Monthly Archives: April 2017

Alice in Wonderland (1951) Review

Thanks to Tim Burton, this movie is sometimes called “the good Alice in Wonderland.”  I understand why – nostalgia goggles can do that to even the best of us.  The problem is that this movie just isn’t very good.  Sure, the 2010 film has problems and may be highly annoying to some, but at least its story is actually a story.  The original Lewis Carroll story isn’t a story.  It’s a drug trip.  And that’s what this movie is as well.

Now, I don’t want to fault the movie for problems it could not help but inherit from its source material, which is the only reason I’m giving this movie such a high rating – if Disney had come up with the story, I’d be giving it two and a half stars at best.  I’m still not even sure that the other elements of the movie merit this rating, because a lot of the film is just unbearable.  Surely Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum could have been done in a way that’s less excruciatingly irritating, and surely certain parts of the story could have been given a few more small splashed of humor.  The soundtrack is so-so, with some songs I really like a lot, others I think do the job just well enough, and others I find either forgettable or stupid.

So, I’m giving this a nice rating because of two redeeming qualities: first is the casting of a few of the main characters.  I really like the Cheshire Cat in this movie, and the Mad Hatter is one of the great Ed Winn performances.  The one who really steals the show, however, is Alice, voiced by Kathryn Beaumont.  Her voice is absolutely perfect for the part, and perhaps just perfect in general – I could easily listen to it all day.  The second redeeming quality is the visual style, as this might just be, in some respects at least, the most visually pleasing animated film I have ever seen.  It’s got all of the curves and colors one would want a trippy wonderland to have, and its style also serves to mark its particular moment in animation history.  The resulting film is one that I don’t enjoy watching very much – it was a struggle to finish it quite frankly – but I do enjoy looking at it and listening to it, so I’ll let it slide.

T

 

The Goonies Review

From the Traveling Wilburys to Band Aid, the pop music industry has had its share of super groups, but for whatever reason, cinema hasn’t.  For whatever reason, while talented directors have worked together before, we very rarely see a group of different directors with different backgrounds coming together to work on a groups of films as a team.  I think this begs the question: what would a filmmaking super group look like?  Because I’m fond of ’80s cinema, I’d like to imagine something like a family adventure film with a story by Steven Spielberg, with a screenplay by Chris Columbus (the writer of Gremlins, director of Home Alone), with music by Dave Grusin (composer for Tootsie), and someone like Richard Donner (director of Superman, LadyhawkeLethal Weapon, and Scrooged) at the helm.  Fortunately, this is exactly the team assembled for this movie, and what this team produced is just as great a film as one would hope.

I think part of why Goonies is considered to be such a great classic by so many people is that it is very emblematic of ’80s cinema.  Even with a cast of children, the intended age group is entirely unclear because of how dirty some of the humor is, making it a family film in the same category as Ghostbusters in that it’s not really a family film.  It’s also a very good example of Spielberg’s conception of fantasy, giving the viewer the sense that something sort of magical might be found at that old Chinese antique shop, or, in this case, up in the attic.  The most ’80s part, of course, is the theme song by Cyndi Lauper, and the music video that was made to accompany it.  Somehow, even though that video is entirely different from the film, the combination of the two sums up everything that made the ’80s the ’80s, and I think that’s just beautiful.

Once I started watching this movie, it was hard to pause it – and I can say that for very few films – so I think The Goonies, as dated as it may be in some respects, just might be pure entertainment cinema at its very best.

A Star Is Born (1954) Review

This movie may have made a big splash in its day, but I don’t think it gets talked about much anymore.  I can understand why – in many respects it’s very generic.  It’s the kind of romantic epic/tragicomedy that feels like textbook Oscar-bait, just mixed together with show-tunes.  That  being said, it’s a pretty solid film.  It may start out boring, but as it goes on, the performances get more impressive, the drama gets more captivating, and the musical numbers get more enjoyable.  The look of some of these numbers alone is reason enough to watch the film, and I see this as one of the greatest examples of theatricality in cinema at its best.

But at the end of the day, as expected, the appeal is Judy Garland.  I’ve always known she was a great singer, but this is the movie that shows the full range of her acting abilities.  What’s amazing is how she takes a character that’s absurdly cliché and makes her distinct.  Along with her co-star, she made me really care about a story in which I thought I would have no interest, creating a level of sincere, beautiful drama I hardly ever see.

So yes, much of the movie is trite and forgettable, and the film starts off quite boring – I imagine it stays boring for those who don’t like musicals – but it redeems itself in spades.

The Last Unicorn Review

I think part of the reason why I watched this movie is that I was really in the mood to take a break from the Disney live-action remakes and return to an original fairy-tale movie.  I’m not sure that The Last Unicorn was a good choice though seeing as how it contains so many good and bad elements mixed together, often within the same departments, so I don’t know what to make of it.  The story is a very bizarre one – highly problematic and quite confusing – yet it contains clever little ideas and characters that make me jealous I hadn’t thought of them myself.  The storytelling through the visuals is particularly unclear at times, yet often the animation perfectly captures exactly the feeling the scene ought to have.  The visual style is particularly disjunctive, with character designs and animations that look irritatingly cheap and flat in comparison to Disney’s work, yet the backgrounds are absolutely gorgeous.  I’m inclined to say that the soundtrack isn’t very good, yet the film’s theme song is stuck in my head, and I have found I quite enjoy it.  The cast may boast some greats like Mia Farrow, but she is oddly overshadowed by the more memorable performances of the bad actors, whose delivery was unlike anything I have ever heard referred to as “acting.”

My problem with this movie is that, every time I think I really like it, the scene that follows always ruins it.  Some of the characters seem fun at first, but eventually get annoying.  The last half of the movie has one mediocre song after another, painfully drawing out the film (even though the run-time is only about an hour and a half).  Because of how much I like looking at the movie, and because of how much I appreciate most of the story, I kept trying to look on the bright side and only see the good in the film, but then something comes up like the tree creature with big breasts and I’m reminded that this is just a Rankin-Bass movie – I can’t expect quality.  At the very least I was hoping this would be a good film for little girls to enjoy  – a movie that’s wholesome enough to merit its “G” rating – but today it would have to cut some parts or change some lines just to get a “PG” rating, thus alienating the viewers who might as well be its target audience.  Consequently, The Last Unicorn strikes me as the kind of movie that’s very good at creating nostalgia for those who grew up with it, but doesn’t hold up for viewers who find it later.

But do you know what this movie really needs?  A Disney live-action remake.  Seriously.  This is the one child-oriented animated film that has enough negative elements to need a re-tooling, and enough positive elements to be made into a great story if it’s put in the right hands.  Most of the main issues are honestly really, really easy to fix, and the story itself isn’t that bad – it’s just the storytelling that’s poor.  Heck, the story even works well as a criticism of other fairy-tales, and it lends itself easily to feminist interpretations, so it’s the perfect subject for the Disney remake project.  Sure, Disney would have to buy the rights from another company, but the result would still be, without a doubt, the best of the live-action Disney remakes to date.

Moana Review

Approval Voting, Plurality, Plurality with Runoff, Approval/Disapproval Voting, Majority Judgment, Borda Count, Cumulative Voting, and Range/Score Voting are just a few of the voting systems that have been theorized in social choice theory and/or practiced by democracies.  The fairness of a democratic election is something that many of us take for granted, but there are actually a lot of problems with many of the most common methods.  Consider Approval/Disapproval Voting, in which the voter expresses which candidates he/she would accept and which candidates he/she would not – essentially the thumbs-up/thumbs-down system of Reddit (as I understand it).  For candidates in an election, it would make some amount of sense for the candidate who most people gave a “thumbs up,” even though he/she wasn’t their favorite, to surpass the candidate whom many loved most and many hated.  In this scenario, most people would get a leader of whom they approved, and fewer people would get the candidate they hated, which is fine for politics.  When assessing art, however, this seems inappropriate, as exemplified by the fact that the high-quality (but highly divisive) La La Land has a lower score on Rotten Tomatoes than the objectively “good enough” Moana.

The problem with Rotten Tomatoes is that it allows the big movie studios to create the illusion that their films are highly praised simply by making movies that are safe, simple, and reliably passable.  Moana is a perfect example of this, because approximately 3% of this movie is special and original, whereas 97% is an old, faithful “hero’s journey” that any movie buff can’t help but find predictable.  There is nothing particularly bad about Moana, but nearly all of its parts seem to exist purely to serve their function in the regular machinery of the standard animated adventure.  I’ll grant that the twist ending (if it can be called such) did surprise me, but the fifteen minutes preceding it went exactly as I predicted, creating a sense that the writers were merely lazy watchmakers.  It seems Clements and Musker assumed they were the only people to have seen the original Star Wars, and I hate to break it to them, but I’ve seen that movie too – and I felt like I’d already seen Moana.  While Frozen has certain elements that are quite predictable and embarrassingly trite, at least it manages to find the right balance of tribute and criticism in regards to earlier Disney films, whereas this film lets Maui joke about its adherence to the old formulas without making changes to address this criticism.

Sure, audiences may enjoy this movie a lot – for now – but eventually people will be shocked by just how little of it is memorable.  The comedy is nearly all predictable, conforming to the same comic style that has made nearly every CGI family film from the past fifteen years feel bland and lacking in wit, but the jokes still got me at times … I just can’t remember them.  The soundtrack has songs that are perfectly serviceable and that employ clever lyrics, but I can’t remember most of them either.  I would go so far as to say that there are no more than three memorable songs on the soundtrack, and that’s being gracious.  (This film’s “I Want” song is still stuck in my head, but I’m not happy about it – it’s far too contemporary and “poppy” in style, so it’s sure to become dated.)  Most of the performances are rather forgettable as well, with only The Rock having his fair share of fun in the recording booth.  That being said, as cliché and forgettable as it may have been, the music and story still worked on me, creating truly beautiful and moving moments at times that I hope I will remember.

The reason why I would recommend this movie, in spite of all I have just said, is that it has many strong moments that everyone should see, albeit in spite of itself.  True, most of the visuals have the usual, boring “Disney CGI” look – what one would expect from a PIXAR short – but some scenes threw the usual conventions away in favor of artistry.  As a giant crab sings the almost anti-melodic “Shiny,” the lights go out, and everything starts to glow in neon colors against dark blues and black.  In terms of visuals, this is about the best I’ve seen from any CG-animated film, and it is accompanied nicely by the portion of “You’re Welcome” that discards any sense of realism for a properly theatrical musical number.  The latter example makes use of Hawaiian art styles to add a special flare, making for one moment in Moana that actually makes it quite distinct in comparison to other films in its genre.  The “You’re Welcome” number is also separated from the rest of the film in that it feels like a Disney classic, as though this was the only song for which Miranda was given more than ten minutes to write it.  It even seems to borrow from Mary Poppins‘ “Jolly Holiday,” giving it a particularly timeless feeling, yet it still feels in keeping with Miranda’s background in freestyle rap music, ultimately seeming to suggest that Dick van Dyke was rapping in Mary Poppins.  Think about that one for a while – the time of the specific moment in Poppins to which I’m referring is 48:05, for those of you playing along at home.

It’s fairly odd to see this kind of film coming from Clements and Musker.  This is the team behind AladdinHercules, and The Little Mermaid, among others, so making a merely passable film seems beneath them.  On the other hand, this is their first time making a CG film, so hopefully their future endeavors won’t have this same sense of insecurity and will have the kind of creativity continuously that this film has sporadically.

 

Fast Times at Ridgemont High Review

It’s very rare for a film with virtually no plot to make for a really good and captivating movie experience, but Fast Times is an exception.  It serves as a good example of what I’m currently calling a “layout piece,” which is a work of art or writing that seeks to offer as comprehensive of an overview of a certain subject as possible while remaining an understandable summary, usually by using the highlights of the subject as tent-poles.  Think of it as a “greatest hits” album – by the end of it, you should have a pretty good understanding of both the standard, recurring qualities of the work in question and the moments which stand out.  Some of my textbooks are good examples as well, but Fast Times is special because it’s a fictional, narrative layout piece, so it constructs situations that express (and critique) its subject matter.

So what is the subject matter?  The ’80s, of course!  By the end of the movie, the viewer has a feeling of having just lived through a year of high school in the 1980s – I feel like I’ve been there and can tell my family all about what it was like.  The film doesn’t focus on facts or statistics about the time period, and cares little for objectivity – it was only made in 1982, after all – but it captures the way the ’80s feel.  It feels as though all of these characters really existed in every high school, and all of the situations presented seem to be only slight exaggerations of the plausible.  I never had a teacher like Mr. Hand, but I sure feel like I did.  This kind of “emotional realism” is what makes the comedy work and the stories (if they can be called such) so enjoyable.  The combination of the soundtrack and the cast makes it work about as well as an emblem of the 1980s as Footloose, but its careful mix of comedy and drama makes it work well as a film, too.  It may not be a perfect movie, and it gets rather boring at times, but it’s still an experience everyone ought to have.

Legend (1985) Review

I usually avoid explaining the plots to films in my reviews, but just this once, here’s my summary of the story of Ridley Scott’s Legend:

The beautiful Princess Lily is never seen in her castle, nor do we ever see her royal parents, for some reason.  Instead, she prefers to spend her time with the lower class or out in the woods for some reason.  Lily is a completely innocent girl, yet she likes to pull cruel tricks on friends of hers for some reason.  She’s madly in love with a boy named Jack for some reason, and he’s a wild, beastly jungle boy who likes to be among nature and talk with the animals for some reason.  Jack decides to take her to see some unicorns, which are very rare creatures for some reason, but then she decides to touch one for some reason.  Unicorns must never be touched by mortals – even innocent mortals like Lily – for some reason.  She touches it anyway, and in her pride, she challenges Jack to retrieve her ring from the bottom of a deep pond so that he may earn the right to marry her … for some reason.

Meanwhile, a devilish character named Darkness is forced to live down below in the shadows (with limited power) during a period of goodness and light for some reason.  He sends his servants to kill and de-horn the only two living unicorns, which will give Darkness his power back for some reason.  Then an elf shows up to yell at Jack for some reason, and in one version of the film, he challenges Jack to solve a riddle for some reason.  Then the elf says that Jack specifically, a jungle boy he just met and knows nothing about, has to be the hero who goes to the castle of Darkness to save the unicorn, for some reason – and I really would have liked this reason explained to me.  Then a little fairy, whom the elf assumed was just a formless, bodiless ball of light for some reason, reveals herself to be … well, a real fairy with a body and wings and all that, but she makes Jack promise not to tell anyone, for some reason – and I really would have liked to have all this explained to me.  Then she wants him to kiss her for some reason?  And then Lily dances with her sin for some reason as Darkness walks out of a mirror for some reason and reveals that he’s in love with her for some reason?

I know it sounds like this must all make sense in the film.  It sounds like most of this would just seem perfectly natural and unquestioned in context, but there isn’t much context.  In fact, the theatrical cut – the version of the film the studio made to keep people from getting too confused – is more confusing because it has less context.  I understand more about these characters in the director’s cut just because it adds little scenes that give them more dialogue, even when their dialogue isn’t particularly important to the plot.  The director’s cut is unfortunately lacking in some scenes that strengthen the film, including a better ending, but overall, it makes a little more sense.  It’s still pretty darn weird, and I often have no idea what the director’s trying to do, but it makes a little more sense – unless I just felt like it did because it was my second time watching the movie within a few days.  (The director’s cut also has a score that’s surprisingly a bit better – the theatrical version has a cool ‘80s synthesizer score by an electronic band, which I thought I would love, but the director’s cut’s orchestral score by Jerry Goldsmith uses an unusual amount of synth as well.)

With this said, I should clarify that this movie is, somehow, really cool.  That’s the best adjective to describe it – “cool.”  It feels like I’m seeing something fascinating, captivating, hypnotic, artistic, impressive, innovative, and a little bit naughty in nearly every scene.  The problem is that these scenes don’t connect well together.  If watched with the American version of the soundtrack, filled with synth music, the movie might as well be a compilation of ‘80s music videos, because it has that same kind of aesthetic and that same amount of narrative.  It’s safe to say that, if my introduction to the film had been a video clip from any individual scene on YouTube, I would immediately be very eager to watch the whole film because of how awesome it looks, sounds, and feels, not realizing that the context of each scene does not enhance its power in the slightest.
This film has no psychological or emotional logic to it, and it hardly makes sense according to surrealist “dream logic.”  While it remains a cult classic because of how it sticks with the people who watched it as kids, and its imagery is indeed difficult to forget even for adult viewers, it has never been hailed for its story – it hardly has one.  It lacks drama, tension, or any sort of emotion because its pieces feel so arbitrary no matter how they’re put together.  Obviously, I don’t ask to have everything explained to me in detail like in Dark City, nor do I ask for everything in a story to be logical, but it is almost impossible for an audience to become invested in a story if it has bland, lifeless characters that act without clear motivations, scenes that take place without clear purposes, events that unfold without clear causes, and rules that must be followed without clear logic to them.  Other films can get away with a sense of arbitrary anarchy because of a fast pace and/or a sense of intense urgency, such as Big Trouble in Little China, but even with a vague “ticking clock” scenario, Legend never instills the right kind of empathic anxiety in the viewer.  Because of its immensely pleasing artistry and its successful transportation and immersion of the viewers into its distinct, yet familiar, fantasy world, it works very well as a film – just not as a movie.