich Gühn), who paws at him with affection, and hunger. As straightforward a depiction of a pedophile as you're apt to see in a movie of this era, Henning lives in a shelled-out building with other former Nazis, recruiting a small army of children to act as his artful dodgers.

Things get really dark when his father, returning from a hospital stay, laments that they'd be better off without home, and Henning repeats some Aryan race agitprop about the weak needing to die in order to support the strong. Edmund takes matters into his own hands, with heart-wrenching results.

"German, Year Zero" has a stark beauty to it, with some ravishingly gorgeous black-and-white scenes contrasting with the devastation they depict. With his long, foppish blond hair and cherubic cheeks, Edmund seems like an impish angel descended in to the dirt and squalor of post-war Berlin.

The film was not well received at its time, especially by Rossellini's contemporaries in cinema. The great French critic Andre Bazin, who greatly influenced the French New Wave, called it "not a movie but a sketch, a rough draft of a work Rossellini hasn't given us."

I think there's some truth to that, in that the narrative seems rather truncated and sparse, and the tales of Edmund's older brother and sister seem worthy of more fleshing out. Still, it's a powerful artifact of its time that shows the desolation of the defeated.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Video review: "Still Alice"

Julianne Moore gave the performance of the year in 2014 for her deeply affecting portrait of a woman battling early onset Alzheimer’s in “Still Alice.” She won an Oscar for it -- and every other award on the planet, it seems -- and deserved to.

We’ve seen this sort of role before: Julie Christie in “Away from Her,” for instance. But those movies have usually been about characters in the twilight of their lives. Here we saw a woman in her prime, one who has defined herself by her prodigious intellect, watching her semblance of self slip through her fingers like grains of rice.

She plays Alice Howland, a professor of linguistics at Columbia University. She has a devoted husband (Alec Baldwin), three adult children and is at the pinnacle of her career. Since she is so intelligent, Alice is not unaware that her mental grasp is slipping. She gets lost while jogging around campus, cannot place familiar words, and so on.

Writer/director team (and real-life couple) Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland treat their characters with tenderness and respect. There is not a single sappy moment or false emotion in the entire film.

(I feel compelled to point out that Glatzer wrote and shot the film while enduring his own brave medical struggle with Lou Gehrig’s disease. He passed away this March.)

Many people tend to shy away from these sorts of movies of characters enduring tremendous physical and spiritual struggles. They have so much pain in their own lives, they don’t feel like witnessing more, even if fictional.

But be brave. “Still Alice” is one of the most life-affirming movies I’ve ever seen. There is beauty and truth in that aching.

Video extras are merely adequate, and are the same for Blu-ray and DVD versions.

There are three deleted scenes, and three making-of featurettes: “Directing Alice,” “Finding Alice” and “Interview with Composer Ilan Eshkeri.”