Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Takin' The Rest of the Week Off

Folks, I'm still struggling to get over this cold or flu or plague or whatever I caught a couple weeks back. It's got me too exhausted even to write at the moment. So I'm taking off until early next week. I'll leave the door to the blog unlocked in case you just want to hang out. There are some bitcoins in the fridge... unless somebody stole them.

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Toon-arama: Monsters University (2013)

Do you know what happens if you take a film like Revenge of the Nerds, Van Wilder or any other generic college film and you suck out all the sex and drugs and replace the characters with cute monsters? You get a surprisingly decent film, and that film would be called Monsters University.
Our story begins with young Michael “Mike” Wazowski (Billy Crystal) doing a factory tour of Monsters Inc., a company which scares human children because their screams can be converted to energy, which powers Monstropolis. Mike is so impressed that he knows what he wants to be when he grows up. He wants to be a scarer. (Mike will, of course, work for this company in Monsters Inc.)
Jump forward many years and Mike is a freshman on his first day at Monsters University. He’s enrolled in the University’s prestigious Scaring School so he can become a scarer. Once there, he meets James “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman), a blue-green monster with pink-purple splotches. Sulley comes from a renown family of scarers and has natural talent. He is, however, jaded and lazy because he’s always gotten along on talent alone. Mike, on the other hand, is not naturally scary and needs to work hard.
From there, we are shown the school. Conflict arises between Mike and some frats. And then disaster strikes. Mike and Sulley get kicked out of the Scaring School when they are unfairly failed by Dean Abigail Hardscrabble as retaliation for damage they do to her property. They have one chance to avoid this horrible fate: they need to win the Scare Games, a tournament put on by the schools frats and sororities. But to do that, they need to be in a frat and the only frat that will take them is the nerds of Oozma Kappa. They have no chance... or do they?
Good Fun
Monsters University is no Wreck-It Ralph, which I see as the current gold standard in animation, and it’s not quite as good as the original Monster’s Inc., but it’s an enjoyable film that is well worth seeing.

Two things really stand out about this film. First, Monsters University doesn’t include the sorts of hidden gags meant to appeal to adults. This story picks a rated-G level and stays there. There are no subtle sex jokes, no hidden messages, and no references to pop culture. Instead, the story relies on its characters and plot to entertain, and yet, that proves to be enough. The characters are likeable and you feel for them, and the “cartoon physics” they engage in are hilarious. Also, the story is truly a feel good story with just enough twists and turns to remain unpredictable from minute to minute even as you think you know how it will all turn out (hint: you don’t).
This raises the second issue. I’ve long marveled at how successful the generic college movies have been. Every one of those films just copies the others. They never add anything original. This film doesn’t either. Yet, it works. And not only that, it works despite the total absence of the usual adult content that seems to power the generic college films. What this suggests is that there is more to the generic college film than one would expect. In other words, there is something so universal about the conflicts inherent in these films that they appeal on that basis alone. It’s a bit like the Heroes Journey, which seems to appeal no matter what context it is found in.

So what are some of those conflicts? Well, there’s the issue of finding where you fit in in life. There’s the issue of maintaining your personality in the face of peer pressure. There’s the issue of proving yourself the equal or superior of self-appointed superiors who want to look down at you. There’s the issue of overcoming the rigged game. And finally, there’s the issue of coming together as a team to succeed at your goals.
Each of these is a universal theme that each of us has dealt with throughout our lives, and I think that makes the generic college story a strong story even as it wrongly seems to be about parties, alcohol and panty-raids. And Monsters University proves that point by showing how appealing a college movie can be without the alcohol and panty-raids.

In any event, this is a film you will enjoy. It may not be laugh out loud hilarious from start to finish, but you will like it throughout and you will find some very funny moments. It’s the kind of film that makes you happy that you watched it.
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Sunday, February 23, 2014

My Favorite Films: Cop Films

There’s never a cop film around when you need one. Anyway, here are my favorite cop films:

1. Dirty Harry (1971): The first three in the series are fantastic films: Dirty Harry (1971), Magnum Force (1973) and The Enforcer (1976). Perfectly shot, well acted with compelling characters, and a strongly conservative message, these film speak to the eternal struggle of stopping idiots from surrendering the public to thugs and terrorists and gave us super-cop Harry Callahan.

2. L.A. Confidential (1997): The definitive 1950’s L.A. cop film, this one was perfect... perfect sets, perfect props, perfect costumes, perfect script. It’s just a joy to watch this one twist and turn as the characters each play their own angles.

3. The Gauntlet (1977): This should have been the fourth Dirty Harry but it wasn’t. This is the tale of a washed up, drunken cop who must transport a supposedly meaningless eye witness from Las Vegas to Phoenix. The only problem, everyone wants them dead.

4. Cop Land (1997): A forgotten movie with a stellar cast that is anything but a normal cop movie, this tale of corruption in New Jersey/New York City contains some amazing performances and a really unpredictable plot.

5. Lethal Weapons (1992): The original (1987) and the sequel (1989) are both excellent films which did the formula for the cop film so well that every cop film to follow copied these films. Plus. they’re really enjoyable with great chemistry.

6. The French Connection (1971): You know, I can’t tell you why I like this one. Popeye Doyle is an ass. NYC looks like it had been hit by the apocalypse. The plot isn’t all that amazing. Still, this is an interesting and oddly compelling film.

7. Bullitt (1968): Starring the always fantastic Steve McQueen, this film contains the greatest car chase ever. It’s never been topped.

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Friday, February 21, 2014

Film Friday: Conan The Barbarian (2011)

“Behold and despair!” Yeah, that about sums up this film. This one stinks. It's pointless, plotless violence, and it's not even good violence. Avoid it.



Why This Film Stinks... as if you need to ask

Written and directed by Hollywood conservative John Milius and co-written by Hollywood nutjob Oliver Stone, the original Conan the Barbarian is brilliant. It's a solid action film that has an amazing Zen to it. The film flows like a pure mountain stream. It is the sound of one hand clapping and then driving a sword through you. It is a deep film, flowing with philosophy, drama and the things that ignite characters on film: an orphaned warrior lost in the world, friendship, love, a father's love for his daughter, a King who is helpless to act against a more popular foe, a villain who seems to have grown as a person to the point of near enlightenment only to discover that he grew crooked and his villainy is many times worse, etc. It is a film you can watch when you want some rousing action. It is a film you can watch when you want a thoughtful film. It is a film you can watch when you want to explore by proxy the relationships in your life. It is amazingly beautifully shot. And it has the best soundtrack of any film... ever. In fact, you can close your eyes and just listen to the score and fall in love with this film. Awesome.

The new movie is crap.

The end.
Oh, you want more? Ok. The new Conan has no point. Jason Momoa (Stargate Atlantis) plays Conan. He ventures from location to location killing whoever he finds in the most brutal ways possible as 3D blood flies toward the screen. His reason for existence is that his father (Hellboy) thought he was a wuss and couldn't handle a sword. Then some bad people came and they killed everyone in his village except Conan. The big bad meanie wore an enchanted mask. Conan has now grown up and he's looking for revenge as he works as a pirate to pay his bills. He kills everyone he meets... end of story. Oh, and there's a bald chick in this who is a sorceress working with the guy in the mask.
The cinematography stinks. Everything is shot in brown, perhaps because the script is crap. The action is boring. The actors stink. The characters need name tags because they are so cardboard and so alike, and that includes Conan. There isn't a moment where you will be asked to use your brain. There is a constant "chinking" noise that will drive you nuts... it's like hearing someone cock a gun every few seconds. There's nothing memorable about this film.
So why was this film made? I have two theories. The first is that this film was secretly financed by John Milius with the intent of reminding people just how amazing the original Conan was. The idea was to put out a remake so putrid that people would leave the theater in disgust and go buy the original on Blu-Ray just to get the taste of "Barbarian Cluster Fudge" out of their mouths.

Alternatively, someone said, "Hey, let's make a quick buck and exploit some famous property." And when they were asked what the storyline would be or who the writers would be, they responded, "Modern stories don't need storylines... or writers. Trust me, we'll wing it and then fix it in post."

I don't know, could be either. Don't really care either. Glad it lost more than half its budget.
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Thursday, February 20, 2014

Bond-arama: No. 00? Goldfinger (1964)

Next we come to Goldfinger. Goldfinger is the first Bond film to put it all together and have all the elements required of Bond films. It has an excellent plot, memorable quotes, an iconic villain, and Bond girls out the wazoo. This one also routinely gets chosen as the best Bond film. On the other hand, this one has some serious flaws. Does it have enough to be No. 001 of 0023?

Plot Quality: Taken at face value, Goldfinger probably has the best plot of any Bond film. The story begins with Bond resting at a hotel in Miami. As he gets a massage, Felix Leiter appears and points out a man named Auric Goldfinger. Goldfinger is an industrialist who is vacationing in Miami and likes to cheat at a friendly game of cards. He cheats by having an escort, Jill Masterson, spy on the game with binoculars and tell him what the other man is holding over a radio transmitter. Bond meddles with this and then takes Masterson to bed. She will be killed during the night by being painted gold... perhaps the most iconic moment in the entire series.
Bond returns to London. He’s told to investigate Goldfinger, because MI-6 knows that Goldfinger is smuggling gold, but doesn’t know how. Bond proceeds to challenge Goldfinger to a round of golf at an exclusive club; they will play for a bar of gold Bond claims to have obtained from a lost Nazi hoard. Both sides cheat, but Bond cheats better and wins the match. The angry Goldfinger tells Bond they better never cross paths again.

Bond then follows Goldfinger to Switzerland, where the sister of Jill Masterson, Tilly, makes an attempt on Goldfinger’s life. Bond spies on Goldfinger at his plant and learns that Goldfinger smuggles gold by having various parts of his car made of gold, which then get removed once the vehicle passes through customs and get melted back down into bars. Bond also learns about something called Operation Grand Slam, which Goldfinger will perform for a Chinese communist agent. Right after learning this, Bond is captured in a chase which will leave Tilly dead. Goldfinger plans to kill Bond by dissecting him with a laser. This produces the most memorable exchange in the series: “Do you expect me to talk?” asked Bond. “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” retorts Goldfinger. Bond, however, talks his way out of this and convinces Goldfinger to keep him around as insurance.
The film next moves to Kentucky with Bond as Goldfinger's prisoner. Here, Bond learns that Goldfinger plans to explode a dirty atomic bomb at Fort Knox. His thinking is that by making the US Government’s gold supply radioactive the value of his own gold will soar. This will also suit the Chinese who want economic chaos in the West. But Bond stops Goldfinger’s plan with the help of Goldfinger’s henchwoman Pussy Galore. Goldfinger escapes however, and returns to try to kill Bond. He fails and dies. Bond prevails.

As plots go, this one is really strong. The story moves quickly and efficiently. The story is not dull. The stakes are high and there's plenty of action. And best of all, Bond and Goldfinger are constantly dueling with each other in one form or another, which really drives home the “worthy adversary” aspect of the film. The film also has an excellent travelogue feel, especially in Switzerland. The ending is exciting too as you watch Bond struggle to disarm an atomic bomb. Good stuff... great stuff.

Yep. But when you look beyond face value, there are problems, and the more you think about the film, the more obvious and glaring these problems become. For example, it makes sense that Goldfinger would not kill Bond in Switzerland and that Leiter would not come rushing in to save Bond in Kentucky. Those are actually explained well in the dialog. But why does Goldfinger give a lecture to the mafia about Operation Grand Slam? He clearly intends to kill them, so why go through the hoax of explaining the plan and offering them each a share of the outcome only to kill them moments later. Presumably, it’s just ego and he likes to hear himself speak, but it feels like he only does this to let Bond “discover” what is going on. Also, why would Pussy suddenly change sides merely because of one roll in the hay. That doesn’t fit her character at all. Perhaps if Bond told her something she didn’t know about the plan, e.g. the likely death toll, then it could be believable, but as it’s presented, it’s not.
The big issue, however, is that Bond does nothing to earn his victory. Goldfinger bizarrely tells him about the plan, i.e. Bond doesn’t “spy” it. Even so, Bond does nothing with that knowledge. He can’t tell the CIA or MI-6. Instead, he has sex with Pussy, hoping that she’ll go to Washington. But she already knows about the plan and doesn’t even need him to tell her what he learned. Further, Bond does nothing to persuade Pussy to change sides except have sex with her, and that feels like a nonsense reason for her to change sides.

Moreover, once the military plan starts, you right away realize that it’s a stupid plan. This plan meant they not only could not monitor Goldfinger, but they had no control over what he did. Basically, the planned called for Goldfinger to wait for the military to stop him. And Bond’s participation is irrelevant. Indeed, Bond doesn’t even know about the plan, and he doesn’t actually stop the bomb even though he’s there. He just fights with Oddjob until the experts arrive and stop the bomb. In effect, while the audience is told that Bond is the hero, he really does nothing except wait as Goldfinger’s prisoner until the military saves him and stops the bomb, and they only do that because Pussy told them about the plan.

As an aside, why did Goldfinger even bring Bond to the site of the bomb? Why not just shoot him and be done with him once the plan began? He doesn’t need him at that point.
The film does a good job of disguising these flaws with action, which is probably why most people don’t notice. Indeed, Bond is constantly escaping and getting caught again. But if you stop to think, then the whole thing starts to feel a bit like a fraud as you realize that nothing Bond does really affects the plot. Still, enough people either don’t notice or don’t care because this one is routinely chosen as the top Bond. And I think part of that is because this was the first film to pull it all together. Goldfinger is the first truly larger-than-life villain in the series. Red Grant is just a thug, and his plan feels rather run of the mill. Dr. No has a bigger plan, but he lacks the personality that has come to be seen as necessary in these villains. Goldfinger has it all. He also has the first silly henchman and the first fantastic theme song, which happens to be about him. And even beyond that, there is an enjoyability factor with this film which sets is apart. It certainly belongs in the top three.

Bond Quality: This is Connery’s third outing and I have to say that he’s taken a step back in this one. In Dr. No, Connery had the cold-blooded aspects down perfectly even as he projected the ultimate suave spy. He gave hints of being friendly and loyal to Felix, but was mainly deadly serious. In From Russia With Love, he maintained what he had in Dr. No while adding more loyalty and a sense of sexual playfulness which made him irresistible. In Goldfinger, Connery loses both his killer instinct and his sexual playfulness.
The problem is this. After Jill, Bond never really has much sexual chemistry with the women he meets. In fact, they seem to actively dislike him and the film never gives the relationships enough time to overcome this. At the same time, you start to realize that the only reason Bond survives the movie is that Goldfinger chooses time and again not to kill him (Miami, the golf club, Switzerland after car crash, Switzerland with the laser, twice at the Kentucky ranch, once when Operation Grand Slam begins, once when the military shows up to stop Operation Grand Slam). Several of these can be explained but most cannot. Even worse, however, Bond never seems to worry about this except the one time with the laser. In fact, he comes across as a man who has read the script and who knows he’s in no danger. Thus, he plays the role more as a smartass than a super spy. I actually suspect that the cold-blooded nature of Thunderball was an attempt to rectify this.

All that said though, Connery is still an excellent Bond and he's more relatable in this film than any other Bond film he made because he comes across as calm, charming and funny.

The Bond Girl: The Bond girl is a true weakness in this film. Shirley Eaton played Jill Masterson and had real chemistry with Connery. She ends up encased in gold, one of the most iconic moments in the entire series. Tania Mallet plays her sister Tilly Masterson, who seemed like she would have played well against Bond. Unfortunately, neither is in the film very long.
The official Bond girl was Honor Blackman as Pussy Galore. Blackman comes across as a rather cold, butch lesbian and she and Connery have no chemistry at all. Her character is also nonsense, being a daring pilot, flight instructor and misanthrope who decides to change sides after having implied sex with Connery in a barn. Then, somehow, she ends up helping Goldfinger try to kill Bond again at the end of the movie even as she’s on Bond’s side. That is really bad writing and Blackman lacked the acting ability to pull it off.

Villain Quality: If this film deserves to be ranked as the best Bond film, it is because of Goldfinger himself. Played by Gert Fröbe (and dubbed by Michael Collins), Goldfinger is one of the most richly drawn villains in the series. Goldfinger is an industrialist who is also a petty psychopath. He cheats at cards to win a few hundred dollars. He cheats at golf. He is a very insecure man who pretends to be an iron giant. His love of gold is almost fetishistic. And not only that, but each of these traits is used by the writers to drive the character. It is his desire to win, which makes him challenge Bond. It is his insecurity which lets Bond escape death. It is his arrogance which keeps him from succeeding. And all of this combines to create a character who is simultaneously the first truly larger-than-life villain in the series, but also such an insecure snippy little bastard that you loath the man. In effect, you want to see this man beaten because you hate him, not because you accept the goals over which the film is fought.
His plan too is the first true “Bond plan,” in that it is both larger than life and totally unexpected. Dr. No’s plan was larger than life, but the idea of toppling a rock felt very real world. It was something you could see a foreign enemy doing. Red Grant’s plan was something we would consider typical of spies. This plan, however, was ingenuous. Indeed, when you first hear that Goldfinger does not intend to remove the gold, but instead intends to radiate it, you know you’ve just heard something no one else has ever suggested. That provides this film with an incredibly strong touch and it forces you to rank Goldfinger very highly. He may in fact be the best Bond villain ever because of these two points.

So what we have here is a film with a strong and interesting plot if taken at face value. You have a more relatable Bond. You have a scheme that is truly ingenious and makes the film stand out. You have a strong villain who elicits an emotional response from the audience. And you have a film that is routinely listed as the best Bond film ever and which comes in at number three at the box office. Against this, you have the nagging feeling that Bond doesn’t earn his victory, that the good guys win because of deus ex machina, and that Bond has read the script and knows he’s in no danger.

So where should this film rank? Is it worthy of the top spot? You tell me.
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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

TV Review: Justified (2010-present)

I hate cop shows. Seriously hate them. They’re lowest common denominator crap which feed you the impossible idea that a computer can predict crime or neon-laced crime labs that work in the dark can solve crimes with a carpet fiber and sexy banter. Might as well use pixie dust. What these shows really are is soaps where the characters carry guns and fence with stylized serial killers destined to lose by the script. Even worse, they’re all the same. There are a couple that stand out however, and Justified is the best of those. In fact, this is an awesome series.
Justified centers around United States Deputy Marshal Raylan Givens (Tim Olyphant). Raylan is a Kentucky boy who got the hell out there and now has been sent back by the Marshal Service as punishment for what many think was the murder of a hitman in Miami. Justified is the story of Raylan doing his job back in Kentucky as he finds himself wrapped up in the tangled nest of hillbillies who inhabit that part of the country. And as you'll note right away, this no normal cop show. There are no crime of the weeks to be solved. There are no glitzy labs, no melodramatic races against the clock, no attempt to wow you with the soundtrack.
The hillbillies Raylan faces include several clans, including his own family. His father Arlo is a turd, a liar and a petty criminal. His childhood rival Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is... well, Boyd Crowder, and he is part of the Crowder clan. There are a clan of Bennetts also who are at war with the Crowders. There are some black folks hidden in one of the valleys too. His ex-wife Winona (Natalie Zea), works at the court and her husband attracts the Dixie Mafia into Raylan's life -- they are from Lexington and they are connected to the Detroit Mafia. Each of these groups engages in a sort of low-intensity war for control over the region, particularly Harlan County, as they ply their trade of bank robberies, murders, benefits fraud, drug dealing and general mayhem.
Interestingly, Justified strives for a more realistic presentation, so it's filmed in Washington, PA and Pittsburgh rather than Hollywood, and it presents genuine hillbillies. They aren't the cleaned up "salt of the earth" types Hollywood normally shows. These people don't dress like supermodels, they aren't sexy or slick. None of them will ever be mistaken for Prof. Moriarty. What they are is white trash... white trash who don't shower or change their clothes, white trash who are hooked on drugs and crime as a way of life, white trash who think nothing of hurting other people because it suits them. Good luck finding that on CSI, even though that's what our jails are packed with.
Justified is rather realistic when it comes to gun play too. The cops don't shoot to kill without a reason, but when they do, people die. The bad guys kill people too. This isn't one of those shows where the main characters are all safe and each gets to spend an episode in a fake coma as the others come in and tell them how they feel about them.
The dialog is realistic too. When you watch CSI or NCSI or SUV or whatever, you hear dialog that is written for a television show. The characters say things normal people don’t, they express things that normally would not be expressed, and they dramatize everything. Justified doesn’t do that. To the contrary, the office banter, the relationship talks, the verbal combat with thugs and crooks is spot on. Nobody here says, “Should you continue your present course of conduct, I’ll need to take action against you,” when they could instead say, “Raylan, you’re pissing me off.” Well, except for Boyd. The dialog here is actually some of the best I’ve seen. It’s punchy, funny and on point. Each character is different and speaks their own language.

The real strength of this show, however, is the characters. One of the problems with most shows (especially cop shows) is that all the characters eventually drift into the same stereotype. Every actor wants to become the silent hero with the secret pain. Barf. That doesn’t happen here. These characters are written as real people and they act according to their characters. If a guy is an amoral idiot, then he will act like an amoral idiot. If a guy is a barely controlled thug, then that is how he will act. Yet, the characters are all deeply complex. You will see each character put into “no win” situations on a regular basis and watch how they respond. You will learn a good deal about what motivates each and what their strengths and weaknesses are. And in doing so, you will be amazed at how rich and fantastic is the picture they present. These people aren't cardboard. More than that, they are all fascinating. Raylan is a good cop with a low tolerance for procedure. Arlo is a skunk. Boyd is a philosopher turned conman. Maggs is a pirate. Wynn Duffy is survivor. Etc. You will constantly be surprised by what happens. This is the kind of show where you know what the characters would normally say if they were on another show, but you have no idea what they’re going to do or say here. That’s quality writing.
Interestingly, Justified comes from two novels (“Pronto”, “Riding the Rap”) and a short story (“Fire in the Hole”) by Elmore Leonard, whose other books have been turned into excellent movies: Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty, 3:10 to Yuma just to name a few. He’s known for his dialog and it shows here.
The acting is fantastic too. You will recognize many of the actors who make their way through this series, but you’ll never doubt they aren’t really who they claim to be. Olyphant in particular is Raylan and he plays the part so well that it may typecast him. Nick Searcy plays his boss Art. You have to love Art. Art is hilarious as the put-upon boss who has much more control over his office than people think and who is much wittier than he wants people to believe. Walton Goggins, who was in another great cop show – The Shield – is Boyd Crowder, a fake neo-Nazi turned preacher turned back into a hardcore criminal. He’s psychotic, menacing and yet bizarrely likable. Then there are characters like Dickie Bennett, a coward who needs to be killed. His mother Mags is a fascinating character. Stephen Root plays the crazy, yet realistic Judge Reardon. Jere Burns plays Wynn Duffy, a nut job who is surrounded by even bigger psychos in the Dixie Mafia. He and Raylan cross paths because of Raylan’s ex-wife’s husband, who is basically a conman. And so on. There isn't really an uninteresting character or a poor actor in the mix.
All told, this is one heck of an entertaining and addictive show. You will not regret watching this one. Start at the beginning though because there is a huge learning curve.
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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Shameless Merchandizing

by tryanmax

With The LEGO Movie totally dominating the President’s Day weekend box office, one thing is for certain: a ton of those tiny plastic blocks are about to go flying off the shelves. It makes me nostalgic for the days of my childhood, those halcyon days of the 80s when cartoons were just dressed up, 21-minute toy commercials occasionally interrupted with commercials for different toys and sugar-infused cereals. Let’s take a moment to remember some of the shameless merchandising.

Transformers – When it comes to TV/toy tie-ins, this is probably the top of the list. While the concept of cars and planes that turn into freakin’ robots (in disguise) is awesome enough on its own, the cartoon was pretty sweet, too, thanks to the usually well animated transformation sequences. Some folks have really gotten into the storyline, but for me, it was all about robots blasting each other.

He-Man/She-Ra – I might have actually liked Masters of the Universe the cartoon better than the toys. Transformers is credited with having a complex storyline, but He-Man had a storyline that a five-year-old could actually follow without being overly simplistic. I still have a soft-spot for Filmation animation to this day, functional and Spartan as it may be. And, of course, I had my He-Man figures, too.
G.I. Joe – The only thing as basic as a sword wielding barbarian like He-Man is a troop of soldiers fighting an international terrorist organization with excellent brand recognition. The hallmark of the cartoon series was that the opposing sides’ fire was distinguishable by color. And the hallmark of the action figures was that they were the same scale as the Star Wars figures, meaning that you could still have fun with latter even though you broke off your AT-AT’s legs.

M.A.S.K. – The Mobile Armored Strike Kommand was kind of like G.I. Joe meets Transformers. I don’t remember the cartoon much beyond the fact that the vehicles all converted to reveal hidden weapons and abilities. That was pretty much all there was to it. After all, the idea was to sell toys that did the same.

Care Bears – By day, I may have been storming the battle fields with He-Man and G.I. Joe, but by night, I had my trusty Care Bear to keep me cozy. (Bedtime Bear, if you must know.) Though my plush companion was indispensable, I can’t say I ever got on with the cartoons so much. Even as a child they hit me as too saccharine to bear. Pun most likely intended.
Jem and the Holograms – Let’s just say that this entered into a sibling’s childhood more than my own. Jem was a total Barbie rip-off, but with a couple clear distinctions: her own cartoon show and an awesome backup band. I can say that with some first-hand knowledge as I was subject to the soundtrack (on cassette) enough times for it to grow on me. Truly outrageous!

Strawberry Shortcake – Another one that didn’t come to me directly, Strawberry has had a number of cartoon iterations over the years, so I can’t be sure if the one from the 80s was even the first. (Fun fact: the voice work for the 2000s version of Strawberry Shortcake was recorded in Omaha.) Still, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally grab a whiff of her and her friends’ fruit scented locks.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – This is the franchise that really hooked me. The Ninja Turtles hit in 1987, just when I was finally pulling in enough allowance and odd-job money to actually build my own action figure collection, rather than relying on birthdays and Christmas. And, of course, I watched the cartoon show religiously. It actually got me out of bed on school days!

In case anyone is upset that I overlooked something, this is just a list of the ones that I remember the best. (Yes, I admit it, I totally missed the Thundercats. Don’t ask me how.) So, tell me about your favorites.
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Sunday, February 16, 2014

My Favorite Films: Romance Films

With Valentine's Day upon us, let's talk about romantic films. Finding a good romantic film is nearly impossible because they're so damn formulaic. They are even worse than action films in that regard. Indeed, you can set your watch by the various required plot points in these film. Blech. Because of this, I've actually done my best to look for romance movies overseas because the American stuff is so hopeless. Anyway, here goes:

1. Strictly Ballroom (1992): Yes, this is the ugly duckling story done in a bizarre way, but this is also the most romantic film I've encountered. The dancing is amazing. The characters are wonderful. The sense of humor is awesome. And the romance is strong and believable. I'm really shocked this film didn't lead to a bigger career for the male lead Paul Mercurio.

2. My Sassy Girl (2001): Check out the original Korean Version, not the fetid Hollywood remake. What makes this film so interesting to me is that it feels genuine for once. You know how in every rom-com the heroine will be a bitch (in a very safe and cliche manner) and drive away the male love interest at some point, only to have him return when he realizes that he does love her and that he accepts her the way she is? Aw. Oh course, we also learn that the heroine is not really a bitch because no American starlet would accept such a part as they all want to be "America's sweetheart," so her bitchiness is written off as a mistake or misunderstanding. Well, not here. What I love about My Sassy Girl is that for once, the heroine really is being a bitch and she's trying hard to drive away this guy. But he's a good guy who insists on trying to help her with her issues and they fall for each other. The ending is heartbreaking too.

3. Pride and Prejudice (1995): This is a miniseries, but hell, I make the rules. This is the original from which so much of the formula comes and it's also just an amazing romance. In particular, this is a romance for real people... people who feel awkward and who think of love as something deep and genuine, not something you find in a one-night stand. This one is both a real tear jerker and a very uplifting story. The adaptation Clueless fits here as well.

4. Hero (2002): Yep. This is ostensibly a martial arts film, but it's really a romance in disguise. It's also a BIG romance in the sense of being about true love and sacrifice rather than just some couple finding each other. Beautifully shot and wonderfully told, this is one of the stronger romances I've ever encountered.

5. WALL-E (2008): Yeah, surprising. Can you have a romance between two robots where one of them can't even speak? Well, yes, you can and it makes this a truly beautiful film.

6. Shakespeare In Love (1998): Normally, Gwyneth Paltrow leaves me cold, but this story of a love that cannot happen is extremely touching.

7. Grease (1978): The classic tale of two lovers who want each other but are kept apart by peer pressure and an inability to understand each other. Will it all work out? Of course, it will... in the final act!

8. Out of Sight (1998): From a book by Elmore Leonard, this was a stylized romance between Jennifer Lopez, a cop, and George Clooney, a criminal, back when both were still sex symbols. This one is well written and fun to watch and they have real chemistry.

I would like to add The Princess Bride to list, but I think the male relations really are the key in that one.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

Bond-arama: No. 00? Dr. No (1962)

As we enter the top three, I’m going to avoid putting a rank on these for the moment. Instead, I’m going to outline the cases pro and con for each being number one. Today we start with Dr. No. Dr. No is not the first time Bond has appeared on the screen, but this is the first James Bond film in the series... this is the film which started it all and which made Sean Connery into a superstar. It is a solid film with no real plot holes and all the elements we have come to expect from Bond. It has only a couple minor weaknesses. Could it be No. 001 of 0023?

Plot Quality: Dr. No’s plot is superb. Dr. No opens with the murder of British Intelligence Station Chief Commander Strangways and his secretary in Jamaica. His disappearance sets London into motion. A man is summoned. This man is found playing Chemin de Fer in a casino. He has amazing luck and he defeats a woman named Sylvia Trench, a woman who will follow him to his room. This man is Bond, James Bond.
Bond is briefed by M, the head of MI-6, and sent to Jamaica to investigate. Upon arrival in Jamaica, he is picked up by a driver who works for the bad guys. Bond captures the man, but the man kills himself rather than being questioned. This tells Bond the type of villain he is up against, a man who strikes suicidal fear into his henchmen. This also establishes the fact that Bond is not just your average police man. He deals with a special type of criminal.

Bond meets with his local contacts and learns that Strangways had been investigating an island named Crab Key, which belongs to a man named Dr. No. The issue at had is that NASA is planning to launch a rocket in a few days and the CIA is concerned that an attempt will be made to topple the rocket using radio jamming. Strangways thought he was on to something when he vanished.
As Bond investigates, he finds that one of the men closest to Strangways (Professor Dent) lies to Bond about this. He also finds the man who took Strangways to Crab Key. This is Quarrel, and he is working with CIA agent Felix Leiter (Jack Lord). He tells Bond that Crab Key is off limits because of stories of a dragon. This intrigues Bond and he focuses on Dr. No. This leads Professor Dent to make an attempt on his life, which fails. Another attempt is made by Miss Taro, the secretary of a British official, but Bond foils that as well. Bond has her arrested and kills Dent when he arrives at the scene.

Bond now sets his sights on Dr. No. He and Quarrel venture to Crab Key, where they find Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress), a nomadic woman who collects sea shells from the beach. They are attacked by Dr. No’s men and taken prisoner. Bond finally meets Dr. No and learns that he works for an organization which is tying to set East against West by toppling the rocket... SPECTRE. Bond eventually defeats Dr. No and destroys the base, saving the American rocket.
Everything about this film works. The travelogue feel is fantastic. The story is larger than life with huge stakes. The whole film has Bond doing actual spying, something he doesn’t do in later movies. The characters are richly drawn and interesting; they don’t feel cardboard. And this film establishes all the elements we want in Bond.

The only real downside to this film is after Bond is captured by Dr. No. It feels a bit like the film didn’t know how to create a real climax, so the story gets wrapped up too easily. It’s still a decent ending, but could have used something more. And what’s really missing is a more personal struggle between Bond and Dr. No.
Bond Quality: This is the first Bond in the series, so no one quite knew how to play him. Connery would set the standard. And while he is a little stiff in this compared to his future films, his Bond here is still suave and charming. Bond in this film is also one of the most cold-blooded of any in the series. The way he lets Dent build up his hope that he can escape his fate and then coldly shoots him down when he is essentially unarmed is something you just won’t see again until Daniel Craig. Even the cold-blooded Bond in Thunderball isn’t particularly cruel, but Bond is in the Dent scene. His misogynism is strong in this one as well, particular related to Miss Taro, the secretary who tries to kill him. He thinks nothing of having sex with a woman he is about to kill or have locked away. At the same time, Connery lets slip some genuinely warm and loyal moments, particularly when he’s among friends like Felix. Connery sets the bar amazingly high here.

The Bond Girl: The Bond girl is Ursula Andress, as Honey Ryder. She’s a creature of the 1960s. She’s an uneducated girl in a bikini whose job is to look up to Bond with awe and she does that well, but she’s hardly an engaging character. Nothing highlights this more than when Dr. No drugs her so that he and Bond can speak without having to worry about her being at the table as well. This moment feels as if the film itself tired of her. Still, she’s adequate when it comes to the task of creating “The Bond Girl.”
Villain Quality: Dr. No (Joseph Wiseman) is one of the hardest villains to judge. On the one hand, he’s the prototype for the super villain. He’s a man without a country who punches at the level of a superpower. He owns an island. He terrorizes the locals. He’s taking on the United States and winning, and his plan could lead to a whole host of bad things.

He has an interesting backstory too. A half-Asian, born to a Chinese girl and a German missionary, Dr. No became the treasurer of a Chinese crime syndicate, the Tongs. From them, he stole $10 million and he fled China. He then offered his serves as a scientist to the US and the Soviet Union, both of whom turned him down. He subsequently joined SPECTRE and set out on his plan to topple an American rocket for profit and revenge.

One of the more fascinating things Dr. No does is finish Bond’s character for us by telling us that he believed Bond to be more than “a stupid policeman” and he had hope Bond could join SPECTRE. That tells you that Bond is something truly special if he’s that respected by this organization of super villains. It also tells us something further that Bond shows no interest in the offer. This scene does a lot to lift Bond beyond the level of just being another secret agent.
On the other hand, all is not perfect with Dr. No. He’s one of the first to underestimate Bond. In fact, he seems to have no security whatsoever after having captured this super spy. That makes him a much weaker challenge for Bond than he’s been built up to be. He’s also not a very interesting character on screen. He speaks in monotone and affects being bored by everything. That makes him rather dull to watch. And in the end, he never really has his moment to take on Bond one on one.

So how should this film rank? Well, it’s a fantastic film with a weaker-than-expected, but still solid ending. The villain is great until you meet him. The Bond girl is iconic, but a little dull. Connery is in top form, even if he isn’t yet perfect in the role. And most importantly, this film set the series off to the right start. On the other hand, in terms of the public, this one always plays in discussions of the top film, but rarely wins. Its box office also was surprisingly weak, coming in at 19th.

So where should this film rank? Is it worthy of the top spot? You tell me.
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Thursday, February 13, 2014

Film Friday: The Wiz (1978)

I love the Wizard of Oz, and I often enjoy the remakes. I love blaxploitation films too. And I enjoy musicals a lot. So The Wiz sounds perfect. Heck, how can you go wrong with Michael Jackson, Diana Ross, Lena Horne, Quincy Jones, and Richard Pryor? Well, you can. The Wiz sucks and I marvel that somewhere along the way someone didn’t say, “Wow, we need to change this.”
The Plot
Diana Ross is having a midlife crisis, so she goes outside into the snowy streets of New York after a family dinner. A freak ice-tornado picks her up and dumps her in Oz. In the process of landing, she kills a witch – Evermean. This frees the kids (Munchkins) who Evermean turned into graffiti as punishment for graffiting. They celebrate Evermean’s death and Ross meets Miss One, a good witch and a numbers runner who tells her to follow the yellow brick road and to never take off her silver slippers.
After Ross fails to hail a cab, she finds herself outside a tenement building, where a group of crows are eating corn and hassling a Scarecrow (Michael Jackson) who is stuck on a pole. Ross chases away the crows and helps the Scarecrow to his feet. They dance and move on down the yellow brick road.

Next, they pick up the Tin Man (Nipsy Russell) at an amusement park and the Cowardly Lion (Ted Ross) in front of the New York Public Library. Then they go to the Emerald City, where they see a bunch of sycophants and hookers and finally meet the Wiz (Richard Pryor), who tells them to kill Evillene (Mabel King) if they want their wishes granted. Evillene runs a sweatshop in the sewers of New York and she controls the Flying Monkeys, a motorcycle gang of stinking apes. Ross assassinates Evillene and they return to the Wiz, where they learn he is a fake. Ross then returns home by clicking her heels together.
What Went Wrong... And Wrong... And Wrong
The critics hated The Wiz and audience stayed way from it; it cost $24 million to make and took in only $13 million. And you know what? They were right. This thing is a turd on so many levels. Everything went wrong with this production.

The Songs: A musical lives or dies by its songs, so let’s start with the songs. Put simply, the songs are crap. There are basically two decent songs. One is Michael Jackson singing “Ease on Down the Road,” and one is Mabel King singing “No Bad News.” Both songs are original to the musical, but they do feel like they could have been more than that. Neither is particularly strong, but both are adequate.
The rest of the songs, however, are a total waste. They have basic lyrics with obvious rhyme schemes and no cleverness at all. Neither the music nor the lyrics will surprise you in any way. None of them are memorable and there no moments of little joy of the type that make a song touch your emotions. You can’t even sing along.

Even worse, the lyrics are primitive. In fact, most of these songs are transactional in nature in the sense that they simply convey information to the audience in the most simplistic manner. If a character is evil, they sing, “I’m so bad.” If a character is sad, they sing, “I’m so sad.” When you meet the cowardly lion, he sings, “You better run and hide, I’m a mean old lion.” Yawn. Compare that to the imagery of “Build Me Up Buttercup” or “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Or think of how “Riding Along In My Automobile” takes simple seeming lyrics and steps those up to paint a strong picture that brings you a climax. Now compare that to how the lion’s song continues as Ross encourages him to be brave:
Keep on tryin’ and tryin’ and tryin’
You’re a lion.
Keep tryin’
I’m a lion.
In my own way, I’m a lion.
Nothing. No cleverness. No double meanings or turns of phrases. No imagery you can grab onto. No build up. No payoff. And the few times the lyrics try to be clever, they are jarring and unpleasant. Here is a woman singing how she wears red instead of green because red is the “in” color and green isn’t:
I wouldn’t be caught dead [waaaaay overly-long pause]
And if I’m caught at all [second long pause], then catch me in dead red.
Apart from the two songs mentioned, you won’t remember a single line from the film.
The Choreography: In addition to singing, musicals often include dance numbers which are equally important. Director Sydney Lumet (12 Angry Men) really drops the ball here. For one thing, he repeats imagery. The three “big” numbers each involve him pulling the camera back so you can see about 150 feet across. Then he films as a large number of dancers, all standing equidistant, slowly move in a large circle as if they were a record on a record player. Three times you’ll see this same image repeated.

Further, there is almost no contact during the dancing. The extras essentially spin in place or do generic dance moves without touching each other except for the occasional moment where they touch and separate again. The main characters touch more often, but there’s no togetherness in this. Everyone is basically doing their own independent thing side by side, and that gives the movie a very cold, sterile, distant feeling.

Really, the only exception is Michael Jackson, who does his best to breathe life into the other actors, but they lose whatever life he gives them the moment he separates from them.

The Script: The script is horribly weak. Your first clue to this is that each scene involves the actors gathering together center stage and standing around trying to look busy as all the necessary lines are delivered. What this tells you is that the characters lack motivation, i.e. they are dialog-delivery vehicles and nothing more. And that’s just the beginning of the problems with the writing.
There is little verbal interaction. Essentially the characters read lines at each other rather than communicate, which prevents any sense of relationship. Again, there are no double meanings, no hidden depth, and no verbal cleverness. The word choice is awkward as well. The dialog is a strange mix that feels like an educated white liberal with a thesaurus vocabulary wrote the dialog to appeal to others at his level, but then included the occasional black slang he had seen in other blaxploitation films. The result is characters who sound like accountants and lawyers talking shop, but who will suddenly whip out a very uncomfortable “ghetto” phrase. It feels condescending.

Further, the story itself is weak. Yes, the story is a remake of The Wizard of Oz, but what’s missing here are the motivations. Why does anyone in this film act the way they do? The script offers little more than the characters changing locations, reading a few lines, and then standing there long enough for the current problem to suddenly solve itself. Nothing in this film feels connected. The result is a weak plot, zero character development, and no relationships get built... and you end up not caring about any of them.

One reason this may be the case is that the writer wasn’t nearly as clever as he thought he was. The writer packed the film with symbols that presumably are meant to convey the real meaning of what is going on. The problem is that these are undeveloped. For example, there are cabs that refuse to pick up Dorothy in the several early scenes. This is a “racism” complaint made by black groups, that cabs won’t pick up blacks. Ok, so we are to read “racism” into the film, right... but why? What is the point to including it? There are no whites in this Oz, so who is the allegation made against exactly? And how does it fit into the story? It doesn’t seem to motivate or cause anything. It’s a bit like having a character hold up a picture of Jesus and point at it, only to have the film have nothing to do with religion.
Then you have the fake Wiz living at the World Trade Center, which is presumably some statement about wealth and power. But again, what does this mean? It’s never connected to the world we see. Outside, you have a huge number of sycophants who change the color of their clothes the moment the Wiz declares a new “in” color, which could be a statement against consumerism or peer pressure or perhaps some penchant in the black community to follow their leaders mindlessly... but if it is, you’ll never know because it doesn’t factor into any decisions that get made, it doesn’t motivate any character, and it doesn’t affect the plot. Likewise, there are statements about the existence of graffiti and worthless politicians that mean nothing. There are portrayals too that would normally bring howls of racism (blacks as crows or apes), yet, there is no message attached. In short, none of these symbols means anything.

This is poor writing. When you throw something into a story, it is supposed to have a purpose that helps the audience understand some aspect of the story they wouldn’t otherwise have known. Here things are included without any clues as to why they are included. What the writer has done is essentially take things that blacks in New York City complained about in the 1970s (corrupt politicians, racist cabbies, tenements, etc.) and has included them all without any purpose except to say, “Here’s a list of some things I hear black people talk about.”

This film fails at all levels. Its songs are hopelessly dull and forgettable, which is a real crime considering the talent they had on hand. The choreography creates a vibe that undermines the film. The characters are indifferent or unlikeable. The dialog is conflicted and confused. And the story itself is hollow. That no one caught this is shocking.

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Why I Despise Critics

I was going to write about Stanley Kubrick, but then I saw a quote which struck a nerve. The quote comes from A.O. Scott of the New York Times. Scott is their film critic. And to me, this quote highlights just how sick the critic profession is. Observe.

I've written about this idea before. Our society is packed with cynicism. And nothing is more cynical than film critics. These are people who make their living by finding fault with other people's work. What's more though, an ethos has arisen around their work which suggests that a film critic must be jaded and cynical if they are doing their jobs correctly. This is because they need to project themselves as smarter than everyone else, as attuned to the nuances that normal people miss, and you can't do that if your tastes are seen as common. The problem is that most of them just aren't that deep. They don't get nuance. They have no greater understanding than anyone else. Even experience hasn't enlightened their path like you would expect. So they fake it: they favor films the public will hate and then claim to find deep meaning within them. This is the modern version of "The Emperor's New Clothes."

As a result of this, almost the entire profession worships the negative. They have no praise for comedy, the most difficult type of entertainment requiring the most skill and craft. They have no praise for joy. To the contrary, they dismiss joy as hokey or "sentimental"... as if that were a bad thing. They don't care for love either. What they praise is angst... pain... desperation... the twisted and the depressed. That, to them, is the only true measure of an actor: "Can they make me feel their suffering." It never occurs to them that suffering is easy, and what they mistake for drama is melodrama.

In any event, what a sick soul these people must have to worship at that alter. It reminds me of the people who think religion is about learning who to hate and then spend their timing looking for people to victimize.

Anyway, what triggered this was the following quote from Scott about the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman:
“He had a rare ability to illuminate the varieties of human ugliness. No one ever did it so beautifully.”
Up yours. First, of all, the ugly side of humanity is not beautiful, and if you think it is, then you're an idiot who doesn't understand either good or bad. There is simply no beauty to be found in a bully beating an over-matched victim to a pulp, in a skinhead terrorizing a Jewish or black family, in a child molester destroying a young life, in a thug killing a random victim, or a Soviet work camp for those the state fears. If there is beauty in these moments, it is in those who stand up to the bad and the ugly, it is never in the ugly itself. A-hole.

Secondly, I find it amazing that of Hoffman's entire career, this is how Scott sees him. I first noticed Hoffman in Twister where he played a good guy with a cool hobby, and he always struck me after that as a rather good-natured fellow on screen, even when he was the villain. Sure, he had some creepy roles, but nothing that ever left me thinking, "Wow, I understand evil like I never have before." I don't think he specialized in ugly either. Some of his characters were good, some bad, but his bad was just as often done in action films (Mission Impossible III) where the villain is always a caricature or in comedies (The Big Lebowski) where his "ugly" was hilarious.

I think Scott's quote tells us nothing about Hoffman except that Scott wanted to give him his highest praise, and the fact that this is Scott's highest praise tells us volumes about Scott.

[+]

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Toon-arama: Frozen (2013)

by tryanmax

The latest animated feature from Disney has received enormous praise, and deservedly so. Disney hasn’t quite mastered CGI yet, but they more than make up for it in storytelling prowess. When it comes to serving up a story full of heart, no studio can top them. And this time they’ve really outdone themselves.

** Spoiler Alert **

The Story
My praise begins with the script, as it rightly should. It is compelling, generous and efficient. More after a brief synopsis.

Elsa, princess of Arendelle, has the magical ability to create ice and snow, but she must hide it to prevent causing harm or fear. Her sister, Anna, unknowing of Elsa’s powers, thinks she is responsible for the rift between them and is desperate to make amends. When Elsa reaches the age to take the throne, her emotions get the better of her and her power is unleashed at the coronation. Arendelle is thrust into a perpetual winter as Elsa flees into the mountains and hides herself in an enormous ice palace.
Anna pursues her sister, determined to bring her home and end the winter spell. She finds the palace with the help of a mountain man named Kristoff and Olaf, an enchanted snowman brought to life by Elsa’s magic. Anna begs her sister to return home but Elsa refuses and, in agitation, accidentally strikes Anna with an icy blow to the heart. Without an act of true love to melt it, Anna will turn to ice.

Meanwhile, others intent on destroying Elsa capture her and are set to kill her. Though Anna has fallen in love with Kristoff and believes his kiss will save her, she instead goes to defend her sister. In the same moment that she rescues Elsa, Anna turns to ice. But because her sacrifice was an act of true love, her heart and the rest of her thaw and Elsa learns that love is the key to mastering her gift.

Trust me, that was brief. I’ve found “synopses” for Frozen that are four pages long.
Relationships are the driving force of this story—a narrative essential that is overlooked with alarming frequency. You care about these characters because of the way they care about each other. Yes, action is important, and in this film engaging, but it must be meaningful, and that comes from the characters’ motivations to act. In fact, I only recall two sequences that fell short for me, and they involve bit characters that are basically unmotivated.

The plot is very layered, especially for a children’s movie. I only told you about two of the storylines. There are at least three more. Despite their number, it isn’t the least bit confusing for a couple reasons. First, everything works to the same end, coming together naturally with thrift and at a steady, brisk pace. Second, the character of Olaf is a naïve observer who can state the obvious without it coming off ham-handed, so an adult can laugh at the simplicity of his assertions while a child is gently ushered toward the moral of the story.

The crowning achievement of this film, however is that Disney has finally managed to produce what so many have demanded of them for the longest time: an anti-princess movie. Fairly or unfairly, the specters of Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have hung over every Disney princess of the modern age. I personally feel that those three have been caricatured as less capable than they really were. Still, the ongoing demand is for heroines who are increasingly spirited, independent, and less interested in romance.

While romance still plays a big role in Frozen, the climax of action veritably spits in the eye of “true love’s first kiss.” That, in time, may become a mark against the film, just as the spunky princess who “gets the guy” was ultimately deemed unworthy even as she upended the trope of the prince who gets the girl. Still, I think the focus on sisterly love, an overdue reminder that love isn’t limited only to the romantic sense, is a real narrative coup for Disney.
The Music
Another area where Frozen has received lavish praise is on the music. Disney has taken a slightly different approach to the songs in this film than in previous musical features. Probably owing to the number of films that eventually found their way to Broadway, Disney tapped Broadway songwriters for the musical numbers and filled the cast with veterans of song and stage. The result is a distinctly modern musical sound. It also makes the film seem as though it was adapted from the stage instead of the (very probable) other way around.

The Broadway sound lends an instant familiarity to the music; there are more than a few earworms in the bunch. Having musical theater veterans on both sides ensures that the songs are packed and delivered with dynamism, power and expression. For the most part, the songs propel the plot while being able to stand just as well on their own.

The intro tune, “Frozen Heart” is easy to overlook but does a nice job of setting a Nordic tone for the film. The next song, “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” is absolutely wrenching with its mix of cheer and longing. All that angst is released by “For the First Time in Forever,” a swelling, expository piece that is easily the most “musicalesque” number. The quirky, guitar-strumming duet “Love is an Open Door” is also a stage number that forces a broad smile and is regrettably brief.

The mood turns sharply with “Let it Go,” the show’s triumphant keystone song, sung powerfully by Wicked’s Idina Menzel. (Sorry, Demi Lovato, but you just don’t hold a candle.) This is where Elsa flees and feels free for the first time and is accompanied by spectacular visuals as she builds her ice palace. It arrives a bit early to be an Act I closer, but maybe they’ll work that out before it hits the stage, because it would be perfect.
Another sharp turn comes with “Reindeer(s) are Better than People,” a faux-duet novelty. It is little more than an extended one-liner set to music that is predictable and oh, so worth it. The introduction of Olaf the snowman leads into “In Summer,” another humorous piece (basically, Olaf longs for summer) that sets up a running gag for the rest of the show.

The only song I don’t care for is “Fixer Upper.” It feels contrived and formulaic, like it is trying too hard to be cute. But you can’t win ‘em all.

The Animation
This is the only aspect that offers a mixed bag. The animation certainly does not deserve a thumbs-down, but Disney doesn’t hold the mastery over CGI that they hold over hand-drawn animation. There is something of an unfair comparison embedded in that critique, but that’s a topic for another day.

You may have heard some slight controversy over the two main characters’ design, that they looked too much like Rapunzel from Tangled. Below is a comparison; I’ll let you be the judge.
Frankly, Disney has never labored toward diversity of appearance for its animated ingénues. The hand-drawn ladies all have acorn-shaped faces and tiny pencil-flick noses. This is par for the course. Plus, such criticisms conveniently overlook Merida from Brave.

The real disaster of character design is Olaf. Don’t get me wrong. I love the character, he’s adorable. And I understand the need to make a snowman who looks unique. But, really. Look at him.
Otherwise, the character designs are well done. There is nothing terribly original about any of them, but the characters look like Disney characters. The animation itself is not quite there yet. It is fluid (rarely a problem for CGI) but there is something robotic and weightless about some of it. It is not distracting, at least, no more than the visible sketch lines in Disney’s rush-projects of yesteryear. It is merely a sign that there is work to be done.

Conversely, the settings are magnificent. The backdrop of the Norwegian fjords is beautifully rendered, as are the snowy mountains. The kingdom of Arendelle is replete with quaint Nordic flourishes, and the CGI technology is really in its element as we witness the formation of Elsa’s ice palace.

Frozen is a huge win for Disney and it shows just how the company can compete and lead in the CGI arena. They delivered what people expect, a strong narrative, enjoyable music, and colorful characters. To keep moving forward, they only need to stick to those along with some technical ironing and, of course, a little luck.
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