Sundry information, thoughts and links to sort us out

Saturday, December 26, 2009


My favorite movie of all time - Fellini's 8 & 1/2 - was the best foreign film of 1963. A black and white visual masterpiece, it's in Italian (and some French, German, and English) with subtitles. It tells the story of Guido, a film director, and his difficulties making the movie he's currently working on. It has long been lauded as a masterwork.

So, of course, someone decided to add songs and adapt it into a Broadway show. And, of course, that stage musical had to be brought to the silver screen. Thus, Nine.

Here is Guido, working on another broad picture with his famous leading lady (an interesting reference to Fellini's frequently working with his wife, Giulietta Masina?). The press is hounding him, his last two films were "flops" and here he is trying to bring another grandiose concept to the screen. He's freaked out, stressed out, tired out, and just plain down and out. So he skips out of the press conference and drives to a spa to get away from it all. He calls his wife, but doesn't tell her where he is, and instead calls his mistress and invites her to come down to the spa. In the meantime, his producer has found him and brought the entire production office to town so they can finish the movie on time. Needless to say, this does not help Guido de-stress. Then his wife arrives.

All of this is very similar to 8 & 1/2, often line for line and shot for shot, but, as Bruce pointed out, it's not the same movie. There are differences in character realization and plot development. Some characters are not in the movie at all, others have been morphed into someone only similar. Some scenes never happen, some are condensed into other scenes, or only referred to briefly.

Nine moves a lot faster than 8 & 1/2, I kept noticing that throughout the movie. Part of it is the condensation and the whittling down of the cast to fewer characters. Of course, bursting into song is also the tried and true method of advancing the plot, encouraging major character development, and letting the audience into the characters' heads -- all of which helps explicate and expedite the story.

So, I mentioned that 8 & 1/2 is my favorite movie, right? I love the intricate layers upon layers of action going on. I love the dialog and the amazing hyperbole it contains. Most of all, I love the ending - you've built up to it all along, and when it comes it's like the perfect bow on the present. Nine is like the other path diverging in the famous yellow wood - while Fellini & I take the one less traveled by, everyone else is on the one with a guard rail and signs. I didn't dislike the movie - there were some musical numbers I really liked, and some great shots - but I really felt like it was a watered-down version made for American audiences who are afraid of subtitles and just want everything spelled out for them. Bruce loved it, btw.

The Road

Based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, The Road is the story of a man and his son and their struggle to survive. There has been a cataclysmic event which has sunk the Earth into conditions similar to nuclear winter. All we know about the event is that "The clocks stopped at one seventeen one morning. There was a long shear of bright light, then a series of low concussions." No one appears to have any deformities, so it doesn't seem like the event actually was nuclear, but that is really immaterial to the movie.

The man and his son are traveling south, trying to find someplace warmer, some place with food, some place safe. As they go, they encounter resistance in the forms of difficulties, obstacles, and bad people. But it's not all darkness, they have good moments along the road, too, finding a bomb shelter full of food, a house where they can bathe, a grandfatherly man who travels with them for a bit. Through it all, flashback sequences show us the time before the catastrophe, and the early days of the boy's life. Those memories give the film a bit of a time frame, the viewer knows, roughly, that the world has been in distress for the boy's entire life, which helps explain the amount of desolation and despair.

So, The Road came out in limited release back in November, it finally came to NC last week and landed in only 2 area theaters - both of them art houses. We expected good things. We didn't get them. Sure, Viggo Mortensen is a great actor, there are many other good performances in the film, the cinematographer obviously went to a lot of effort to get the stark, startling shots. But the movie is just flat, imho. So, they need to go south - why'd it take them 10 years to make up their minds to do so? What are they really going to find when they get there? Do they really think it will make a difference? And why are we supposed to care?

The movie unfolds exactly the way you'd expect it to, you really don't have to think about it. I spent most of my time wondering why nobody just went into town and knocked off a Payless store - I have about a dozen pairs of shoes in my closet right now, I gotta think they would last me 10 years (some of them already have!), I wouldn't be wearing bags on my feet like the characters were, I don't think. When you have time to think about crazy stuff like that, something is not succeeding in the film. While I suspect there is a strong message about environmental consciousness and man's inhumanity to man, it didn't translate from the book to the screen.

Also, definitely not a Moms Movie.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas 2009!

Even though it's a rainy day in NC, the Christmas spirit is still shining. We had a wonderful morning opening presents together and chatting by phone with loved ones back in the Midwest. No matter where you are, dear readers, we hope you are spending your day surrounded by those who are dear to you, enjoying love and laughter.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


A live-action and CGI 3-D extravaganza, Avatar, is the story of disabled Marine veteran Jake Sully and how one assignment changes his life. Jake's twin brother was a scientist working on a project which combined human and alien DNA to create "avatars" which the humans could then use in the colonization of the planet Pandora. The avatars would give the humans the ability to interact with the native Na'vi population on the planet. Jake's brother dies unexpectedly before he is able to complete the project and, as his twin thus having the same DNA, Jake is offered the chance to take his brother's place.

Going in I was leery. I am not a big fan of director James Cameron, nor do I like Sigourney Weaver, who is one of the stars. The early TV commercials made this look more like a video game than a movie (there already is a game version out, btw). So, I wasn't really psyched. Well, the plot is very predictable, the acting is all right, but the visuals are what really sell the film. There are a couple of points where the 3-D effect is distracting - makes you feel like you're on one of those cutesy rides at an amusement park - but the rest of the time it's just splendid. Also, the movie is 2 hours and 40 minutes long, but does not feel like it at all. Even though you know what's going to happen, you're sufficiently engaged in the action (oh, and there are some fabulous action sequences, too!) that the time just flies by.

I hate to say it, but this is probably another movie that is not one our mothers should see. Everyone else, however, Oscar is going to be looking very hard at this contender and you need to see it on the big screen in 3-D, so get thee to a cinema!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reel Recap 2009

So, apparently I have not posted a movie review (other than Buckaroo Bonzai) since Watchmen back in March! Oy. And we've actually caught quite a few movies overall this year. So, in the interest of time, here is a brief synopsis/review of all the other films we've seen so far.

The International stars Clive Owen as an Interpol agent trying to expose the titular bank's role in backing international arms dealers. Basically, this movie falls into what is fast becoming one of our new favorite film genres - the S/He's Pretty and Stuff Blows Up genre, except that this time mostly stuff gets *shot* up, not blown up. While we really like Clive, and we had a good time watching the crazy chase scenes and stuff, mostly this isn't even a "popcorn flick." There's a big action sequence that takes place in the Guggenheim, and it really looks like the whole movie was developed around the idea of "hey, how about we have a gunfight in the Guggenheim?" The most telling thing about this film is that the next day we watched X-Files: I Want To Believe, and Bruce said that film was more realistic than The International.

Duplicity stars Julia Roberts and Clive Owen as a pair of corporate spies, working for different agencies, who hook up in a complex plan to double-cross both their bosses and end up with a big enough payoff to retire together. As you can probably guess, this movie also falls into that aforementioned genre, but it was a heck of a lot better! There are flashback sequences, from both points of view, which work to explain the backstory, and throughout the film the twists and turns of the intricate plan wind around each other so much that it is difficult to figure out what they're actually up to, and who knew what and when. But it is so well written and acted that the movie is a delight to watch and the denoument is great. Too violent a movie for our moms, but anybody else wanting a fun afternoon, rent this.

Star Trek JJ Abrams reboots the franchise magnificently in this prequel. I had my doubts going in: young Kirk and young Spock, all new CGI effects, a well-established many chances to totally blow it. Oh, but folks, I was sold and weeping before the opening credits! Okay, I did keep waiting for Zachary Quinto (Spock) to lapse into his other famous role (Sylar from Heroes) and start killing people to absorb their powers, and Simon Pegg (Scotty) was a little too comic at points, but all in all, this is a really brilliant revision. They take the obvious out for tinkering with the timeline (alternate universe), but it's well enough done not to seem hokey, IMHO. Seriously, this was a great film - another one not right for our moms, but we're looking forward to seeing how they continue the franchise revamp.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine stars Hugh Jackman and the rest of the X-Men cast in another prequel attempting to refresh a franchise. Sadly, this does not succeed as well Star Trek. The movie tells the story of how Logan came to be the mutant Wolverine. It also has him crossing paths with my favorite X-Man - Gambit - in New Orleans back in the day. Unfortunately, the story is hokey and campy and the acting mostly matches - lots of scenery chewing! Liev Schreiber as Sabertooth is probably the best part, actually, he's got great lines and delivers them well. Of course, Hugh is also super hot. Other than that, not the worst comic book movie I've seen....

Angels & Demons Tom Hanks returns as Professor Robert Langdon, the expert on early Christian symbolism. This time the Vatican calls for his help when a group suspected of being the infamous Illuminati captures four cardinals during the conclave assembling to elect a new pope. As before, Professor Langdon, aided by a beautiful woman, has to decipher clues and codes from ancient manuscripts to solve the riddle before a deadline is reached - in this case, the death of the kidnapped cardinals. Maybe it was the fact that I hadn't read the book first, but I actually enjoyed this one more than The DaVinci Code. I did not figure it out before it ended, and I liked seeing places in Rome, which I haven't visited in nearly 20 years. That said, it was still a rather basic movie. The National Treasure series is probably more fun, although Angels & Demons was enjoyable.

Sunshine Cleaning stars Amy Adams as Rose, a single mother who supports her young son and aging father by working as a Merry Maid-type contract household cleaner. She's dating her high school sweetheart, who is married to someone else. He's a police detective and, after going on a job, suggests to Rose that she become a crime scene cleaner because they make more money. At first, she's offended, but circumstances arise and Rose decides to give it a go. She partners with her sister, Norah, and they create their own business. This is a great little character-driven film! It's got some gross points, as the subject matter would indicate, but overall it is just a well-written, well-acted, slice-of-life movie, the kind you're just glad you found at the cinema. Probably not safe for moms, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Oscar give this little gem some attention.

Up This animated film tells the story of Carl and Ellie. They meet as children when they are both fans of arctic explorer Charles Muntz, but they soon discover other common bonds. They grow up as best friends, get married, and live happily ever after. Until, as an old woman, Ellie becomes sick and dies. Alone, Carl is faced with the city wanting to tear down his house to build a mall, and trying to move him into a retirement community. He decides to finally fulfill his and Ellie's dream of traveling where their explorer idol had gone. He attaches helium balloons to his house and lifts it right off the foundations, steering it towards South America. Adventures ensue. Folks, this movie is so much more than the synopsis, more than the commercials advertised, it is just awesome. Don't go expecting a "kiddie movie" or thinking that, because it's made by Pixar, it's going to be just cutesy, but do see it. This is one of the best movies of the year, and quite likely the Best Animated Feature winner come February.

Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp as John Dillinger during the last years of his life. As the country is struggling to come out of the Great Depression, the government is seeking strengthen its position as protector and is developing the FDIC and the FBI. Dillinger's path obviously crosses these nascent organizations. Filmed on location in Chicago and environs, among other locales, and featuring a pretty impressive cast in addition to Johnny, this movie was on my radar for months! It's pretty, it's well acted overall, it's got a fascinating story...but, it's not all that and a bag of chips, sadly. They compress and alter the history to fit in a feature film length, some of the acting is terrible, it really just goes out with a fizzle - kind of like Fourth of July fireworks that you think are going to blossom into big designs in the sky, but instead end up just doing little poofs of color. Disappointing.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is the screen version of Book 6 of the series. In this installment, Lord Voldemort has taken flesh, assembled his henchmen, and begun his attack on both the muggle and the wizarding worlds. Meanwhile, at Hogwarts under intense security measures, school is continuing and Harry has picked up an old copy of the potions textbook which has helpful notes in the margins. At the same time, Professor Dumbledore has discovered that Voldemort created Horcruxes, items of great magical power as they possess a portion of the creating wizard's soul; as long as one of these items survives the wizard, s/he can be resurrected. Dumbledore enlists Harry's aid in finding and destroying these items. Harry, however, is still a typical 16 year-old boy, and has just realized he is in love with Ron's sister, Jinny, who has loved him from the start. A lot of goings-on during a time of war! Too much, in fact, to fit into a 2 & 1/2 hour movie. That's the biggest problem with the film, it becomes really obvious where they've begun to quickly condense the story, especially if you've read the book. Also, they alter a couple of important plot points that will come up again in Book 7, so it will be interesting to see how they account for those changes. All in all, an okay film, but the book was better.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is a remake of the 1974 movie of the same name. This time starring Denzel Washington as the subway dispatcher and John Travolta as the leader of the group hijacking the titular train. Demands are made and a deadline is set, if it is not met, Travolta and his men will begin killing passengers on the train. Behind the scenes, a desperate race is going on as both men attempt to get information they can use as leverage against the other - Washington in hopes of diffusing the situation, Travolta as a guarantee against his demands and his future freedom. It's your basic thriller, but it is well done, intriguing, and lots of fun.

District 9 Aliens arrive in a spaceship hovering over South Africa in 1982. 28 years later they are living in refugee camps, which are barely more than militarized ghettos, they have no rights and are living in squalor. The situation has deteriorated sufficiently that a large corporation is enlisted to evict them and "clean up the mess." What follows is not what you expect. The movie is shot documentary style and has a very realistic feel to it. The acting is very good, the story takes some unexpected turns. This is a movie that it is better if you don't know too much going in, just know that it is great. Sorry, moms, definitely not one for you, however.

Where the Wild Things Are is the story of how young Max escapes his day-to-day life, where he feels unappreciated, and finds the world Where The Wild Things Are. In order to bring the children's book to the big screen, they had to add a lot of story to fill time, but they did a good job of dovetailing it into the story of the book. The film is a visual masterpiece with amazing costuming and effects that made it worth seeing in the theater. The boy cast as Max does a great job - my favorite part was how they made his knitted winter hat in the "real world" sequence have points like his monster pajama ears! The rest of the cast is good, it was a little odd hearing familiar voices come out of the Wild Things characters, though. The director made a conscious choice to shoot the film as if you're seeing through the eyes of a child - there is a lot of hand-held camera work, and the angles are shot low to high, it can get a little "Blair Witch" at times, in fact. Go into it with the nostalgia you have from the book, and a desire to see amazing visual realization and effects, and you'll enjoy it.

Rifftrax: Plan 9 From Outer Space This was a special opportunity we just couldn't pass up! Rifftrax is a group comprised of folks originally part of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the guys who made fun of lousy movies on Saturday morning cable-access TV. Plan 9 From Outer Space is purported to be the worst sci-fi film of all time...and it is pretty bad. Aliens come to Earth and create zombies and vampires from our dead to prevent us from making a solar-powered bomb. Bela Lugosi, who is one of the leads, died during the filming and director Ed Wood used the same clips of him over and over in the final film, along with getting his doctor (who looked nothing like Lugosi) to play him in the rest of his scenes. It just gets worse from there. Now, add in the guys who took snarkiness to a new level when it comes to trash-talking movies, and you've got a gold mine! The best part? It was a live, nationwide simulcast with the cast on stage in Nashville and uplinked to select theaters across the country! Hilarity so totally ensued. Just don't drink your entire large super soda before the film!

The Twilight Saga: New Moon is the sequel to the wildly popular teen vampire flick Twilight. Bella and Edward are still young and in love. As they attempt to figure their relationship out, reality intrudes - Bella is mortal, and tasty, and not all of Edward's family can control their thirst for blood. Instead, the entire clan leaves town, leaving Bella brokenhearted. In the meantime, the vampire bounty hunter returns for her, and in so doing triggers Bella's childhood friend, Jacob, to turn into a werewolf. Jacob is also in love with Bella and has been using the opportunity of Edward's absence to try and win her, an attempt he abandons when he becomes a lycan. Which leaves Bella, still mourning Edward's departure, now feeling completely alone. Worry not, it all ends well, although the characters do have a lot of hoops to jump through to get there. This film was a lot of fun, I had heard that it was better than the first, and it may have been. We had a good time, despite the Gaggle of Giggling Girls sitting down front cooing every time one of the favorites came on screen. Sometimes, a good teen vampire/werewolf flick is just what you're in the mood for!

And now it's December and lots of movies are beginning to come out in anticipation of Oscar nods. I think I'll be spending a bunch of my holiday vacation time in the cinema.