Saturday, December 31, 2011
Top Movies of 2011
Captain America: The First Avenger
Among Marvel Studio's run of contributions to comic book movies, Captain America is easily one of the best. With a great cast and a greater emphasis on the title hero's original time period, this film provides a great balance of action, comedy, and drama to stand as one which all Superhero movies should aspire to be. If other studios took notes from this, then the comic book movie would definitely blossom into a much more widespread and competent genre than it is now.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
If you're like me and have read the Harry Potter series of books since you were a child, then you were no doubt looking forward to seeing this movie for years. As an adaptation and continuation, it sticks very closely to the book and yet manages to make the final fight against the powerful Voldemort even more of a spectacle worthy of cinema. It served as a fitting conclusion to the franchise, save for perhaps the epilogue, and I'm very happy to be able to say my final goodbye to the boy who lived.
Kung Fu Panda 2
As one of the few movies from Dreamworks Animation that feels worthy of being called a movie, Kung Fu Panda 2 shows just what the studio is capable of creating without stuffing a film with dated pop cultural references. In addition it stands as a great modern martial arts flick, with plenty of over the top action and lore to keep the action fan in you satisfied, combined with a great blend of humor and character development to leave you wanting more.
As a black & white silent film, The Artist sticks out among every other movie released in the past few decades. When viewing it as a movie in general, it is a masterpiece of cinema that lets the audience learn not only what life was like for stars during the transition from silent films to talkies in the earlier days of Hollywood, but also that sometimes a movie doesn't need to be filled to the brim with special effects and sound to be enjoyable. It is one of the few films I have ever cried at as much as I did during one especially emotional scene and also one of the few that gave me time to actually care about what happened to the characters onscreen. I would encourage anyone interested in this era of film making to watch this masterful throwback to a time where less was more.
Top Video Games of 2011
Batman: Arkham City
For a studio with only two other games under their belt, it is very clear how passionate Rocksteady is about Batman. With an absolutely powerful script penned by Paul Dini, fantastic performances by Mark Hamill and Kevin Conroy, improved combat, and plenty of incentive to explore the titular city, Batman: Arkham City is a game that literally no one with a gaming system should pass up. For me personally, it stands as a great contender for the best video game I have ever played, though it is safe to say I feel that way regarding Superhero games in general.
Dead Space 2
While Dead Space 2 may reside in a genre I would normally avoid, it managed to build up the right atmosphere and tension to get me sucked into the action onscreen. Having to retrain yourself to shoot the limbs instead of the head also brings out the player's more tactical side in a great effort to stay alive in space. If more games like this and Bulletstorm existed to help introduce more variety in this fashion, then there would probably be more worthy single player campaigns out there for the FPS genre today.
While the original Portal was a very short game, it also provided plenty of entertainment to make repeat trips into Aperture Science enjoyable every single time. For the sequel, Valve Software managed not only to retain what made the first one fun, they made the overall experience even better. From expert integration of Cross-console Co-op to wildly fun new game mechanics, there is hardly anything this game gets wrong.
Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
As action games continue to set the bar in video games, the Uncharted franchise will continue to vault over it. Drake's Deception not only defines what is possible to display on PS3, but also sets a new limit on how many setpiece moments you can put in a game without taking away from an outstanding plot and characters. While at least one mechanic hiccups despite improvements to combat, there is a lot to like about Uncharted 3 for PS3 owners, even if the series is just starting to feel a little formulaic at its core.
Top Disappointments of 2011
Right off the heels of Toy Story 3, Cars 2 is a perfect example of what happens when you make a sequel with the sole purpose of selling more merchandise. This movie is not only a drastic drop in quality from most of Pixar's earlier works, it takes a swan dive through every spy movie cliche imaginable and heads straight toward the number in the title. Hopefully their next project, Brave, will restore faith in Pixar enough to help audiences pretend this one never existed.
While I hadn't been looking forward to this film as much as I did the ones coming out from Marvel Studios, I at least wanted to see if Warner Bros. could help satiate my interest in Superhero movies in between releases. Unfortunately, the overemphasis on loud visuals and constant exposition seemed to really make this the blackest night for its genre in 2011.
Assassin's Creed: Revelations
I wanted to like Assassin's Creed: Revelations after my buildup of playing every other game, really I did. But when you take the increased emphasis on Multiplayer, abysmally incorporated Den Defense, and zero incentive to take advantage of bomb crafting into account, it creates a game that, while more enjoyable than Brotherhood, almost looks like a mess when you look at the big picture. With 2012 comes a new protagonist to the Assassin's Creed franchise, and hopefully one whose story isn't nearly forgotten in the pursuit of attracting the multiplayer crowd.
In no particular order:
While this is in some ways a novelty: a modern black and white silent film shot in the 1.33 aspect, this is really a very good movie. Set in Hollywood at the time silent films gave way to sound, it tells the story of two stars whose paths cross, as one goes to the top of the heap and the other falls into obscurity.
Based on an award winning book, the film tells the story of an orphaned boy left on his own in a major Parisian railway station, who is obsessed with fixing an automaton that his father had found in a museum. His quest for parts puts him into contact with an old man who owns a toy shop in the station, who happens to be the great French silent film director, George Méliés. A departure from most of the films Martin Scorsese has made, this is a film that both entertains and inspires.
MIDNIGHT IN PARIS
Woody Allen continues his tour of European capitals and this may be one his better efforts of late. In typical Allen fashion, the film has many stars, but none of them outshine the script or the direction. This is a fantasy film like few others and shows that the writer/director still has some magic left.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER
While I am normally dismissive of summer blockbusters, this is perhaps one of the best comic book based movies ever and certainly the best one since SPIDER-MAN 2. After the mini-disaster of THOR, this film points the way to what should be an exciting series of AVENGER films.
An interesting and beautifully rendered take on the animated film, RANGO is a modern western, starring the voice of Johnny Depp. Clever and funny, the film manages to rise above the normal animated films and aims at a more mature audience than expect from Nickelodeon.
Biggest Film Disappointments of 2011
In no particular order:
It wasn’t so much the film as it was the presentation. This is was the nadir of my 3-D film experiences and was almost a cure. There are a lot of industry insiders that think viewers are idiots for complaining about 3-D, after all we see in 3-D and don’t get headaches. But they never have to sit through too dark to comprehend presentations, either.
SUPER 8 and THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN
I guess we’re supposed to be overly impressed whenever Steven Spielberg works with another director. However, the sum is oftentimes much smaller than the parts. That was true of these two films. SUPER 8 presented yet another can’t kill space alien from J.J. Abrams and TINTIN, Spielberg's teaming with Peter Jackson, makes one wonder why this thin story was made and why it was made as motion capture. What’s the old saying about too many cooks?
This is what you get for blindly supporting Pixar. The little studio that never seems to miss is way off target with this little abomination, designed solely it seems to sell toys. For the first time I’m worried that maybe John Lasseter and his folks have gotten a little too big for their creative britches. They seem to be fully engulfed by Disney consumerism, which of late has been merchandising over storytelling.
While not a bad film per say, one wonders why it was made at all. This is an example of lazy filmmaking. It is sad when Hollywood can’t be more original than making remakes and sequels. Sometimes there is something wrong with the original film that a remake corrects, see last year’s TRUE GRIT. But that wasn’t the case here. At the end of this year there are reports that film attendance was down. Maybe if Hollywood was more original, then the audience would be more willing to come back to the theaters.
Méliès, and it also gives a nice emotional story that is very unforgettable. The 3D adds a sense of depth to the environments, as well as some of the scenes themselves, and sometimes it's really cool to see very intricately placed automaton parts work in motion.
Honorable Mentions of 2011 (Things I Did Not Review, But Deserve Mention)
Thursday, December 29, 2011
THE ARTIST (2011) Starring: Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, John Goodman, James Cromwell, Missi Pyle, Penelope Ann Miller, Malcolm McDowell. Directed by Michel Hazanavicius. Written by Michel Hazanavicius. Produced by Thomas Langman. Run Time: 100 minutes. Black and White. France. Silent, Romantic, Comedy, Drama.
The silent era of filmmaking has been the subject of two extraordinary films in 2011: HUGO and THE ARTIST. Both deal with how the change in public tastes and expectations affect early filmmakers and stars. HUGO poignantly touches on the real life story of George Méliés. THE ARTIST on the other hand, tells a story reminiscent of WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD? (1932). In that film, Constance Bennett stars as Mary Evans, an aspiring actress who meets, falls in love with and who’s career eventually eclipses that of director Maximillan Carey (Lowell Sherman).
In Michel Hazanavicius’s brilliant film, set at the end of the silent movie era, aspiring actress Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) turns a chance encounter with swashbuckling actor George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) into a career path. Valentin has just premiered his latest Kinograph film, The Russian Affair, to an excited audience. A mixture of Douglas Fairbanks and Gene Kelly, Valentin has an ego that is as big as the silver screen. The word ham comes to mind as he milks the applause of the audience for all its worth by dancing for them and playing with his dog co-star, before finally bringing out, and then quickly leading off, his female lead Constance (Missi Pyle). Outside the theater, the news photographers, what we now call paparazzi, take photo after photo of the star, when out of the crowd accidentally tumbles Peppy Miller. Swept up in the hoopla, she poses and preens for the camera, even landing a kiss on the always smiling actor’s cheek. The photo lands on the front page of Variety under the headline asking Who’s That Girl?
The photo and the story rub both Valentin’s wife Doris (Penelope Ann Miller) and his boss, Al Zimmer (John Goodman) the wrong way. Doris, who really never has much to do in this film other than be dissatisfied, doesn’t like seeing her husband kissing another woman and Zimmer doesn’t like the fact that the story pushed publicity for The Russian Affair off the front page. Meanwhile, Peppy is just happy to see her photo in print. She even brags to another one of the extras waiting to be cast (Malcolm McDowell) about it. And though she is cast, Zimmer recognizes her and fires her off the set, only to be overruled by Valentin who wants Peppy to stay. Rather than lose face, Zimmer leaves the set.
During a lull in filming, Peppy goes to Valentin’s dressing room and there is a bit of business with his trademark tux jacket that would be worthy of any silent comedy. When Valentin returns, he catches her in mid self-caress. Playing the part of mentor, Valentin suggests she use a drawn on beauty mark as a way of distinguishing herself from the other actresses. The beauty mark will not only become her trademark, but will also be the name of one of her first starring films, reminiscent of The It Girl for Clara Bow and Platinum Blonde for Jean Harlow. There is a smoldering attraction between the two, which gets derailed when Clifton (James Cromwell), Valentin’s faithful chauffer and manservant returns from a shopping trip to buy something for Valentin to give Doris.
Over the next two years, we see Peppy’s career ascend as she moves up the billing block, while Valentin stays a star making The German Affair. It is interesting that every time we see Valentin walking he is usually headed downstairs and Miller is always shown going up on the same set. Then, in 1929, everything changes in Hollywood with the coming of the talkies. As was the case for many silent stars, most notably John Gilbert, sound meant the end of their career. Valentin, who refuses to even attempt a talkie, is fired by Kinograph and ventures into forming his own production company, making and paying for his own jungle adventure film, Tears of Love. Meanwhile Peppy is one of the rising young stars at the studio and in Hollywood. Tears of Love are slated to open opposite Beauty Spot on October 25th. Only days before the release of his film, Valentin is also hit hard by the collapse of Wall Street. He is wiped out unless Tears of Love is a success. No one is surprised when it isn’t. Adding insult to injury, Doris decides to kick Valentin out that same night, giving him two weeks to move out his memorabilia.
Broke and down on his luck, Valentin becomes a drunk, pawning whatever he can to buy another bottle. Even though he hasn’t paid Clifton for over a year, the chauffer stands by his down on his luck boss, having to be fired before he leaves. Totally broke, Valentin sells everything he has, save his films, at auction. Everything is purchased by a mysterious man, who we quickly learn works for Peppy. By 1932, Valentin sits alone watching his old movies while he drinks himself into greater depression. Suddenly, feeling sorry for himself, he goes on a rant and decides in a whimsy to burn all his old films. Valentin is only saved when his dog runs for a policeman, in a scene out of every TV episode of Lassie. Before passing out from the smoke, Valentin grabs one reel of film back from the flames.
When Peppy learns of his plight, she rushes to his hospital bed, the canister of film that had to be pried from his hands nearby. When she looks at it, she sees it is from the first film she had made with him. Touched, she takes him home to convalesce. Trying to help him, she blackmails Zimmer into bringing Valentin back for another film with her. Clifton, who is now working for Miller, delivers the script to Valentin’s bed. But rather than take the hand out, the actor’s pride is too great. Discovering that Miller has all of his memorabilia stored in her house, he leaves with his dog back to his small apartment. He is intent on committing suicide. Again, this is reminiscent of the situation in What Price Hollywood? But in this case, Miller arrives in time. Driving like a mad woman through the streets of Hollywood, she has many near misses, but ultimately hits the tree in front of his apartment. The Bang the car makes stops Valentin who literally has the gun in his mouth at the time. Reunited with Miller, Valentin suddenly has a resurgence of vigor.
Having gone to the edge he lets Peppy pull him back from the precipice. But still he refuses to talk in films. Instead, she hits upon the idea of his dancing in the film, something she has seen him do on his own many times. In the last scene we see Zimmer watching them go through their routine. Valentin is back and Miller is by his side.
In much the same way The Wizard of Oz used color to distinguish Kansas from Oz, Hazanavicius uses sound. It is subtle throughout most of the movie. When Valentin dreams about not being able to talk at all, we hear the sounds of a drop of water, the laughter of extras, even a floating feather makes a whump when it finally lands. Everything makes noise, except Valentin. At the end of the film, we finally hear everyone talking, even Valentin. Like its star, the film finally moves into the realm of sound and we know there is no going back.
There are few things not to like about THE ARTIST. The casting for the most part is superb. Bejo especially looks like she could have been a flapper girl and early sound star. She is right for the era they are trying to pay homage to. I’m never surprised when John Goodman ends up in some offbeat film and his turn as movie mogul Zimmer seems to be based on cutthroat moguls like Louis B. Mayer. Goodman’s best scene is when he lets Valentin go as the studio gears up to make only sound films. Zimmer tells his star that the two of them belong to a different time, but as it turns out only one of them is going to stay.
I was surprised to see how many actors and actresses were willing to take such small parts in a small film. James Cromwell as Clifton and Penelope Ann Miller as Doris have little to do, though both characters they play are important to the plot. Malcolm McDowell has perhaps the skimpiest of parts. I’m not sure if he even warranted a title card when his unnamed character and Peppy interacted. Bit actors, like Joel Murray (best known as TV actor) and Bill Fagerbakke (perhaps best known as the voice of Patrick on Spongebob) both play policemen. My hat is off to all of the actors who participated in the film because they added to its atmosphere.
Speaking of bit parts, I would be remiss not to mention the Dog played by Uggie. This mutt can certainly do it all. Not only is he loyal to his down on his luck owner, but he is great for comic relief and is used for that throughout the film.
Despite this being a French film, it was shot in Los Angeles and locales, such as the Bradbury Building and the Orpheum Theater, are used to give THE ARTIST an appropriate period feel. Sad to say it took a French filmmaker to show interest in this fascinating time in Hollywood history, but perhaps because he was an outsider, Hazanavicius tried hard to get it right and he succeeded. I fear that a Hollywood film company might have shot the L.A. scenes somewhere else to save money.
There are few things that Hazanavicius uses as a convenience. For example, when Miller examines the reel that Valentin saved from the fire by holding it up to the light, it happens to be the outtakes of their first scene together. And while I’m no expert on the history of Variety, I don’t think it was ever such a gossip rag as to let a sidewalk kiss dominate the entire front page, the way it does in the movies. And I’m pretty sure that movie stars rarely actually owned the animals they used in the movies. But this is truly quibbling on my part and I know it.
THE ARTIST is the right film if you love Hollywood history, love films about films or just love a good story well told. As we come to the end of the year and to the official start of Awards season in tinsel town, THE ARTIST should be in the running for every award possible and should be at or near the top of everyone’s list of best films of the year.
Friday, December 23, 2011
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE (1946) Starring: James Stewart, Donna Reed, Lionel Barrymore, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Travers, Beulah Bondi, Ward Bond, Frank Gaylen, and Gloria Grahame. Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, Frank Capra. Produced by Frank Capra. Run Time: 130 minutes. Black and White. U.S. Drama, Christmas.
In many ways, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is an odd choice as a holiday classic. At its kernel, the story revolves around a desperate man who is contemplating suicide on Christmas Eve. Further, the film when initially released was far from a big success.
In many ways, it is the fact that the film lapsed into public domain that it has become a classic. For a few years there, before the copyright got straightened out, the film was shown on every channel possible. If it was Christmas, seven or eight channels were showing IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. But while that made the film accessible, the story has to be compelling to garner repeat business and IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is worthy of repeated viewings.
George Bailey (James Stewart) is an unhappy man. Time and time again, he has had to put his dreams aside for the sake of his family, the sake of the customers and employees of the Bailey Brothers Building and Loan (think Savings and Loan). He is a man that always dreamt big, but always had to be pragmatic. He didn’t want to, but he got married, bought a house, had kids and in short settled down. And what has giving up on his dreams gotten him? Suddenly on Christmas Eve, he is wanted by the bank examiner and a warrant has been issued for his arrest. He faces scandal, bankruptcy and jail. All seems lost.
With the prayers of the people of Bedford Falls for one George Bailey, prompt the heavens to take action. In a long bit of exposition, for the benefit of the angel being sent to help him, we’re told George’s story. As a young boy, George (Bobby Anderson), saves Harry, his younger brother, after he falls through the ice on a frozen pond. Saving his brothers’ life causes George some problems with his ear. This problem is exasperated by druggist Mr. Gower (H.B. Warner) who smacks his soda jerk/delivery boy when he thinks he has been late with an important delivery. But the boy, knowing Gower’s mental state after hearing about the death of his son in the war, believes he has put poison in the prescription. Because of this abuse, George is now deaf in his left ear.
But even then, we meet Henry F. Potter (Lionel Barrymore). Bedford Falls is his town. What he doesn’t own outright, he otherwise controls. When young George tries to seek out his father Peter’s (Samuel S. Hinds) advice, he is in a meeting with Potter who is trying to shut down the building and loan. This game of David and Goliath goes on throughout the movie. Potter is against the rinky-dink Building and Loan, even though he is on the board of directors, and is sort of a villain to the entire Bailey clan.
Next we see George (James Stewart) as an adult man getting ready to go to college after having worked four years at the Building and Loan to save up enough money. One fateful night, George goes to Harry’s (Todd Karns) high school party. There George gets reacquainted with Mary (Donna Reed) a girl he has known, but largely ignored, all his life. It is obvious that the two of them have fallen in love. Just when George is about to make his move, Harry and Uncle Billy (Thomas Mitchell) drive up and tell him that his father has had a stroke.
After George works to restore the company after his father dies, Potter motions the board to shut it down. They only vote against him, if George will agree to stay and run it. So instead of going to college, George stays behind to run the Building and Loan while Harry takes George’s money and goes. The idea is that when he comes back, Harry will take over at the Building and Loan and George will go. However, Harry throws a wrench in the plans by getting married to Ruth (Virginia Patton), whose father wants to set Harry up in research. It is an offer too good to pass up and George knows it.
The night of the reception for Harry and Ruth, George goes to Mary’s house. Despite his dreams, his love for her is too strong. George now reinvents his dreams. Rather than working his way across the ocean on a cattle ship, Mary and he will see the world on their honeymoon. And they are on their way to the train when there is a run on the town’s bank and on the Building and Loan. With no other money available, George uses up his honeymoon money to placate the depositors and to keep the Building and Loan away from Potter.
Mary and George move into one of the most run down houses in Bedford Falls, which Mary fixes up while giving birth to four children, Pete, Janie, Zuzu and Tommy. The Building and Loan meanwhile provides many of the residents of Bedford Falls hope as it provides them with money to build their homes, even going so far as to develop Bailey Park where most of these houses are. During World War II, while Harry goes off to war, George stays behind and leads various causes to help the effort. Harry meanwhile turns out to be a hero pilot and upon the conclusion of the war is decorated by the President of the U.S. It is on the eve of his return to Bedford Falls, which also happens to be Christmas Eve, that big brother George’s world falls apart.
Uncle Billy, who is a forgetful drunkard, accidentally slips Potter the Building and Loans’ bank deposit. Making them short on their account and on the same day the bank examiner (Charles Halton) is in town to review the Building and Loan’s books. Desperate, George even turns to his adversary Potter in a last ditch effort to save everything. It is Potter who tells George he is worth more dead than alive. George can’t bring himself to tell his wife, so he goes to Martini’s bar to drink. After getting drunk, George goes to commit suicide off a bridge.
Enter Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers), angel second class. He is the heavens’ answer to the prayers for George. When George tries to jump, Clarence beats him to it and George is forced to stop his own suicide attempt to save him. But George is still not convinced so Clarence decides to show him what it would be like if he never lived.
Not only is Bedford Falls now called Potterville, but the quaint downtown has been taken over by bars and nightclubs. When George runs home to his mother, she doesn’t know him. She is a widower, who runs a boarding house and her one son, Harry, was killed as a young boy when he fell through the ice. Clarence tells George that not only did Harry die young, but all the troops on the ship he saved during the war also perished. George’s friends didn’t make out much better. Druggist Gower ends up a rummy, and poor Mary, who never found her soul mate, ends up an old maid. George gets to see all the little ways he has touched people’s lives and touched the lives they touched that he now wants to live.
Even knowing that he might be going to jail, George returns home. The Sheriff and the bank examiner are both waiting for him. But in bursts Mary, followed by most of the town and they all throw in money to help George. Even Mary’s former boyfriend wires that his company will advance whatever money he needs. Harry flies home and drinks a toast to his brother, “the richest man in town.” In a tearful final scene, for the audience, everyone gathered in George’s house sings Auld Lang Syne and the movie ends on a happy, upbeat note.
While the premise is loosely based on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the plot for IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, has been done numerous times on numerous television shows and has been reused in many movies, including THE FAMILY MAN (2000). But none of these stack up or really compare with IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE .But what makes LIFE a classic is that it is a good movie, with an intriguing story, a great cast and one of the great directors of all time at the helm.
Frank Capra deserves most of the credit, as director, producer and co-writer. This is obviously his vision. Capra, a veteran filmmaker, who started, like many in Hollywood, at Mack Sennett’s Keystone studios. By the time LIFE came out, Capra had already directed such classic films as PLATINUM BLONDE (1931); IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934); MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936); YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938); MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939) and MEET JOHN DOE (1940). During World War II, he worked on a series of propaganda documentaries for the War Department and also managed to direct ARSENIC AND OLD LACE (1944). IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE marks Capra’s first post-war effort. After this film, his output would fall off, as he made only a handful of films between 1948 and 1961, including A HOLE IN THE HEAD (1959) and POCKETFUL OF MIRACLES (1961).
James Stewart, who has been previously written about on this blog, appeared in numerous films and worked with directors such as Capra, Hitchcock and Ford and moved effortlessly from comedy to drama to westerns, seemingly starring in a classic or two in every genre.
Playing Mary is Donna Reed, who is just enough sexy and homespun for the role. Unlike her co-stars, she is perhaps better remembered for her work on the little screen. While she co-starred in such films as THE PICTURE OF DORIAN GRAY (1943) and FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1953), Donna made her biggest impact on television with her self-named sit-com which ran from 1958 to 1966.
Like Capra, Lionel Barrymore’s career started in silent films. Barrymore began working with D.W. Griffith and appeared in such shorts as THE MUSKETEERS OF PIG ALLEY (1912) considered by many to be the first gangster film and THE NEW YORK HAT (1912). By the time he was 60 in 1938, Barrymore was wheelchair bound. But that didn’t stop him. Barrymore appeared in films until 1952. In addition to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, Barrymore appeared in such films as GRAND HOTEL (1932), DINNER AT EIGHT (1933), CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS (1937) and KEY LARGO (1948). In addition, he played Dr. Leonard B. Gillespie in a series of films and also appeared on radio in the same part on THE STORY OF DR. KILDARE series.
Thomas Mitchell, who before this film was best known as the drunken Doc Boone in STAGECOACH (1939), plays Uncle Billy, who could easily be the Doc’s ancestor. Mitchell was a very busy actor, appearing in ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, GONE WITH THE WIND and MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, all in 1939. One of the great American character actors, Mitchell appeared in films and on television from 1936 to 1961.
But there are also many minor characters that deserve mention as they add to both the texture of Bedford Falls and to the depth of the story. Bert (Ward Bond), the cop and Ernie (Frank Faylen) the cab driver, would later be immortalized as characters on Sesame Street. Bond appeared in numerous films and was an accomplished character actor. Faylen would go onto be Dobie Gillis’s father in that 1950’s TV series. While Gloria Grahame is best known as a femme fatale, in this film she plays Violet Bick, a one-time rival for George’s affections. While we never know what she does for a living, we do get the impression that she has loose morals. People become suspicious of George when he tries to help her by giving her money to start over in New York City.
No discussion of the supporting cast would be complete without mention of Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu. After all, it is the petals from a flower she won in class that prove to George that he is back in his true life. Zuzu’s petals are almost as famous as the line about when a bell rings an angel earns their wings, which is also once delivered by Zuzu. Grimes was also in THE BISHOP’S WIFE, which came out the following year. Like Jimmy Stewart, Grimes has two holiday classics on her brief acting resume.
While I have seen this film many times, I cannot help but to cry at the end. The film has just the right mix of love, despair, hokum and faith to get me to react. I’m not sure what buttons Capra is trying to push, but he certainly hits mine. IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE is the perfect Christmas film. If you’re feeling blue, as many do at this time of year, the film will remind you of the effect you’ve had on others; even if you don’t think you have had any. And if you’re feeling good, then the film will remind you how lucky you are and remind you that we’re all only one action away from maybe losing it all.
To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.
Monday, December 19, 2011
In honor of this blog's 1st Anniversary on December 18, I have decided that it would be appropriate to try and review the original Tron, since the site's very first review was for Tron: Legacy. Tron was one of the very first feature films to integrate computer graphics with live action, helping to pave the way for feature length CG films like Pixar's Toy Story. While Tron, released in 1982, did initially fail at the box office, it gradually became a cult classic, spawning a franchise that has birthed numerous video games, comic books, and even the aforementioned sequel released 28 years later. After re-watching this movie again, I think I can see why it became such a hit later on.
For anyone who doesn't already know, the story is about a software engineer named Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) who attempts to hack into ENCOM in order to locate evidence that the company's Senior Executive, Ed Dillinger (David Warner), had plagiarized several of his video games in order to get where he is today. When he is thwarted by the Master Control Program (MCP), and with Dillinger tightening security as a result, he manages to sneak his way into the company building using lower level access, joined by Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan). When he tries to locate his evidence on a company computer, the MCP takes control of a digital laser to digitize Flynn and punish him in the ENCOM mainframe. The rest of the plot unfolds within the mainframe, bringing to life countless visuals, such as the Light Cycle and Identity Disk, that would later become staples of pop culture and parody.
While the story does actually get easier to follow each time I view it, there are still some small things about it that bug me. Early on they establish the main characters and use the time to add some sense of depth to them, but in the last third they introduce two characters that we are suddenly supposed to care about, with no real indication of who they are outside of their server function. Without taking that into account, the story is very slow paced throughout, leaving me more tired than involved as it went on. However, it does manage to keep a mostly consistent narrative and stay within its own confines by establishing the main aspects of the digital world and sticking with them, making the events more plausible in return.
Even with the iffy story, the actors play out their parts very well. David Warner and Jeff Bridges help to let the audience know that there is definitely some history between them, with Ed Dillinger portrayed as a cautious and worried individual in contrast with the confident and more laid back Flynn. Even Bruce Boxleitner and Cindy Morgan show off some acting skill in their parts, although even the titular Tron is more of a minor character behind Jeff Bridges' Kevin Flynn.
Of course, the most recognizable and memorable aspect of the film is in its visuals. While the CG may look very primitive by today's standards, what they were able to accomplish with it is actually pretty impressive for what they had back then. The methods of transportation are very recognizable now, mainly the curvature of the Light Cycles and Solar Sailer, and the angular Recognizers and ships also help to create some visual variety. The backgrounds are also very believable as computer space given how they might have envisioned it at the time. However, there sometimes seemed to be too much going on when many intricate patterns were onscreen at once, and some of what was shown seemed to be thrown in simply because they could do it, like a brief scene where spider-like programs appear from the ground for no apparent reason. In any case, what we are presented with now seems to give off a distinct charm that makes the look of the cyber world more intriguing decades later.
As a last note, the score by Wendy Carlos is good on its own as well. While we can do more with synthesizer technology these days, what had been done at the time in combination with the London Philharmonic Orchestra goes well with the events taking place, creating the appropriate mood and maintaining the right atmosphere. It's hard to ignore how impressive Tron's music is, especially since it would later inspire Daft Punk's take on the music of Tron: Legacy.
While Tron may be limited in some ways by what was available in 1982, and very dated as well, it is by no means a bad film. It's not my favorite, but its relevance in pop culture today would make it hard not to recommend at least one viewing to see what it is. When you do get to see it, I guarantee that you'll be impressed one way or another, and likely gain the urge to play a video game version of the Light Cycles.
Friday, December 16, 2011
To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.
Because the movie has yet to be released, I will try to express my opinion without spoiling too much. I will say that the plot is surprisingly easier to follow than plenty of other action movies out there, and this film has plenty of action in it. Brad Bird does an amazing job directing this movie, as he has done in the past, and except for one bit of exposition near the end of Act 3, you don't have to have seen any previous Mission: Impossible material in order to have a good time.
Though I'm not a huge Tom Cruise fan, I thought his and everyone else's acting was pretty good; none of the dialogue really felt forced and lead to some suspenseful moments throughout. I've seen a lot of action scenes before, and I thought some of them here were actually pretty creative, including the one you see in advertisements where Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) uses special gloves to climb the side of a building, and I especially praise an inventive chase sequence taking place inside a sand storm, which I will not explain the context of since that's essentially spoiler territory.
While this is a good movie, there are a few things I thought stood out from the overall product, aside from aforementioned bit of exposition at the end. Near the beginning of the movie, there's a scene involving a series of explosions at the Kremlin, which looked very obviously fake to me. When I say this, I mean the explosions in the scene, done in CGI, didn't appear to be realistic enough since to me they completely stood out from the shot they were placed over. There's also one character we see at the beginning of the movie who doesn't appear again until the third act, and even though they had some level of importance, I felt they were practically unnecessary to the overall plot. Despite these minor complaints, the film still turned out rather well.
Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is a movie I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with Mission: Impossible, since I enjoyed it as someone in that position, or to anyone who follows Brad Bird's career. If you have any sort of curiosity about this movie, or you're just someone looking for a good action flick this holiday season but wish to pass up Tintin, Ghost Protocol is the movie for you.
Monday, December 12, 2011
To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Open World games aren't a genre I usually play. They require you to dedicate a lot of time, the distractions are numerous, and it's possible to never get around to finishing the campaign and subsequently forget what the story was about. While I did end up playing a couple later on, like Assassin's Creed II onward and Batman: Arkham City, I never thought I would ever play a Saints Row game due to my unfamiliarity. However, a demonstration of the game at the last San Diego Comic-Con (2011) managed to capture my interest. The video I saw demonstrated that not only could a game in this genre take place in a brightly colored world, but it could also have the capability to not take itself seriously. The mixture of adult humor, spontaneous urban chaos and destruction of high magnitude, vast customization, and intriguing pre-order bonus took my breath away and instantly encouraged me to not only buy the game (as designed of course), but also become a fan of Saints Row and its shift in tone from most other open world games out there. Playing about half of Saints Row 2 soon after the convention really got me excited for the potential of this game, and after spending over 20 hours already with Saints Row: The Third, I am mostly pleased with how it turned out.
With so much to talk about, I suppose I should start with the story. After the events of Saints Row II, the Third Street Saints have become a worldwide media icon, hocking energy drinks, clothing stores, and even have a movie deal lined up. After a heist falls through however, they find themselves face-to-face with The Syndicate, a corporation that wishes to take advantage of the Saints' fame to control the city of Steelport. Naturally the Saints refuse, crash landing into the city as felons. The rest of the plot is focused on them taking down three rival gangs under The Syndicate and reclaiming control over Steelport.
The execution of this plot is actually pretty well handled. Taking out the gangs one rung at a time reveals more about the relationships between the characters and just what they're willing to do when their turn comes to take down their biggest competition. The story also moves at a good pace to keep the player invested and throws in a few memorable twists and lasting events to ensure that no matter when you pick it up again, you'll know how to feel. Perhaps the most memorable characters in the cast are cyber punk Matt Miller and masked wrestler Killbane, who both want the same result, but only the latter is willing to put literally everything on the line to do it, even his own crew.
Near the very beginning of the story, the look and personality of the player character is left entirely up to you. Unlike other character creation aspects of games however, what you see is merely a small taste of the game's astounding customization abilities. During development, Volition reported the game to have 2 Googols worth of combinations, and from the amount of clothing and colors available to pick from, it seems to be completely true. Being able to wear cardinal robes, a stunt suit with a Professor Genki head, be a toilet, or even run around naked brings an element of surprise and merriment to the city-wide destruction capable of the player.
The tools available to do so is another highlight of this game. While other games like Grand Theft Auto limit you mostly to the conventional weapons of the genre, with special weapons used in specific circumstances, Saints Row: The Third allows access to an RC Drone, Fart in a Jar, a dildo bat, and even an Air Strike virtually at will. Some of these weapons can also be upgraded to insane degrees, from a pistol using incendiary rounds to a a shotgun having three barrels at once. No matter what combination of weapons I carried into battle, even if I only used a pair of fists capable of reducing someone to a cloud of meat, I had a feeling of glee as I decimated anyone in my way. With an arsenal as unique as what this game provides, it's hard not to have any fun or find a favorite.
While combat arsenal is exceptional, the controls themselves are incredibly easy to use and smartly applied to the controller. Weapons are easy to switch on the fly and aiming and shooting feel very fluid and tight. The same can be said about the vehicle control, although the only vehicle that felt awkward at first was the tank thanks to how tank controls normally operate on a single stick. Getting used to how each vehicle of each type works is also key to navigation, since just about every one is unique in handling. On another note, the ability to jump into a vehicle through the windshield or side window always felt good, soon becoming my exclusive form of entry. My other favorite ability was finally being able to hit someone in the crotch at will, and the fact that every weapon has a unique animation for trying it is also very humorous.
Of course, if you're going to be driving around a city like Steelport, you'll need a place to go. If you're running away for instance, you can simply go into a shop or crib you have purchased and your notoriety will simply vanish, also granting an opportunity to change outfits, get a tattoo, or mess around with your guns and vehicles. Owning shops, cribs, and strongholds also gives you an hourly income from the particular building or area, which you can spend on upgrades as you level up by earning Respect. Respect in turn can be earned by doing just about anything, from certain actions in combat to just performing a powerslide in a car. One of the more fun ways to do this is by going to and completing side missions, of which there are plenty. While these require you to do things like defend your homies while in a helicopter or destroy cyber tanks in a Tron-like environment as a form of hacking, the one that really stands out the most is one called Professor Genki's Super Ethical Reality Climax, which operates like The Running Man meets Japanese game show. Contestants on Professor Genki's S.E.R.C. have to make it out of a maze alive while earning enough cash by shooting mascots and bonus markers while also dodging fire and electrical traps, which both can quickly impede progress if you're not careful enough. While I do like how the side missions get progressively difficult as you go, providing a great challenge as well, I couldn't help but notice that some of my favorites from Saints Row 2 like Septic Avenger were strangely absent from this installment, which felt a bit disappointing.
Another aspect to mention is the AI. At times the enemy AI feels genuinely overwhelming, which makes it satisfying once you either outsmart them or just run away to lower notoriety. Thankfully, your partner AI is smart enough to assist in combat, which is needed given your ability to summon one via smartphone in a tight spot. These situations grant a sense of relief, but in a way that doesn't feel like you're sacrificing control of the mission over to them.
Like I mentioned before, the game world is very brightly colored, helping it stand out from other games in the genre very easily and contrasts very well with the impending gunfights all over Steelport. The graphics they are laid on are also a sight to behold, with beautifully rendered buildings and an attractive style used to create the character models. There is also a fairly large draw distance, with next to no pop-up textures in sight. Vehicles are also very sleek and shine well with the game's great lighting in day or night.
Final mentions go to the voice acting and music. To me, the voice acting never got tiring, with a great voice cast chosen to portray every character in the game no matter their importance, even Zimos and his auto-tuned voice. The radio stations also each provide a great driving soundtrack containing well chosen licensed songs spanning genres like metal, electronica, 80's/90's rock tunes, and hip hop, although some points in the game also highlight some specific tracks and made me see them from another angle (who knew deadmau5 could make an epic fight song?).
Since that first look at Comic-Con, I have been in love with Saints Row: The Third, and the final product is a very exceptional experience. With such a great blend of already established elements, as well as some newer more hilarious ones, you can't go wrong, as this product provides endless joy, even if all you do is run around and shoot. I would gladly recommend this title to anyone wishing to see something different in an open world game compared with the more dark and serious titles already out there.
[Note: I apologize for the lateness of this review. My time was spread out more due to a combination of schoolwork and my dad playing this game at every chance he got.]
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN (2011) Starring: Daniel Craig, Jaime Bell, Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Steven Moffat and Edgar Wright & Joe Cornish. Produced by Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy and Peter Jackson. Based on comic book series by Hergé. Music by John Williams. Run Time: 107 minutes. Color. US/New Zealand, Animated, Action, Adventure, 3-D
Just to set the record straight, I’m reviewing this film without having ever really read Hergé’s comic book series, so I’m not coming at this as a fan boy. Nor am I necessarily overly enamored with Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg. Both have been involved in as many bad movies as good over the duration of their careers, despite what their reputations might suggest. Since I’ve never read any Tintin, I won’t be commenting on how accurate the film portrays the characters or plots in the comic book. There are those more knowledgeable on that subject and I will leave it to them to discuss it on those merits.
I want this review to be about the movie itself, not how does it stand up as an adaptation but as a film.
One of the reasons I was interested in seeing this in the first place has to do with wanting to keep up. It’s a little like reading a book you’d rather not just because everyone is talking about it. Given the stature of Spielberg and Jackson, I’m guessing this is a film people will be talking about. It’s basically the same reason I went to see AVATAR (2009). Going in I’m hoping that TINTIN has more going for it than Cameron’s SMURFS meets DANCES WITH WOLVES film of two years ago. At least I’m not already familiar with the plot points of TINTIN, which is a plus and a chance for surprise.
My one concern before I saw a frame of film was the possibility that I would experience the uncanny valley, wherein the animation looks too human for its own good. I can honestly say that once the film started the uncanny valley wasn’t so much an issue as was why they shot this movie the way they did. Using motion capture, the actors played their parts, only to be animated over. This has been done many times before and while TINTIN is far superior to THE POLAR EXPRESS, as a viewer I wondered why they didn’t either animate it from the start or do a live action version of the story? What they ended up with is a hybrid that is sort of like watching cartoon characters walking about in the real world. I would have been happy if the entire film was animated in the same style as the opening credits. It wasn’t shot this way to save money, as it reportedly cost $200 million. It comes off as stunt filmmaking, as in we can do it this way, so why not, rather than is this the best way to tell the story. Except for a few prosthetic noses, it’s hard to know what about TINTIN couldn’t have been done as a live action film.
I won’t go in to the plot of TINTIN, since it has not yet been in theaters, but it’s somewhat convoluted plot has to do with lost treasure, cryptic clues and family feuds. And it is heavy on action, almost to the point of distraction. Spielberg doesn’t seem to be satisfied with being the most commercially successful director of all time; he must also want to be known as the director with the most action per minute of film. This film almost makes the Indiana Jones franchise look like a walk in the park. There is one action sequence that frankly goes on so long your mind can start to wander. This is not to say that TINTIN is all bad. Just that it could have been better.
There are things that the film does well. Spielberg obviously knows his craft. The choice of shots and the way the humor is set up are good. But as with some of his films, story takes a backseat to the visual. And like AVATAR, this is a very visual film. Sometimes, though, the film seems to be an extended cutscene from one of the UNCHARTED video games.
The film comes dangerously close to assuming you’re familiar with TINTIN and that it doesn’t need to set up the characters at all. Saved from the possibility of an exhaustive exposition sequence, the viewer is given no backstory for Tintin, save for a few visual clues. Again, having never read the comic, I don’t know if Hergé never bothered to explain his past or that the filmmakers decided the viewers who didn’t already know would want to research it on their own after seeing the movie. As an example, our only clue that Tintin is a boy is that everyone refers to him as such in the film. Otherwise, he could be a young-looking thirty for all we know.
And this brings up a point about the marketing for this film. As consumers of pop culture we have become accustomed to long build ups for films, TV shows and video games and so I am somewhat surprised that there was not more of a push to get TINTIN out into the public consciousness before releasing this very costly movie in America. Whether or not this will effect box office remains to be seen.
It is also really hard to figure out how they chose the cast for this film. Since no one had to necessarily look like their parts why, as an example, cast Daniel Craig at all, when the characters he plays don’t look like or even really sound like Daniel Craig? I have nothing against Craig as an actor, but it is hard to know what he brings to the role that others couldn’t, since he literally disappears on screen.
I’m not surprised that Andy Serkis is prominently used. After all Peter Jackson is involved, so Serkis can’t be far behind. It is a somewhat similar relationship as Tim Burton and Johnny Depp or Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter. If you see Jackson’s name as producer or director I look for Serkis in the billing block. I know that there has been a ground swell about what a great actor Serkis is ever since he was Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but what we’re really left with is him as a voice actor. While motion capture can follow movements, it’s hard to know where the actor ends and the CGI takes over. This is not to take away from Serkis’s talent, but it would be nice to see him act as an actor rather than a fancy prop.
Now TINTIN has already been a big success overseas, but it’s hard to know if that will transfer into big domestic box office as well. For moviegoers who would go to any Spielberg film, then this is your holiday as he has a second film, WAR HORSE, opening just four days after this one. Based on the ads I’ve seen for the latter, I would venture that TINTIN would be the bigger of the two releases. But it is rare to see a director be his own competition. Usually they try to avoid that situation.
After having seen TINTIN at a holiday screening at Paramount, I can honestly say that I would not put down good money to see it. But I’m sure I am in the minority of holiday filmgoers. THE ADVENTURES OF TINTIN will be a big success. After all, they’ve already set up the sequel. Literally.