Friday, June 27, 2014

Guest Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

By ScottDS

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is the latest movie based on Tom Clancy’s decorated war hero turned intelligence analyst. This tale tells an origin story in which Ryan, an economics major in London, joins the Marines after 9/11, gets injured, and is later recruited into the CIA. It’s an entertaining yarn and I can think of worse ways to spend 106 minutes... but it’s entirely derivative and does nothing new.

We open on a young Jack Ryan (Chris Pine) at the London School of Economics. The date is September 11th, 2001 and after witnessing the horror on TV, the patriotic Ryan decides to join the Marines. After being injured in a helicopter attack, he faces a long road to recovery, ably assisted by a sweet medical student named Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley). He also attracts the interest of mysterious CIA official Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who makes him an offer of employment. Fast-forward 10 years and Ryan is working as a covert CIA analyst at a Wall Street stock brokerage where he’s tasked with monitoring financial activity that could hint at terrorist activity. He notices some hidden accounts that are all controlled by Russian tycoon Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh) and subsequently flies to Russia to investigate.
After nearly getting killed by a goon masquerading as a bodyguard, Ryan meets with Cherevin and finds out that all the problem assets have been sold so there is nothing for Ryan to audit. Ryan meets with Harper and explains that Cherevin plans to send the U.S. economy into another depression, following a staged terrorist attack. Cathy, now Ryan’s fiancé, unexpectedly shows up, hoping to go on a vacation with Ryan after his work is complete. Ryan admits that he’s in the CIA and she joins him at dinner with Cherevin where she serves as a diversion so Ryan can sneak into Cherevin’s office. They discover that Cherevin’s son Aleksandr is in the U.S. as a sleeper agent and that the target is Wall Street. In New York, the authorities evacuate the area while Ryan spots a decoy police van and gives chase. He crashes it into the East River with Aleksandr still on board. Ryan escapes and the bomb explodes under water. Cherevin is killed by his superiors.

I’m betting some of this sounded very familiar to most of you. Take a large bowl, add one part The Americans, one part True Lies, two parts Mission: Impossible, three parts Casino Royale, and stir. It’s a pleasant movie and there’s nothing technically wrong with it, but it’s so forgettable that when I pitched the idea to Andrew, he confused it with Jack Reacher. And I almost labeled my Word file “Jack Ryan: Shadow Warrior”! Kenneth Branagh directs from a script by newcomer Adam Cozad and veteran David Koepp (who can do good work, but then turns around and does crap like Indy and the Crystal Skull). I’ve never read any of Clancy’s books so my only knowledge comes from the movies. However, from what I’ve gathered, this origin story is (somewhat!) faithful, despite not being based on any particular Clancy story. It's simply been updated for current events.
Chris Pine makes a good Jack Ryan. He’s certainly likable and charismatic though he looks a tad young for the part, but I guess that’s the point. (And the less said about his eyebrows, the better.) Keira Knightley is fine in the Jamie Lee Curtis “housewife who makes a discovery and gets to join the fun” role. And thankfully, this movie doesn’t play the damsel in distress card, though there is an effective scene wherein Cherevin threatens her with death by lightbulb. Can’t say I’ve seen that before. And while I’ve never been a member of the anti-Kevin Costner bandwagon, he’s definitely on autopilot in this movie. There’s a thin line between stoic and just plain tired and Costner walks right on the middle of it. Branagh makes a good villain, though there’s also a noticeable lack of memorable supporting characters (heroes and villains). Hell, in The Hunt for Red October, there are four or five memorable guys just on the U.S.S. Dallas!
There might be a lesson here. While I say the movie isn’t memorable, it doesn’t mean the movie is bad. (The bland videogame title and paint-by-numbers advertising didn’t help.) Given the current state of action movies, we’ve been conditioned to expect certain things: larger than life battles, copious CGI, insane stunts that no hero would survive, etc. (You know, just like the last Die Hard!) So when a movie doesn’t have all these things and plays it smaller, it risks coming off as half-assed. I actually had a similar observation when I saw Jack Reacher – not every movie needs to involve the end of the world! As Godard once said, all you need is a girl and a gun. And it’s worth asking: in this “gritty” post-Bourne, post-Dark Knight world, is there a place for an everyman like Jack Ryan? I’d like to think there is, though I don’t believe this movie was successful enough to jumpstart a franchise.
As per usual, tech credits are all top-notch (though the score is forgettable and can’t hold a candle to the music in the previous movies). It’s always interesting to see how different filmmakers interpret such tropes as “tycoon’s office” and “computer interface.” Every keystroke makes a beep, cell reception is lost (in elevators and underground, so it’s kinda believable), and Ryan figures out Cherevin’s master plan in about five minutes utilizing phone records, social security numbers, and a forged death certificate. It’s pattern recognition, but it’s also partially a sign of the CSI effect. In other words, these things often take a while! But it’s always entertaining to see characters piece together clues and watch a scheme come together. Ryan uses a gun and his fists, but he uses his brains first and that’s something we need more of. Ryan is able to spot the decoy police van because of a streak of wet paint indicating it’s been recently dressed up. Coincidence? Yeah. But at this point in the movie, we buy it.

If I had paid 10 bucks to see this at the theater, I might’ve been disappointed. But it’s certainly worth a dollar rental at Redbox… and it’s also worth waiting to see if it pops up on Netflix (a lot of Paramount movies seem to show up after six months or so). It lacks the style and fun of Red October and the harder edge of the Harrison Ford movies, but it’s a decent (if unoriginal) thriller with some smarts. And unlike the Bourne movies, it dispenses with the dour “woe is me” routine. That’s worth at least a dollar!

“The Russians don’t take a dump without a plan.” (I couldn’t think of a memorable line from this movie, but it still applies!)
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Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Guest Review: The Lorax (2012) versus Fern Gully (1992)

by tryanmax

Those Holly-weird tree-huggers are always pushing their eco-weenie agenda onto our children. How dare they! Why can’t they leave us to trash the planet in peace? Apologies for the sarcasm, but it’s always been a point of irritation to me that conservatives have completely abandoned the cause of conservation. They share a root-word, people! I’m not saying that conservatives should start chaining themselves to giant sequoias, but knee-jerking against environmentalism looks like promoting pollution and destruction. Not good.
To better illustrate this point, let’s examine two animated films with similar themes: Fern Gully (1992) and The Lorax (2012). Both movies have been roundly criticized by the right as propagandizing to children by both pushing environmentalism and criticizing capitalism. But is this a fair assessment? In regards to Fern Gully, I say unequivocally, “yes.” But in regards to The Lorax, I think conservatives have leapt without looking.

First, a very brief synopsis of each:

Fern Gully is about a tribe of rainforest-dwelling fairies whose giant tree-home is threatened by a logging operation. The loggers are somehow being controlled by an ancient spirit of carbon emissions and petroleum byproduct. One fairy shrinks one of the loggers to her size so he can learn about the wonder and beauty of the blah, blah, Zzzzzzzzzz… Oops! I bored myself to sleep. Basically, it’s Avatar but it came first. Oh, and if the message that “humans are bad” isn’t driven home strongly enough, bat-Robin Williams raps about how evil they are.

The Lorax tells about a young boy living in a hyper-developed city who wants to find a real tree to impress a girl. To do so, he must find the Once-ler, who will tell him the tale of the short-sighted industrialist responsible for wiping out the Truffla trees that once covered the now barren and polluted land surrounding the town. At first the boy is impatient, wanting only to get his tree. But as the story unfolds, both come to realize the need to conserve the resources they depend upon.
I clearly have no love for Fern Gully. As propaganda, it’s about as subtle as a Molotov cocktail. It’s only saving grace is that its formulaic predictability works to undermine the intended message. Nature is worth protecting because it is magical and sacred and pollution is cast as opposing black magic. Responsibility is even shifted onto a giant black smoke monster who dupes the unwitting humans. At the end of the day, the message is simply to direct your faith/love/whatever toward the correct deity. This is pure emotionalism: pollution makes baby fairies cry.

While I’m poking at Fern Gully, I may as well point out its other flaws. This film traffics in the classic racist-liberal pairing of white man’s burden and the noble savage. The fairies are helpless to save themselves, despite possessing ancient wisdom and awesome magic, without the help of an obviously dimwitted youth of European descent. Plus, the film has aged terribly, not that timelessness is to be expected of every film. Stupid hairdos and ridiculous slang are forgivable, but having Mork from Ork rap should’ve been an obvious blunder at the time.
Just as obvious, I think better of The Lorax while admitting that it is hyperbolic in ways. However, that is how it achieves its impact, by extending real attitudes and actions to a satirical level. That Dr. Seuss imagined ends that remain fantastic to this day is impressive. Electronic trees and bottled air are ideas meant to be so absurd (for now) that everyone can’t help but agree about their badness. All can come together in the name of preventing something that likely wouldn’t happen anyway. Even the titular Lorax backs away from his absolutist cut-no-tree position.
However, conservatives don’t seem to be in on the joke. Reacting seriously to these absurd ideas, calling them indictments of industry or capitalism, ends up sounding defensive of wanton waste and pollution. Yet that is exactly how a lot of conservatives have reacted. They defend the obvious villain in the film and wonder why they are regarded as villains. Worse, they criticize the character who realizes the error of his material wastefulness which stands at odds with the usual conservative criticism of fiscal wastefulness. And if that weren’t enough, they equate The Lorax, a comparatively subtle fable, with Fern Gully which has even been dismissed by environmentalists as a blunt fairytale. In other words, conservatives come off as evil idiots.
It also doesn’t help that The Lorax is a pretty decent film in its own right. Dr. Seuss’ visual and narrative style is paired with catchy, Broadway-esque musical numbers. This bodes well for the potential longevity of the film, making it an even worse target for ridicule. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that conservatives should go soft on a film just because its production values are high. Unlike the ham-fisted, eco-magical Fern Gully, The Lorax ultimately finds a middle ground between conservation and modernity. Conservatives would do better to actually consider the content of a film before criticizing it.
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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Toon-arama: Spirited Away (2003)

Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is a beautiful and enchanting fantasy film about a young, pre-teen girl's coming of age. This is a great movie for young children, especially girls who are around the title character's age, and for audiences in general who want an entertaining and gloriously made work of art that they will remember and return to for years to come.

Note: I’m reviewing the Disney dubbed release, not the Japanese release, which I have never seen.
The Plot
The movie is about Chihiro, a 12-year old girl who is unhappy that she is having to move to a new town. On the way they get lost and find themselves at an abandoned amusement park. But while they are there the sun sets, spirits awaken in the theme park, and her parents are transformed into hogs.
Panicked and afraid she flees and is saved by a mysterious boy who can change into a dragon named Haku. He helps her get a job at the place, which is revealed to be a spa of sorts for spirits/gods owned by Yuba, who has Haku under her control. There she hopes to work and keep her parents from being fed as hogs, with no idea if she will ever be free from Yuba.

This is about all I’m going to explain as I’ve pretty much set up the plot and the rest of the movie is Chihiro undergoing a series of fantastical events and trials involving such things as a spirit that feeds on greed, what appears to be a sludge spirit, and a mysterious train.
Why its Awesome
The first reason is Chihiro. At the beginning of the movie she is sullen over having the move and at times early on in the movie she can be rather whiny. And when the ghosts appear, she reacts much like a 12-year old girl would react: she panics. Then she spends much of the first half scared and bewildered. This is not the super-capable and super-amazing girl that many movies feel the need to show us. This is a normal, pre-teen girl.

But we like her because we see the good in her. Once she realizes she is in this strange world for the long haul she shows incredible perseverance and strength, even when she is scared to death. Which makes us like her even more. Thus we have a character who is realistic enough to relate to but likable enough to root for.
The second reason is the animation by Hayao Miyazaki. This stuff is simply gorgeous and brings to life a world that is utterly alien. The work here tops even the best of Disney Studios. The movie is filled with colors and the animation moves beautifully. This is animation at its best and proves that even animated movies made for children should be seen as works of art in and of themselves.
There is also the music composed by Joe Hisaishi. It ranges from tender piano pieces to sweeping, brass-accompanied works that perfectly convey the wide range of movie’s emotions from the sadness and isolation of Chihiro to the fear and excitement of the spirit world. Highlights are the soft “One Summer Day”, the somber piano melody “The Sixth Station”, the exciting “Procession of the Spirits”, and “Reprise”, which is often called “Waltz of Chihiro”.

The only flaw might be the voice acting behind Chihiro, as she can scream a lot and some might find her too whiny for the first part of the movie. But that is a minor beef.
This movie could be called a Wizard of Oz for our age. It takes a young girl and thrusts her into a land that is completely unfamiliar and forces her to grow and mature. The movie has some frightening images and so it might not be good for some kids, it's nothing worse than Snow White or nightmare-haunter Pinocchio, but its well-worth watching regardless. Its one of the best movies I have ever seen.
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Friday, June 20, 2014

Film Friday: Find Me Guilty (2006)

Find Me Guilty is a 2006 courtroom dark-comedy written and directed by Sidney Lumet, which is based on the true story of the longest Mafia trial in American history (21 months). The film stars Vin Diesel as Giacomo “Jackie” DiNorscio, and much of it is taken directly from the court transcripts. This is one of those movies I never heard of until I stumbled upon it one night, and audiences stayed away in droves, but it turns out to be a rather good movie.
Plot
As the film starts, mobster Giacomo “Jackie” DiNorscio (Vin Diesel) finds himself lying in bed as his friend and cousin marches into the room and shoots him. Jackie doesn’t die. When he doesn’t, his cousin runs to the government and turns informant against him! The United States Attorney now wants Jackie to rat out his friends and family as well, or he will be charged with enough racketeering crimes to put him away forever. He refuses and he, and all of his friends and family, find themselves charged with a vast array of crimes.
The government’s case is supported by evidence from a number of informants and the observations of FBI agents. Things don’t look good. Complicating matters, they are trying each of these defendants together as part of the same conspiracy. Thus, you have dozens of defendants and their lawyers scattered around the courtroom, and they have problems coordinating their defense. The lead defense attorney is Ben Klandis (Peter Dinklage). It will be an interesting trial indeed.
Then the wild card gets tossed in: Jackie decides to represent himself.

This decision leads to a bitter and funny courtroom battle of wills between Jackie, who doesn’t always help his own case, the district attorney (Linus Roache), and the frustrated co-defendants who think Jackie is dooming them all. Presiding over this circus is Judge Sidney Finestein (Ron Silver). And for the next 21 months, the longest trial in American history plays out in this manner.
Why This Film Worked
Find Me Guilty was a rather enjoyable film. It more than held my interest, it made me want to know what happened next. You even come to like and/or respect certain characters. Vin Diesel slowly but surely wins you over, as does Peter Dinklage as the leader of the defendants. Ron Silver too plays a character you come to respect. I can’t think of the last recent film I saw where I liked or cared about or respected three different characters.
And what makes you like/respect these guys is, without a doubt, the solid acting of each actor. Vin Diesel is, as always, compelling on screen. In this instance, he has hair and he’s put on 30 pounds and he plays an oaf, which gives him an usual feel, but it can’t hide his natural appeal. He’s simply one of those people you want to like and he uses that to great effect here as he tells tasteless jokes and does stupid things and defends the indefensible, but does so with such charm that you end up laughing with him rather than scowling at him. Dinklage had the hardest job as attorneys are normally presented as type-A assholes by Hollywood or as liberal saps. Dinklage, instead, plays the character as someone who is talented and is indeed frustrated at Jackie, but who comes to admire Jackie’s efforts and his growth throughout the film, and always treats him with respect. That in turn makes us like Dinklage. Silver, for his part, does a great job of playing the kind of judge everyone wished they had if they ever ended up in court – tough but fair. Unlike so many judges in other courtroom dramas, Silver doesn’t showboat, he doesn’t plot to help either side, and he doesn’t let the parties manipulate him. He does his job and, by God, everyone is going to get a fair shake in his courtroom. That’s noble.
Helping these characters, this film presents a surprisingly realistic portrayal of the American court system. This isn’t a film that lets the characters get away with whatever they want, doesn’t allow for deus ex machina, and doesn’t insult your intelligence by forcing people to accept something they would obviously never accept. To put this in a different way, if you end up liking Jackie by the end, it’s because Vin Diesel has earned it, it’s not because you are told that you now must like him, nor is it because of a sudden last-second epiphany meant to manipulate you. To the contrary, Diesel works little by little, scene after scene to show you that better traits of this man.

As an aside, the witnesses against Jackie and the others are very typical of what you find in court – losers and criminals who have been bought off by the government, sloppy criminal investigators, and people who let their bias influence their opinions. But more importantly, this film doesn’t show each being destroyed. Instead, you get what you normally get in court, one side presenting the evidence, the other side casting doubt on the witnesses, and everyone needing to wait to see what the jury made of the exchange.
As I point out a few weeks ago, the key here is that every moment of this film is credible and realistic and it earns your emotions by winning them little by little. And the result of all of that is that you do come to care about the characters and what happens, and that holds your attention to the very end, through the good, the bad, the funny, the serious, the emotional and the asides. This is not a film someone like a Judd Apatow could have written.

So how does this film compare to other legal dramas? I still see Presumed Innocent as the high watermark, but this film has a similar feel to it. This film is much more realistic than anything Grisham has done. It’s not as funny as My Cousin Vinny, but it’s not meant to be – though it is funny at times. The one problem I would say with this film is that it has a curious lack of high stakes because Jackie seems to like prison – he’s already in jail on a drug charge. So you never reach an ultra high-tension moment because little changes for Jackie if he loses. But the film still has numerous solid dramatic moments, and you do want to see Jackie win.

Thoughts?
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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Fixing Internet Fakes

Earlier this week, Politico pointed out that a vast number of Twitter accounts are using fake followers to make themselves seem more important. 46.8% of Obama’s are fake, 35.1% of Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s are fake, 23.6% of John McCain’s are fake, 21.9% of Hillary’s are fake. Interesting. Did you know that you can’t trust online reviews either?

Click here to comment at CommentaramaPolitics
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Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Toon-arama: To Sing or Not?

Have you ever noticed how many animated films are done as musicals? It almost seems like it's required that animated films be musicals. Disney after Disney is packed with fantastic songs -- I'm particularly partial to King Louie's song in Jungle Book. South Park is a musical. Prince of Egypt was a musical. I'm sure that all the Pixar stuff is musicals, right? Well, no. Most of the Pixar stuff is not done as musicals. And the more I think about it, the more it seems that non-musicals dominate.

As I said, at first glance, it seems that all cartoon films are musicals. When you think about the Disneys, they were all musicals. Then there's South Park, The Nightmare Before Christmas, An American Tale, Charlotte's Web, Anastasia, All Dogs Go To Heave, and of course, Disney's still doing it too: Frozen, Tangled, The Princess and the Frog, etc. People talk about the songs in these films. Awards shows tend to focus on the songs. Many of these cartoons now end up as live musicals too.
But the more I started thinking about it, the more I realized that many of the best films of the past couple decades were not musicals. Wreck-It Ralph, which is perhaps the best animated film in a generation is not a musical. Yes, it has a musical montage, but that does not a musical make. Indeed, what makes a musical is when the characters stop reality and break into a song about the plot. That doesn't happen here. WALL-E wasn't a musical, nor was Toy Story, nor was Monsters University. Wallace and Gromit and Despicable Me weren't either. Yes, these films typically had a song in them, but they weren't musicals.
This got me thinking. And it struck me that despite the perception that animated films are always musicals, the truth is that few are. I wonder what this means? For one thing, it suggests that the public has a skewed view of what cartoons are -- a view that harks back to Disney. But at the same time, the public has no issue with seeing a film that doesn't meet their expectation of what cartoons should be. On the other hand, few films completely give up on the musical number as most still do include a musical montage involving some current pop hit.
Equally interestingly, when you think about television cartoons, singing is actually quite rare. There are some instances. South Park sometimes does musical numbers. The Simpson's doesn't. A handful of the original Scooby Doos had musical montages, typically love songs as they monsters chased them. The copycats, like Jabber Jaw and Josie and the Pussycats involved the bands singing a song. But most cartoons did not. Even Looney Tunes, which uses vast amounts of classical music and opera almost never has their characters sing. So why do we expect something different from television cartoons than we expect from animated films?

I'm thinking this is a question of history. I'm thinking that animated films basically were Disney's domain for so long that we began to see the Disney traits as definitional. At the same time, television was packed with shorts that were more verbal, things like Looney Tunes and The Flintstones. So these two genres developed separately and created separate expectations that we still believe today, even if they are no longer true.

Interesting? Not interesting? Thoughts?
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Sunday, June 15, 2014

My Favorite Films: Dance Movies

In light of Kit’s article on Friday, which more of you should read, here are my favorite “dancing” movies. That would be movies involving a lot of dancing.

1. Strictly Ballroom (1992): By far my favorite dance film, this is a romantic comedy about the absurd competitors in the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix ballroom tournament. Number after number in this one is incredible.

2. Footloose (1984): Kevin Bacon meets the American Taliban as he moves to a rural community that doesn’t allow dancing... or anything else that might be fun. Awesome soundtrack.

3. Shall We Dance (1997): This is the story of a Japanese salaryman who takes ballroom dancing lessons so he can learn the identity of a woman who has caught his imagination. This is one of those interesting films where you get to see cultural differences in action.

4. Grease (1978): Yes, it’s a musical, but it’s also all about the dances, and the dances here are a lot of fun. This is also a surprisingly dirty film for having such a wholesome reputation.

5. Dirty Dancing (1987): Daddy’s girl falls in love with the bad boy dance instructor at the summer dance camp. This is one of those opposites-attract type films and it works beautifully. There is incredible chemistry between Jennifer Grey and Patrick Swayze.

6. Singing In The Rain (1952): Gene Kelly leads this story of a group of actors who are caught in the transition from silent films to “talkies.” The dancing in this film is some of the most famous Hollywood has ever produced, in particular the titular song “Singing In The Rain.”

Thoughts?
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Friday, June 13, 2014

Guest Review: Top Hat (1935)

by Kit

Every once in a while you need a movie that will make you smile. The Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers flick Top Hat is just such a movie. Widely considered their best, it is an escapist, non-cynical comedy that will put a big smile on your face.
The plot
The plot is rather simple: Fred Astaire is famous dancer Jerry Travers who has arrived in London for a show put on by his friend and producer Horace Hardwick (Edward Everett Horton) and Horace’s royal we-using butler, Bates (Eric Blore). Ginger Rogers is Dale Tremont, a "designing woman" (fashion model), who is visiting London with her designer Alberto Beddini (scene-stealing Erik Rhodes) staying in the room below Horace and Jerry. Also, its subtly revealed that Horace’s wife, Madge, who knows both Fred’s and Ginger’s characters is scheming to get them together.

At the beginning of the movie Jerry wakes Dale up in the middle of the night with his dancing prompting her to complain to the front desk. Fred runs down to see who it is that called to complain and meets her in the hallway and is instantly smitten. Ginger? Not so much. But he decides to pursue her, much to her great annoyance. Eventually, though, he pursues her to a gazebo where its raining.
But soon a wrench is thrown into the works when, due to an unlucky set of circumstances, Dale believes Jerry is really the married Horace and Horace is Jerry. So she leaves for Venice and and Jerry and Horace follow. Dale meets up with Horace’s wife, Madge, (Helen Broderick) who she already knows. But, since there is a mix-up we get a rather funny scene where, after telling Madge what happened, Madge reveals, with shocking nonchalance, that Horace has a history of “flirting” with girls (adultery in a Code Era comedy?). Anyway, Horace and Jerry arrive in Venice with Dale and Madge. Hijinks ensue.
Why It Works
There are four reasons this film works: funny humor, great songs, dancing that is a joy to watch, and, most importantly, the phenomenal chemistry between Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

The humor is delivered mainly through the dialogue with very little physical comedy. That is not to say there is no goofy comedy or goofy characters. The goofy comedy is mainly provided by the supporting characters of Horace, Beddini, Bates, and Madge with Fred and Ginger playing the straight men. Erik Rhodes as the over the top, effeminate, Italian fashion designer Alberto Beddini is incredible fun, stealing just about every scene he has. While Fred and Ginger’s chemistry is great (more on that later), most of the good humor come when Fred or Ginger or both are interacting with one of the said supporting characters with the funniest scenes occurring while they are in Venice.
The best example would be a scene where Madge, Fred, and Ginger are sitting at a table. Now, again Madge is trying to set Fred and Ginger up and Ginger thinks that Fred is Madge’s husband. So you have Fred wooing Ginger, Madge playing matchmaker with the two, and Ginger just sitting there stunned.

The songs, composed by Irving Berlin, are a lot of fun to hear. In my opinion the three highlights are “Isn’t it a Lovely Day (to be Caught in the Rain)”, “Cheek to Cheek” and “Piccolino”. The dance scenes for them are a lot of fun, especially the ones where Fred and Ginger dance, which is probably why you are watching the movie.

But, as I pointed out earlier, the main reason it works is because of the incredible chemistry between the two leads. The reason is a combination of two things: Fed Astaire’s magnetic charm and Ginger Rogers’ incredible but subtle acting skills.
Film historian John Mueller pointed out this about Ginger Rogers’ acting: "Rogers was outstanding among Astaire's partners, not because she was superior to others as a dancer, but, because, as a skilled, intuitive actress, she was cagey enough to realize that acting did not stop when dancing began ... the reason so many women have fantasized about dancing with Fred Astaire is that Ginger Rogers conveyed the impression that dancing with him is the most thrilling experience imaginable”. He’s right, she takes Fred Astaire’s natural charm and amplifies.

One scene that illustrates this are “Isn’t it a Lovely Day”. In “Isn’t it a Lovely Day” the only dialogue Ginger has in the scene is at the beginning of the scene when Fred enters the Gazebo. Fred does all of the singing, which means everything she is feeling must be conveyed by her body language and facial expressions. Ginger Rogers pulls it off magnificently, making the audience believe that a single dance could make a woman swoon for Fred Astaire.
Conclusion
This movie is a delight to watch and a must-see. It's not only Fred and Ginger at their best it is Classic Hollywood at their best.

I recommend purchasing the TCM Classics Film Collection Astaire & Rogers Volume 1; it comes with four movies: Top Hat, Gay Divorcée, Swing Time, and Shall We Dance. The Top Hat DVD has a great bonus feature about the making of the film with special attention paid to Rogers and Astaire’s chemistry that provided an important source on understanding their dynamic.

Trivia: A young Lucille Ball appears as the clerk at a flower shop.
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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Film Friday: Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender’s Game wasn’t a bad movie from a technical standpoint. It was competently made. It had nice enough images. And it held my interest. BUT... it held my interest for the wrong reasons, and the moralizing, which has become the standard Hollywood treatment of war, annoyed me greatly. It flies in the face of human natures and hypocritically assigns moral-correctness to a cowardly tiny minority philosophy. Blech.
Plot
The plot is very generic. In essence, this film is a quasi-remake of Starship Troopers if it were done with the ideological sensibilities of Real Genius. What you have is Ender, a bright young kid who thinks strategically. So strategically in fact that he’s recruited to a military-run school that will teach him strategy through a series of games. Harrison Ford runs the school and recruited Ender personally. The reason for the school is that fifty years prior, the insects from Starship Troopers attacked the Earth. The Earthers were able to defeat them, but they learned they could only win with superior strategy... shocking! So they have built their military around finding people with strategic gifts, and they have decided that kids are best at it. Ergo, they are training kids to lead the drone fleet against the bugs.
The story begins with Ender being bullied in the school until he correctly analyzes the situation and kicks the bejesus out of the bully. Rather than getting himself expelled, this begins his promotion up the ranks. The next hour of the film involves Ender moving up the ranks, angering those above him, and learning how to win the games they play. This section shares the boot camp feel of Starship Troopers right down to Ender (almost) killing another student and than wanting to give up being a leader.

Anyways, as this is ongoing, the adults moralize about using kids to fight this war. They are using kids because kids have more creative minds. Eventually, Ender gets sent to lead the fleet and he and the other kids seem genuinely upset to learn that they may actually be involved in killing the enemy... even though they’ve been attending a school that teaches them combat and promises them that if they graduate, they will be made the commanders of the space fleet. Wow! Who could have seen that coming? In the end, Ender is told to play one final game. But is there something we don’t know about this game? Yeah, you can guess how that will turn out.
Blech
I have three problems with this film. Let’s address them in order they arise.

First... There isn’t a moment of this film that feels original. The training scenes are similar in theme and style to the training in Starship Troopers. The young soldiers being shocked to learn they are helping the military comes from Real Genius. The hero learning the truth in his dreams feels stolen from Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. And the things the film focuses on, like showing us zero-gravity training, are things every sci-fi movie does. Beyond that, the film is packed with tropes like the big bully white kid who needs to be brought down by the hero, the girl who falls for the nerd and must break away from the insecure male who dominates her, the hard-ass sergeant who tells us when Ender is finally approved as a hero, etc. Seen it all before... many times.
Secondly... While this film held my interesting, it did so for the wrong reason. Good films hold your interest by getting you involved with the plot or the characters, and you lose yourself in their world. This one kept my interest because I know there was a twist coming and I wanted to see if it was as obvious as it seemed. How did I know this film had a twist coming? Because this film beat you over the head with the idea that “there’s something they aren’t telling Ender!” Indeed, almost every scene with the adults ends with this suggestion.

Third... Finally, we come to the politics. Look, war is terrible. Anyone who’s ever been involved and seen the devastation, the death, the destroyed lives can tell you that. But that doesn’t mean that the human race is opposed to war in all circumstances. This is the problem with liberalism and Hollywood. They play at being pacifists and they act like no decent person could possibly want to fight a war or that no sane person could go through war and kill others without becoming insane. That’s bullship.

For one thing, whether or not war is good or bad depends on whether or not the war is wrong. If you are fighting to defend your country from an invader set to kill and destroy all of you, then war is a great thing. If you are trying to save six million Jews and free another 100 million Europeans from Hitler, then war is a great thing. Free the slaves? Good thing. Stop a genocide? Good thing. Hollywood forgets this. In Ender’s Game, the enemy wants to wipe out humanity. In those circumstances, people will enthusiastically sign up to fight this war. This is a good war with a clear mission. People don’t whine and moralize about whether or not wars like that are right or moral. So instantly, the film feels like it is establishing a false moral framework.
Further, for a huge segment of the population, killing honestly isn’t a problem. Soldiers do it all the time in war, and all but a tiny fraction come back and live normal, psychologically healthy lives – contrary to the Hollywood myth. Gang bangers and inner-city youths killed each other in droves in the 1980s and didn’t shed a tear. No one in jail feels guilty. History is replete with mass killings like Rwanda and the Chinese cultural revolution, where ordinary people decided to get even with people they saw as the enemy because of their wealth, their status or their ethnicity and they hacked those people to death. What’s more, they did this enthusiastically, they thought they were in the right, and few of them ever bothered to change their minds. And let’s not forget that Hollywood glorifies killing even as it pretends it’s heroes can’t handle killing.

This image that soldiers are deeply conflicted souls unwilling to kill an enemy unless tricked into it by their commanders and that, once they kill someone, they all break down and become pacifists just flies in the face of the human condition. And it simply strains credibility that a child like Ender, who opens the film by aggressively trying to main and destroy a bully so the bully will be too scared to try again in the future will be so averse to killing the enemy in a war for which he’s voluntarily training.

And let me add another layer to this stupidity: the enemy isn’t even human! They are bugs. Think about the last time you swatted a fly or stepped on a spider. Did you need counseling? Did you agonize for days about whether or not you would be able to kill said fly or spider? This film would have you believe that somehow you would agonize if faced with much larger, much more violent spiders bent on your destruction. That’s laughably stupid.
What this comes down to is fraudulent/hypocritical pacifism. I say “fraudulent/hypocritical” because the whole film is ideologically misleading. It starts by forcing the idea upon you that humans are by their very natures pacifists. This is pounded into you time and again – good humans aren’t violent and don’t kill, it destroys us psychologically to do so! And the film makes it clear that the burden of justifying war falls on the commanders, but then doesn’t let them try to prove it. Basically, they just keep saying, “It’s us or them,” and then they get frustrated and scream, “Just do what I tell you!” This leaves no doubt that pacifism is the only legitimate ideology here.

But then the film never offers a pacifist solution to the war. In other words, at no point does the film show how a war with murderous alien bugs can be resolved short of killing the bugs before they kill us. Instead, the characters solve the film by fighting and killing all the bugs and then weeping that they should have been pacifists. This is hypocritical bullshit.
Of course, the film tries to suggest that a pacifist solution would have been possible when Ender observes that the bugs haven’t attacked the Earth since we drove them back to their home planet, and when he claims the aliens weren’t really hostile as evidenced by them having their massive fleet just hovering above the planet rather than attacking the human fleet the moment the humans appeared. Of course, the fact that the aliens haven’t attacked Earth doesn’t make them pacifists, it means they don’t have the force to do it. And the fact they didn’t charge forward like idiots when they saw the humans means nothing, as defenders almost never do that – the benefit of being a defender is maintaining a defensive position as the other guy is forced to charge into your gunfire.

This is a stale and stupid message that I’m sick of seeing in modern science fiction. It’s unreal because it flies in the face of human nature which hasn’t changed in thousands of years. It’s annoyingly hypocritical to be blasted by a false ideology that doesn’t have the courage to show how that ideology is supposed to work, and then smears the people who keep the believers of this cowardly philosophy safe. Even more hypocritically, the people who are pushing this crap idea of pacifism then exploit violent action scenes to make their hero and sell their film to audiences. Hypocrites.

You know, this isn’t the worst film I’ve seen, but it is entirely derivative and it’s very tiring. I would not have missed it if I never saw it.
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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Animated Is Smarter Than "Live" (CGI) Action

Having sat through Man of Steel and a host of other recent superhero movies, I can definitely come to one conclusion: the cartoon films starring these superheroes are much better than the live action versions. And the reason for this is, strangely, that the cartoons are aimed at smarter audiences.

I finally realized this as I looked around for something to use to slit my wrists during the two hour CGI fight-scene that finished Man of Steel: this movie was made for retards. And no, I’m not retracting that. This film was nothing more than a pointless CGI fight that lasted close to two hours combined with CGI disaster porn. That’s it. There’s no story. There are no characters. Even worse, if you felt the least bit tense during the fights, then you’re an idiot because both sides are invincible and cannot be hurt!! Seriously! Neither Superman nor Zod could get hurt, so what’s the point in fighting?
As an aside, this is what ruined The Matrix sequels. In the first, there was a very real danger that Neo might get killed before he solved the movie, thereby trapping humanity in the matrix forever. In the sequels, we learn that neither Neo, nor the agents, nor Smith can be killed. So all those twenty and thirty minute actions scenes are a total fraud.

Anyway, the problems with films like Man of Steel are these: (1) they substitute endless CGI fight scenes for plot or characters, and (2) they dumb the stories down to a level that everyone should be insulted, and as a consequence they create tension free, interest free films. By comparison, the cartoons are surprisingly smart. In fact, the two things the cartoons do right are the very things the live-action versions do wrong.

Consider the mindless plots. The live action films are generally a series of waaaaaay overly long fight scenes strung together with a few cliché moments wedged between. The cartoons are not. The cartoons are plot heavy. They involve a villain who has some scheme and sets that scheme into motion. The superhero must first discover what is going on and then must stop that scheme. In the process, the superhero typically discovers the involvement of someone they considered a friend, they encounter traps set for them by the villain, they are put into moral dilemmas, and they struggle just to get to the final battle.

Will there be fights along they way? Absolutely, and they last about a minute at the most before the villain escapes. As for the final fight scene, you’re talking about maybe a maximum of five minutes, depending on how many superheroes are involved, and even then you get a variety of action... it’s not just two morons beating on each other as the building around them collapse.
So what do the cartoons use as filler if they don’t pack themselves with horrifically long fight scenes? Well, they use things like plot, character, and morality. Yes, indeed. These characters, despite being animated, debate right and wrong. They talk about their beliefs. They engage in complex relationships with others around them.

What’s more, they don’t dumb any of this down. When they talk about human nature, they hit the issues head on. They talk about all the good and the bad, the rational, the irrational. They allow that people hold different views. They point out that not everyone can be won over. They also address realistic issues. None of this is true with the live-action films, which substitute mindless platitudes for issues and seek not to offend anyone: “People fear what they don’t understand.” Talk about a shallow and safe “thought.”

I find it amazing that a film aimed at children (in theory at least) would trust its audience so much more than a film at an adult audience (in theory at least). But there is a reason: the competition.
I think what’s really going on is that the cartoon makers know they need to compete with the comic books, which are often written at a fairly complex level. They know that fans won’t accept a copout like a long fight scene (especially one between two invincible forces), so they go in knowing they need to win their audience with their story-telling prowess. By comparison, the live-action guys are competing against other mindless blockbusters, which are the province of morons. These are people who don’t use their brains and can be wowed with “ideas” like “people fear what they don’t understand” and “how would people react if they knew a person like Superman really existed?!” All they want is the veneer of having used their brains (which is why “spot the pop reference” is such a popular ploy in these films), and then the big shiny. Cartoon readers apparently demand more.

Thoughts?

Oh, and the answer to the question that was brought up with agonizing regularity in Man of Steel (not that the film bothered to ever explore this issue) is that the same public that flocks to movies and documentaries about aliens, who tell pollsters they believe in life on other planets, and who have reacted to every other human discovery or invention calmly and with excitement is that they would be thrilled to learn of Superman’s existence.
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Sunday, June 8, 2014

My Favorite Films: Alfred Hitchcock

Alfred Hitchcock is easily one of the greatest film directors of all time. His films are technically fantastic, clever, compelling and entertaining. His characters are deep and layered. Interestingly though, I find that my favorite films of his are not the ones that always get cited. Here are my favorites.

1. Rope (1948): This is by far the most clever, sickest film Hitchcock has done. The story of two men who kill another man and then invite his family to have a dinner party with the body hidden in the room, this thing is perhaps the best written film I’ve ever seen. This is also one of those rare times where you see the director’s choices actually controlling the story, and Hitchcock proves to be a master at manipulating your tensions.

2. The Trouble With Harry (1955): This is easily the nicest Hitchcock film. It’s essentially a soft, but dark comedy about a group of people who find a body and all think they may have killed him.

3. North by Northwest (1959): This film should be in the debate for greatest film of all time. The acting, the direction, and the twisting plot are iconic and nearly perfect. This film also has the sexiest scene ever shot as Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint flirt on the train.

4. Lifeboat (1944): Made during WWII, or else I suspect the ending would be different, this is a highly political film as it is awash in capitalists, communists, and Nazis, and it all takes place on board a single lifeboat. This is another one that needs incredibly strong characters and dialog to work, and it has them.

5. Dial M For Murder (1954): Ray Milland deserves consideration as one of the most vile villains of all time in this film. The way he lets his wife go down for murder is sickening and Hitchcock manages to convey a tremendous amount of raw emotion to his audience in a film that is so sedate on the surface that it could be about an afternoon tea.

6. Topaz (1969): This is a deeply flawed film and perhaps what draws me to it is the potential it never achieves. Actually, what draws me to this film is that it is the only real attempt at making a true (i.e. real life) spy story during the Cold War and everything about it overflows with interest. It’s just too bad that the film ultimately feels like it lacks a climax.

7. The Birds (1963): Tippi Hedron and Rod Taylor have amazing chemistry in this suspense/horror film. The effects are amazing too, given the total lack of CGI and other similar effects. And while the premise may not be that scary in real life, the story feels real and this is a character film more than anything.

8. Turn Curtain (1966): This is another defective film. This one is about Paul Newman as the defector whose girlfriend Julie Andrews follows him to East Germany against his desires. But is he really a defector? The plot to this one feels a little too restrained to call this a great film, but the story has tension and solid characters. I suspect that if Hitchcock had dropped Andrews from the story, he might have made an all time classic here. As it is, he made an enjoyable film with an interesting plot and characters you like a good deal.

9. Vertigo (1958): A tale of obsession, this is often listed by critics as Hitchcock’s greatest film. Others cite it as evidence of his own sick mental state. Personally, I see it as a beautifully shot, beautifully acted film that holds strong interest, but isn’t my favorite to watch.

10. The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956): As with the others, this film has some flaws. Things happen too easily for the heroes. Some scenes are too drawn out. And Doris Day isn’t the greatest actress. That said, this one feels solid. The trip to Marrakesh is fascinating, even if it is all faked. Jimmy Stewart is compelling. And the way the mystery of the plot builds holds your interest.

11. Strangers On A Train (1951): This is a fascinating film. With homosexual undertones and an array of moral questions just beneath the surface, this one is about a man who stupidly agrees to exchange murders with another man he meets on a train.

12. Rear Window (1954): This is probably Hitchcock’s favorite film for the public and it is a very good film. It’s also one of Hitchcock’s most straight-forward “what you see is what you get” films.

Thoughts?
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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Let's Call It A Star Wars Preview... Of Sorts

So I finally saw J.J. Abram's Star Trek: Rot in Darkness and I'm trying to figure out if there is enough profanity in our language to let me describe that movie properly in a review. In the meantime, I realized last night that the same pathetic piece of sh*t who royally f*cked up Star Trek will now get the chance to do... the... exact... same... thing... to... Star Wars. Let's see what Star Trek tells us to expect.

Jedi Babies: Abrams has Muppet Baby Syndrome. He's a firm believer in replacing competent actors with young hotties. The average age will be 16 and they will all look like the misshapen creatures in fashion magazines.

F*ck Your History: Abrams derives a sexual pleasure from mocking the history and mythos of the original films.

Soak The Suckers: Since Abrams hasn't yet figured out how to require in-movie micropurchases, as they do in games now, he will instead find other ways to try to drain your wallet dry to see this film. Frankly, product placements are likely.

He Will Insult Your Intelligence: I wish I could say that Abrams tries to stay at the level of the lowest common denominator when he makes films, but he doesn't... he stays well below that. His dialog is mind-numbing, his action sequences are patently fake, and his plots make most summer blockbusters look like Shakespeare.

Unmitigated Gall: Abrams has no shame. He doesn't mind repeating iconic scenes without adding a hint of anything original... or even a competent retelling. Watch for Star Wars to essentially be a meandering remake of the best parts of the first six movies all thrown together with limited connective tissue.

Leftist Shit: Finally, Abrams has proven to be a far-left jerk off. Look for anti-conservative and anti-American statements throughout.

Frankly, I think I may skip it. I should have skipped his rape of Star Trek. Now my mind hurts from remembering it.
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Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Non-Disney Television Shows

A couple weeks back, tryanmax came up with a stellar list of non-Disney cartoon movies of note. This got me thinking. Disney dominates the cinema, but when it comes to television, Disney is notably absent as an important player. It's not to say they haven't produced some good cartoons like Duck Tales, but they haven't really had any major hits with the general public. Here are the shows I would say have been the biggest and most important hits.

Looney Tunes: The Looney Tunes were original on film, but transferred very well to television and became THE staple of syndication. For generations, there wasn't a single child in America who didn't watch Looney Tunes at some point during the week. Because of this, names like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn are better known that George Mason and Daniel Shays.

The Flintstones: The Flintstones were the first real prime time hit for cartoons. They were basically the animated version of The Honeymooners and they showed that cartoons could reach a wider audience on television than children. That said, they were the only ones to do it with any real success until probably The Simpson's.
The Jetsons: A nicer version of The Flintstones set in the future rather than the past, I'm not sure there's anything significant about the show, but it's as well-known as The Flintstones and many Americans grew up watching it.

The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show: I list this one because it is the first example I can think of where you start to see a niche market develop. Bullwinkle is not an easy show for general audience to like. It is packed with political references and very clever, but not obvious jokes. This is the first attempt to serve smarter audiences than sitcom viewers and kids.

Scooby Doo: Scooby Doo seems to have ushered in a new age of cartoons. These were more lifelike in story and image than the Looney Tunes before them, they were episodic, and they had lower production values. It strikes me that Scooby represents a generational shift away from the WWII generation to the ME generation, a generational shift that will remain until The '80s Show.
The '80s Show: Ok, there was no '80s Show. What there was instead were a series of cartoons in the 1980's that entered the culture, sold products, and eventually spawned films. These shows include The Transformers, He-Man, G.I. Joe, Thundar the Barbarian, and other product placements shows, and they represented a new generation of cartoons that were more realistic in terms of story and imagery, but used toys as their main characters. In some ways, these were great cartoons because they had a good deal of substance in their stories. In other ways, these were just commercials. In either event, they killed off the old styles.

The Simpson's: The Simpson's started small as a series of shorts on The Tracey Ullman Show before getting their own show and, arguably, helping the FOX Network survive to maturity. The show has run for 15,000 years now past its time. But back in its prime, The Simpson's was edgy, must-see television. Bart became a national icon and even an object to attack for certain small-minded types. The success of The Simpson's showed that cartoons could attract adults and in prime time, and it spawned others like Futurama and the Seth McFarlane empire.
Ren and Stimpy: Ren and Stimpy was the first cartoon I recall that seemed to spark the attention of young people in my generation once they became adults. This one was loved by college students and mechanics alike and everywhere I went you could hear little references like "Happy, happy, joy joy." In terms of significance, I would say that this opened the door for other poorly drawn, snarky, satirical cable cartoons like Bevis and Butt-head and South Park and SpongeBob, and other less memorable, though interesting, cartoons like Duckman and most of Adult Swim lineup.
South Park: This is the BIG conservative cartoon. That alone makes this memorable. Even more to the point though, South Park has become deeply engrained in our culture and has become a strong social critic of much of the crappulance in our system and society. This isn't quite at the level of The Simpson's in popularity, but it's probably more important.

Family Guy: This show proved that Seth McFarlane could get rich selling nothing the least bit clever. No, I can't be kind about this dreck.

Batman: Finally, this show, in my opinion, represents the takeoff of the hardcore "graphic novel" fans exerting their muscle. This show represents the beginning of the superhero craze that has flooded our cinema as these caped and costumes characters become grim avengers, and you would be shocked at the people who have done voices for this show. Essentially, this show represents the new world of Hollywood, which is catering more to fanboys.
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