For No Good Reason


The artist in his workshop.

The artist in his workshop.

(2014) Documentary (Sony Classics) Ralph Steadman, Johnny Depp, Hunter S. Thompson, Jann Wenner, Terry Gilliam, William S. Burroughs, Hal Wilner. Directed by Charlie Paul

If you look at the names in the cast of this documentary, you’ll see some of the greatest and most iconoclastic minds of the 20th century. That they are all linked by one famously private British artist gives you an idea of the esteem that he’s held in and the kinds of people who love his art.

Ralph Steadman moved from Great Britain to New York in the 1950s and the following decade met Thompson on a trip to the Kentucky Derby. Steadman would become the illustrator of Thompson’s books and his style and images have become permanently linked with Thompson’s prose. His association with Thompson helped make him essentially Rolling Stone‘s house cartoonist during the glory days of the magazine.

His style which utilizes great big spatters of India ink and other materials is beautiful and grotesque at the same time. We see his technique which is perhaps unique in all of art; when he scatters paint spatters across his canvas, he is almost angry as the liquid hits the surface with an audible SNAP.

Thompson and Steadman maintained a friendship that was often dysfunctional – Steadman hints at the verbal abuse that Thompson would occasionally heap on him – but the genuine affection is evident between both men.

Depp acts as kind of a host and occasional narrator here, appearing onscreen at Steadman’s home and studio in Kent, England to converse, reminisce and utter the word “amazing” again and again while perusing books of Steadman’s artwork while wearing ostentatious hats. I can understand why he’s there – the presence of Depp doubtlessly enticed Sony Classics to distribute the film (which reportedly took 15 years to make) and might be expected to attract fans of the star to see the movie.

Sadly however, the effect of having Depp in the movie is intrusive and takes away focus from the subject of the film. I don’t think that could be helped but frankly, I would have preferred a little less Depp and a lot more Steadman. Steadman doesn’t share a lot of himself to the world; he rarely grants interviews and when he does almost never reveals any personal information. He prefers to let his artwork do the talking for him.

Steadman does make it clear that he sees the role of art as a means to change things for the better, which is admirable. While Thompson did copious amounts of drugs and partied maybe as hard as anyone in history ever has, Steadman did no drugs and focused his attention on social and political causes, many of which were the subjects of his art. His wit is often scathing and generally on the sly side which is on good display here from the opening frames when the Sony Classics logo is displayed in Steadman’s preferred font.

Steadman admires disparate talents like Da Vinci and Picasso, and there is an element of the cave drawings in his art as well, a kind of modern primitivism. The interpretation of art is an individual thing – what I see when I look at Steadman’s work will be somewhat different than what you see. That’s the beauty of art – we see it through our own perceptions and something I miss you’ll latch onto, and vice versa. Everyone interprets art individually.

Along with the Depp thing, I thought the film dragged a bit in places and was tedious in other places. Some judicious trimming would have benefitted the film overall. It is also disappointing that we don’t really get to know Steadman well, although we learn a lot about him. For that alone and for being a fly on the wall as he creates makes the film worth viewing, but I can’t help but think that there should have been a better film made considering the subject matter.

REASONS TO GO: Clever at times, displaying Steadman’s signature wit. Fascinating look at Steadman’s process.

REASONS TO STAY: Overly long and occasionally tedious. Depp’s presence is often distracting.

FAMILY VALUES:  A fairly steady stream of foul language, some drug references and brief sexual images in an artistic setting

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Steadman retains all of his original artwork. The only art he sells are copies or prints of his work which he signs individually.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews. Metacritic: 51/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Far Out Isn’t Far Enough: The Tomi Ungerer Story

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Offshoring 2014 Begins!

Psychosis


Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

Charisma Carpenter having deep thoughts.

(2010) Horror (EntertainmentOne) Charisma Carpenter, Paul Sculfor, Ricci Harnett, Justin Hawkins, Ty Glaser, Bernard Kay, Richard Raynesford, Sean Chapman, Katrena Rochell, Tom Gaughan, Darren Bransford, Slaine Kelly, Josh Myers, Sarah Briggs, Alexander Ellis, Eileen Pollock, Sybille Gebhardt, Axelle Carolyn, Raven Isis Holt. Directed by Reg Traviss

6 Days of Darkness 2013

Let’s face it: the sooner we admit we don’t understand everything and that the world can’t always be easily explained, the better off we’ll be. There are things we don’t get, and perhaps we never will. The human mind, for example, might just be foremost among them.

Susan Golden (Carpenter) is an author who had a nervous breakdown not long ago but has left the care of her doctor and has been pronounced fit to rejoin society. She’s eager to resume her writing career but has hit a massive case of writer’s block. So what does she do? She and her husband David (Sculfor) find a spooky Victorian mansion in Middleofnowhereshire, England.

Soon she’s hearing noises and seeing a phantom soccer-playing kid on the lawn. The locals think she’s batty and to make things worse, David has become bored with her and is gallivanting around with pretty much any woman in town who’s willing – and there are apparently plenty that are.

She’s also seeing visions of horrific murders happening to people around her that come horrifyingly true. So what’s going on? Is there something sinister going on, maybe even supernatural? After all, there’s an entire prologue in which a group of tree-hugging hippies thousands of miles away get slaughtered by a serial killer in a seemingly random and unrelated incident. Or, has Susan lost it again, only this time with a homicidal edge to her madness? And of course there’s always option number three – Susan is being manipulated by someone with wicked intentions.

I remember Carpenter from the Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Angel TV shows and she had so much promise. Beautiful and an accomplished actress, the world appeared to be her oyster. Sadly, things haven’t turned out the way I expected. She mostly appears in essentially cameo roles that trade in on her Buffy name value, and occasionally turns up in things like this.

She appears to be just going through the motions here. I’m not sure whether she thinks that “former mental patient” means “emotionally shut off” but I have to tell you – she just doesn’t give the audience much to get behind as plucky heroines go. However, she doesn’t have a terrible amount of support from the rest of the cast either. You wonder if someone sprinkled Valium on all the food from craft services.

That isn’t to say that there aren’t some moments with decent scares. The slasher film prologue is actually quite good – I kind of wished they’d followed that road but instead they chose to go the moody psychological horror route and while there is nothing wrong with the latter genre, they just don’t do it as well in this instance.

WHY RENT THIS: Some fairly decent scares.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Prologue looks like it came from an entirely different movie. Wooden acting and stale plot lines.

FAMILY VALUES: Lots of sexuality and nudity, some gore and violence and a lot of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is a remake of the horror short Dreamhouse which was released as a feature along with two other shorts and a linking story as Screamtime in 1986.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not applicable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Innocents

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Day 2 of Six Days of Darkness 2013!

Pearl Harbor


It's a bomb!!!!

It’s a bomb!!!!

(2001) War Drama (Touchstone) Ben Affleck, Josh Hartnett, Kate Beckinsale, Alec Baldwin, Jon Voight, Jaime King, William Lee Scott, Greg Zola, Ewen Bremner, Catherine Kellner, Jennifer Garner, Cuba Gooding Jr., Michael Shannon, Tom Sizemore, Mako, John Fujioka, Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, Colm Feore, Dan Aykroyd, William Fichtner, Beth Grant. Directed by Michael Bay

Nicol Williamson as Merlin in the John Boorman film Excalibur once said “It is the doom (of men) that they forget.” It has only been in the last few years of the 20th century (thanks in no small part to the efforts of men like Messrs. Hanks, Spielberg and Brokaw) that Americans have begun to wake up to the sacrifices of the Americans who comprised what Brokaw eloquently called “The Greatest Generation.”

The attack at Pearl Harbor of December 7, 1941, in many ways remains America’s defining moment. It is a moment of ashes and pain, of blood and despair, written in the bullets and bombs of the Japanese and signed by our own arrogance to think it couldn’t happen to us. From that moment of despair was wakened a world power, one which has dominated the politics of this planet for the half-century since.

Given the success of Saving Private Ryan, it was inevitable that someone would make an epic movie about the date that will live in infamy. Tora, Tora, Tora has been the watershed Pearl Harbor movie up till now, but was only a marginal success when it was released. America is ready for a blockbuster.

Enter Michael Bay, the director behind Armageddon. In some ways, he was the ideal choice to make a movie about the attack. He knows spectacle and can handle immense scale. I’ve always thought him a little rough around the edges when it came to handling characterization and dealing with emotions, but he can be counted on to show the scope of the devastation, to blow our minds with explosions, twisted metal and bodies shredded before our eyes.

Of course he can. However, Bay had his own agenda. Not only did he want to tell the story of the battle, but he wanted to simultaneously elevate himself to the status currently enjoyed by James Cameron. In other words, he wanted this to be his Titanic, and therefore he inserted a love triangle that frames the drama of the tragedy of the attack.

Rafe McCawley (Affleck) is a pilot “born to fly.” He is everything heroic and noble about the American prewar spirit, the quintessence of the “boy next door.” His best friend Danny Walker(Hartnett) is also a pilot, and has always been on the edges of Rafe’s shadow, a good man in his own right but a reflection of Rafe’s glory. Rafe meets and falls in love with Evelyn Stewart (Beckinsale), a beautiful nurse. McCawley is itching for action and requests a transfer to the Eagle Squadron, a squad of American pilots assisting in the Battle of Britain. Rafe and Evelyn continue their love affair by letter, but when Rafe is shot down over the English Channel and is presumed dead, Evelyn is inconsolable.

As time goes by, both Evelyn and Danny get over the grief and find solace in each other. They are transferred to the plum naval assignment – Pearl Harbor – and spend most of their days in bars, cafes and at the movies, or just mooning over each other. However, a monkey wrench is thrown into their idyllic situation; Rafe returns from Europe, having been hiding in occupied France for nearly a year. He arrives at Pearl to find his best friend and the love of his life together, and it tears him apart. Of course, Rafe arrives on December 6, 1941. The next morning, all heck breaks loose.

The battle scenes themselves are very well done. Wave after wave of Japanese planes attack the fleet in battleship row, and as bomb after bomb and torpedo after torpedo finds its mark, the proud U.S. Pacific Fleet begins to sink. Some of the sailors react with panic and horror, and freeze in the face of this unthinkable attack. Others, such as real-life hero Dorie Miller (Gooding) find their destiny of glory at hand.

For Stewart, she finds chaos and overwhelming horror as the wounded and the dead begin to find their way to the hospital. She and the nurses must make heroic measures to save some of the more gravely wounded, as overtaxed doctors become nearly superhuman in their efforts. The hospital sequences are among the best in the movie and received some of the least attention.

The movie should have ended there, but goes on for nearly an hour afterwards, ending up with the bombing raid on Tokyo led by the charismatic Jimmy Doolittle (Baldwin). If you’re planning to see this movie, prepare to knock about three hours out of your day and be sure you use the restroom before the movie starts or at least be prepared to use the pause button pretty regularly.

The critics have blasted this movie, and in all frankness, I get the feeling that many of them are reviewing the movie’s extreme budget (budgeted somewhere around $140 million, it is the highest film budget ever approved by a studio to that time) and that there is a great deal of anti-Bay sentiment. Michael Bay isn’t particularly my favorite director, but he does an excellent job on the battle sequence. The biggest problem with Pearl Harbor is that it’s probably about half an hour too long at the very least. The love triangle is a bit predictable, as are the fates of many of the supporting characters (see if you can pick out the doomed players from the crowd).

Pearl Harbor got compared with Titanic, perhaps unfairly, mainly because both movies take a well-known tragedy and frame it with a love triangle. However, whereas the love story enhances the tragedy in Cameron’s movie, it slows down Pearl Harbor. Also, Bay is not known for subtlety and occasionally goes too far; one rousing speech in which FDR (Voight) rises to his feet, polio-stricken as he was, staggers the imagination and immediately yanks your suspension of disbelief to overload.

Affleck, who took a few hits in the reviews for his performance, is actually quite good as McCawley. Affleck is given really a very minimally realized character whose basic purpose is to be heroic, and carries it off impressively well or at least as well as he could given the limitations of Rafe’s personality. Both Hartnett and Beckinsale were beginning their careers at this point; both have continued to improve upon their performances here, particularly Beckinsale who has gained fame for her work in the popular Underworld movies. As for the supporting cast, Baldwin and Sizemore (as the proverbial crusty Sergeant from the Bronx) are memorable, but Voight chews the scenery like the catering truck had gone on strike. Gooding is, as usual, excellent, but he has little more than a cameo.

There is a definitive movie on Pearl Harbor waiting to be made, and unfortunately, this one isn’t it. Still, for all the negativity, here are the positive things: It’s epic size and scope are truly awe-inspiring. It manages, at many points, to raise patriotic fervor to a fever pitch. Thirdly, it poignantly reminds those of us who are too young to remember just what a price was paid for victory, and how badly we were beaten at Pearl Harbor.

Finally, this was a movie that needed to be made when it did, while many of the veterans of that war are still alive. Those I saw of that generation in the movie theater where I first saw the film were visibly affected by the movie, and that has to go to the good on Bay’s ledger.

Da Queen, who in a bit of uncalculated irony dined on sushi before seeing this movie, was a tear-streaked pile of mush for much of the proceedings, and recommends that those sensitive souls who cry at movies bring plenty of tissues, or at least to make sure that their husbands are wearing moisture-absorbent shirts.

For my part, I’m going to say that this is a very flawed movie that nonetheless should be a must-see for all of us. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial in Hawaii, but until we finally head out that way, this is going to serve as the next-best experience. Perhaps some bright director someday will make a movie about the Arizona, which I would see in a heartbeat. Until then, Pearl Harbor, for all its faults, will have to do as the movie of record for one of America’s defining moments.

WHY RENT THIS: Dazzling battle scenes. Ben Affleck isn’t half-bad (damned by faint praise, I know). Exceedingly patriotic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unnecessary love triangle detracts from the drama. A good 45-60 minutes too long. Stretches disbelief a bit too far.

FAMILY MATTERS: War violence, some disturbing images of the wounded, a fair bit of foul language and an even smaller bit of sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Rafe is based loosely on actual fighter pilot Joe Foss whom Bay interviewed prior to shooting the film. Rafe’s speech about the plane being an extension of his body was taken nearly verbatim from that interview.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The 60th Anniversary edition (of the attack not the film) as well as the Blu-Ray edition includes a History Channel documentary on the attack and a music video by Faith Hill. The four-disc Vista edition includes these, another History Channel documentary on the Doolittle raid, footage of a boot camp the actors all undertook, an interactive version of the attack sequence from several different angles and a choice of different audio tracks, a hidden gag reel as well as a collector’s booklet and poster art cards.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $449.2M on a $140M production budget; against all odds the movie was a hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Titanic

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Somewhere

Sicko


Sicko

Everything is golden in France.

(2007) Documentary (Lionsgate) Michael Moore, Tucker Albrizzi, Tony Benn, Reggie Cervantes, Richard M. Nixon, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Billy Crystal, John Graham, Linda Peeno, Aleida Guevara, William Maher, Patrick Pedraja . Directed by Michael Moore

There is no doubt that America’s health care system is a national disgrace. It was true when Michael Moore made this documentary in 2006 and it is even more so today. While politicians bicker and posture, and lobbyists work their magic (in 2007 there were four health care lobbyists for every politician in Washington), people suffer and die.

Rather than point the camera at the 50 million Americans without any health care (a number that has increased since this film was made), Moore instead focuses on the 150 million that do (a number that has decreased since the film was made). He does it in a way reminiscent of an old joke; all Americans who think they are covered by their health care plans step forward – not so fast, you there.

He does this anecdotally, looking at individual cases that are heartbreaking and horrific. Mothers whose daughters were in need of critical attention at an Emergency Room being told their health care plan didn’t cover care at that hospital, and having the daughter die en route to a different hospital. A woman knocked unconscious in an auto accident being carted to the hospital by ambulance only to be charged for her ride because she didn’t pre-approve the ambulance, something she could have done if she were conscious.

Bureaucrats who are paid bonuses to deny coverage, to the point where legitimate claims are being denied because of an undisclosed yeast infection years ago. Volunteers at Ground Zero, breathing in toxic fumes in order to help recover bodies, develop respiratory ailments and are denied coverage because they were volunteers. It’s enough to make your blood boil.

Moore makes a case for socialized medicine and on the surface it’s a pretty compelling one. In France, doctors make house calls and maternity leaves are a full year. In England, doctors in their socialized medical system continue to live among the upper strata of society, putting paid the fear that doctors here would become underpaid and eventually the best and brightest wouldn’t want to be in the medical profession here.

Moore looks at the bureaucracies at HMOs, pharmaceutical companies and health insurance companies, noting the obscene profits they make and debunking the popular excuse that these companies put their profits into research and development, which is patently not true.

Moore pretty much leaves no room for doubt as to where he stands – that’s pretty much true of all his films – and while you have to admire his conviction and loyalty to his opinions, there is no discussion of any other options, as if we’re either stuck with the system we have or go with socialized medicine. There is no middle ground, or even different options. However on a personal note, I happen to agree with Moore in this instance.

In the four years since this documentary was made, a new President has been elected, one who attempted to institute reform to our health care system and has been fought tooth and nail on every front. We wound up with a watered-down version of what he originally wanted, one which Republicans vow will be overturned.

As I said to begin with, the state of health care in the United States is a national disgrace. It doesn’t have to do with the doctors and nurses and technicians who provide extraordinary care to their patients but with the bureaucrats and politicians who undermine the ability of those health care professionals to provide that care to all who need it.

Let me put this in another way. Let’s say the CEO of Goldman Sachs gets a rare form of cancer. At the same time, an unemployed factory worker gets the same exact disease. Both need an expensive and rare treatment. The CEO, with the best health care money can buy, will in all likelihood not be denied by the health insurance he carries and even if he is, he can afford to pay for it himself. The factory worker, unable to afford the treatment, must hope he gets better on his own. My question to you is this; why is the life of the CEO of Goldman Sachs worth more than that of the unemployed factory worker? And why is some functionary at a health insurance company allowed to make that call?

WHY RENT THIS: A scathing look at a problem which continues to plague us to this day.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: As is typical for Moore, he tends to be overly slanted towards his own beliefs; other solutions tend to be ridiculed or not given coverage at all.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the language is a little rough and the concepts might fly over the head of younger people.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Insurance companies banned their employees from speaking to Moore under any circumstance for this documentary.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a music video, a featurette on Norway’s policies which outdo those of France, a look at an attempt to introduce a national health insurance plan pre-Obamacare and a look at community fundraisers to aid those who can’t afford their medical bills.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $36.1M on a $9M production budget; the movie was a modest hit.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Make Believe

The Damned United


The Damned United

Peter Taylor and Brian Clough did precious little celebrating during Clough's tenure at Leeds United.

(2009) True Sports Drama (Sony Classics) Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Jim Broadbent, Stephen Graham, Peter McDonald, Elizabeth Carling. Directed by Tom Hooper

People in the United States can’t really appreciate just how rabid the love for their football clubs the English hold. Comparatively, our American football fans are like the polite Wimbledon audience, politely applauding a spirited volley. In England, people live and die by their favorite clubs, their love spanning generations in the same family. Songs are written about their favorite clubs and the fans know every word, singing them at the matches in unison, tens of thousands of voices strong or in the pubs watching the matches on the telly, voices soaked with whiskey, beer and gin. For many, their identity consists to a large part of which club they support.

In the 60s, Leeds United was one of the most dominant teams in England, regularly winning the league title and representing England in the European Cup. Their manager was Don Revie (Meaney), a bull of a man who was beloved in Leeds but not so much elsewhere. His United club played a rough and tumble brand of football that some said crossed the line of fair play.

Young Brian Clough (Sheen) manages Derby County, a second division club with high hopes – some would say delusions of grandeur. An outspoken self-promoter prone to saying outrageous things at inappropriate times, he succeeds at winning Derby County a promotion to the first division and even a spot in the European Cup, but Clough is snubbed by Revie during a match between the two clubs.

From then on Clough felt a passionate hatred for Leeds United, one that perhaps wasn’t quite warranted. His assistant manager Pete Taylor (Spall) was not quite as angry about the snub. A great football tactician, Taylor and Clough, a master motivator,  made a formidable team. However, Derby County chairman Sam Longson (Broadbent) continually butted heads with his brash manager over personnel decisions and finances. Clough accused him of putting profits ahead of winning, which is easy to do when you’re not spending your own money. Eventually, he would turn in his resignation, never believing for a moment it would be accepted and that his demands for more control over the football team and a higher salary would be met. To his horror, his resignation was accepted.

Clough would eventually accept a position with the Hove and Albion Brighton club, but would renege on that agreement when Leeds United came calling. It seems that Don Revie was taking the job as the manager for the national team. Clough was one of the brightest up-and-coming stars in English football management; it was thought he would bring Leeds United decades of similar success as Revie had.

That wasn’t to be. Clough despised the players of Leeds United and made that clear. He continued to make incendiary remarks to the press and as a result his team started losing. It went from the champions of English football to being in real danger of being relegated to the second division. There was nothing for it but Clough had to be sacked. His reign in Leeds lasted a grand total of 44 days.

Now, that is a whole lot of English sports history and to most English schoolboys, this is as well-known as Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls are here. Here in the United States, most people don’t know Leeds United from Manchester United and Billy Bremner (Graham) from Billy Idol. Still, that shouldn’t diminish from the enjoyment of the movie. This is a football movie in the same way Brian’s Song is a football movie – the game stays on the periphery of the story, which is about the people who lived these events.

Sheen does a bang-up job in his role as Clough. Not being familiar with the real Brian Clough (the pronunciation rhymes with rough), I can’t really say if he caught the nature of the real man, but I can say that his performance showed equal parts arrogance and insecurity (which are two qualities that generally go together). He is fascinating to watch, and keeps your attention throughout the movie. Spall does a terrific job as the yin to Clough’s yang, or vice versa. The two actors mesh well together and the real genuine love and respect between the two sports icons comes through. As with any relationship of love and respect, it inspires some epic bickering, but there is never a sense that there is a false moment in that critical relationship which is at the center of the story.

Meaney and Broadbent are reliable actors and neither disappoint here. Scripter Peter Morgan (who also penned The Queen) has put together some impressive writing yet again; I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the top handful of screenwriters working in the business today. Hooper does a great job of building the era and the atmosphere surrounding a championship sports team nicely.

This is an interesting look at how ego and vanity can turn even someone driven and intelligent off-course. Clough went on to be one of the greatest managers in English football history, more or less the equivalent of a Vince Lombardi or a Tom Landry, and is regarded as such in England. Those 44 days are the only stain on an otherwise superior record and given the talent he had to work with, it’s easy to wonder what went wrong. While the Clough family and many players for both Derby and Leeds United have gone on record as regarding this work as fiction, it nonetheless works on a dramatic level.

WHY RENT THIS: Stellar performances from Sheen and Spall help illuminate the inner machinations of an English football club in the ‘70s. The movie doesn’t require audiences to be English football fans in order to appreciate it.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: American audiences may not appreciate the place in the history of the sport that Clough and Revie held and not be much interested in the subject.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of foul language, more than smaller kids might be used to. Should be okay for teens that have an interest in the history of English soccer.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scenes set at the Derby County practice field were actually filmed in Leeds, ironically on a pitch overlooking the stadium where Leeds United plays.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are a couple of features on how Sheen took on the formidable task of re-creating Brian Clough, channeling him in a typical Clough-like press conference. There’s also a feature on English soccer in the 70s and Clough’s lasting influence on the game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $4.1M on an unreported budget; if I were a bettin’ man I’d wager they made a little bit of money.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

TOMORROW: A Serious Man

Nanny McPhee Returns (Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang)


Nanny McPhee Returns

Quoth the raven, nevermore.

(Universal) Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Oscar Steer, Asa Butterfield, Lil Woods, Eros Vlahos, Rosie Taylor-Ritson, Daniel Mays, Rhys Ifans, Maggie Smith, Ralph Fiennes, Sinead Matthews, Katy Brand, Bill Bailey, Ewan McGregor, Sam Kelly.  Directed by Susanna White

It’s been five years since movie audiences in the States met Nanny McPhee, the wonderfully magical nanny from the Nurse Matilda series of books by Christianna Brand. Has she been missed?

We’ll get to that question in a moment. First, to the plot; fans of the first film will certainly recognize some of the particulars. While the first film was set in the Victorian era, this is set during World War II as the Green household is struggling. Isabella Green (Gyllenhaal) is trying to keep her head above water while her husband Rory (McGregor, mostly seen in family photographs and a touching flashback scene when Isabella washes her wedding veil) is off at war. The bucolic family farm is in big trouble; Isabella doesn’t have the money to make the next tractor payment. Without that tractor, they won’t be able to harvest the barley and if the barley isn’t harvested, they’ll lose the farm.

Young Norman (Butterfield), the man of the house while his dad’s away, has come up with the solution of selling the piglets to Farmer McGregor (Bailey) who’s willing to pay them enough money to make the tractor payment. His sister Megsie (Woods) and brother Vincent (Steer) are none to pleased about it, although they are more or less resigned to losing the piglets in order to keep the farm. However, with their dad gone (and no word from him in over three months) and their mom working in the shop of chronically confused and forgetful Mrs. Docherty (Smith), the three are acting out and constantly bickering like, well, cats and dogs.

To add to the misery, their snooty cousins from London, Cyril (Vlahos) and Celia (Taylor-Ritson) are coming to stay with them to escape the bombs of the Blitz. Now everybody is fighting, and snarky Uncle Phil (Ifans) is plotting to get Isabella to sell her half of the farm so he can sell his half to pay off the gambling debts he’s run up, otherwise two hitwomen – Miss Topsey (Matthews) and Miss Turvey (Brand) will take his kidneys instead. Hey, there’s a war on – all the good hitmen are in the Army!

To bring peace to her household, in pops Nanny McPhee (Thompson, reprising her role – as well as her position as writer and producer – from the original) with a flatulent blackbird on her shoulder. As before, when she is needed but not wanted she must stay; when she is wanted but no longer needed she must leave. Also as before, she is decidedly not attractive with several nasty warts, a snaggle tooth and broomstraw hair. Most importantly, as before, she has the crooked walking stick which when banged once on the ground produces magical results.

It’s these magics that made the first Nanny McPhee so visually delightful but as in the first, while necessary to the plot, it is the heart of the movie that makes it compelling. In the first movie, that heart made one of the more wonderful children’s movies of recent years; here the heart is not as evident.

The performances are satisfactory enough, particularly among the child actors. In particular, Vlahos, Butterfield and Taylor-Ritson might easily have been cast as the leads in the Harry Potter series had they just started filming it this year.

There are some moments that do tug at the heartstrings. One of the best is a scene between Cyril, Norman and Cyril’s dad (Fiennes), a high muckety-muck at the War Office. The gulf between Cyril and his father is evident and it is just as plain that neither one of them knows how to bridge it, although they both desperately want to. It’s superbly done, and ranks with moments from recent Pixar movies like Up, Wall-E and Toy Story 3 as some of the best kidflick scenes in the past few years.

Gyllenhaal also does well as Isabella. She maintains a pretty decent British accent, and manages to walk the fine line between melancholy and manic cheerfulness without seeming fake in either; it takes skill to make them both work so organically but then again Gyllenhaal has plenty of skill. Thompson is surprisingly muted in her role as Nanny McPhee; she was certainly much more of a presence in the first movie but seems content to remain in the background for most of the movie other than to bang her cane occasionally.

When the cane is banged, some imaginative things happen, mostly involving animals like synchronized swimming pigs (who also fly, which puts rout to that particular cliché) and a kleptomaniac elephant but also saluting statuary.

Where the movie falls short is in the humor, which mostly revolves around pratfalls, poo and farting. I realize that kids don’t have the most sophisticated humor on earth, but I think that the filmmakers underestimate the sophistication of modern kid audiences; it was, in other words, dumbed down a little too much. Kids are far smarter than we tend to give them credit for; the odd thing is that the kids in the movie are pretty savvy and mature. Why wouldn’t the kids watching the movie also be?

I wasn’t as taken by the sequel as I was the original, but there is enough charm here to motivate me to give it a tenuous recommendation. It was released in the UK in March and did solid box office business there as well as in Europe; enough so there is rumblings that a third Nanny McPhee movie may be in the works down the road. Unfortunately, I’m not sure how excited I am about seeing it after this one. Hopefully Thompson will be able to recapture the magic of the first and combine it with the kind of casting that was done for the second; now that would be movie magic indeed.

In answer to the question I posed at the beginning of the review, she was obviously missed in Europe where the movie has done well, but not so much in America where it has not; to be fair, the original Nanny McPhee didn’t do so much business in the States either. Still, I found that I liked the character very much – the love child of Dumbledore and Mary Poppins – and was looking forward to seeing the sequel. While I was disappointed, I am still hopeful that should a third movie be made, it will be better. Does that qualify me for a Leap of Faith medal?

REASONS TO GO: Gyllenhaal and Thompson are two of my favorite actresses and I can’t quite say no to a movie both of them would be in. There are some well-done scenes in the movie.

REASONS TO STAY: The humor is dumbed down unnecessarily to a barrage of pratfalls and poo jokes.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of poo humor to keep the kids in lowbrow laughs; however, there are some themes that have to do with wartime and death that might make it a tough viewing for smaller or sensitive kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: On the Courage medal that Nanny McPhee wears, there is clearly an engraving of a lion, a nod to The Wizard of Oz’ Cowardly Lion. Also, as Nanny McPhee and the boys approach London, there are several anti-aircraft balloons seen floating in the air; the one above Battersea Power Station is in the shape of a pig, a nod to the 1977 Pink Floyd album cover for Animals, which depicted the same scene.

HOME OR THEATER: Unless your kids are clamoring to see it, you can get away with waiting for the DVD/Blu-Ray to come out.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

TOMORROW: Big Fan

Alice in Wonderland (2010)


Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Let it be said that too much time in Hollywood can give you a big head.

(Disney) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman (voice), Stephen Fry (voice), Timothy Spall (voice), Michael Gough (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Christopher Lee (voice). Directed by Tim Burton

The world as we know it is a crazy place. Sometimes we do things for reasons even we can’t fathom. There are times that the craziest people of all are truly the sanest.

Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) is the daughter of a visionary. Her father Charles (Marton Csokas) founded a successful import company on the premise of pushing beyond the boundaries of what is considered reasonable. “I often do six impossible things before breakfast” he tells his adoring daughter, soothing her whenever she has one of her frequent nightmares.

But it’s always the same nightmare, falling down an endless hole into an impossible place with strange creatures. That nightmare continues to occur even when she is a young lady, her father prematurely dead and now her mother determined to see her wed to the impossibly haughty Lord Hamish (Leo Bill). This doesn’t sit well with the plucky and intelligent Alice who can’t see being married to an absolute twit, but at the same time the marriage may be necessary to the survival of her family.

She follows a rabbit racing through the underbrush at the Ascot Manor until she finds a convenient hole to fall in. There she reaches a strange place, a kind of underbrush below the world, where potions can shrink her and little tea cakes can make her grow to gigantic dimensions.

This isn’t the Wonderland that Lewis Carroll told us about. The Red Queen (Carter) has taken over, ruling the land by intimidation. Her Knave (Glover) leads a pack of mechanical-looking soldiers throughout Wonderland to intimidate and wipe out any resistance. Her iron will is enforced by the Jabberwocky (Lee) which is far too powerful for anyone in Wonderland to overcome and the only weapon that is capable of slaying it, the Vorpal Sword, is in the hands of the Red Queen.

Alice believes this is all a dream and despite her many attempts to awaken, remains dreaming. She is taken to the caterpillar Absalom (Rickman) who proclaims that she’s “not hardly” the right Alice that the denizens of Wonderland are awaiting to slay the Jabberwocky. When the Knave attacks along with the terrifying Bandersnatch, she finds her way to the Mad Hatter (Depp), once the haberdasher to the White Queen (Hathaway) but now completely insane and harmless, although he harbors much ill will towards the Red Queen. His little group of followers includes the Cheshire Cat (Fry) – an expert in evaporation, the plucky Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the nearly-as-mad March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the loyal bloodhound Bayard (Spall).

Forces are gathering with the fate of Wonderland itself in the balance as the Frabjuous Day approaches, the day that Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwocky. Is she the right Alice? Or is she merely a plucky girl lost in a strange dream?

Tim Burton has always been one of the most imaginative directors in Hollywood from a visual standpoint with only Terry Gilliam to rival him. With movies like Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood to his credit, he has long been a director whose work is so interesting that he has become a brand name unto himself. Quite frankly, his version of a children’s story that he never particularly connected to as a child will end up ranking as one of the very best works of his illustrious career.

This Wonderland is amazing to look at, with creatures that are both strange and terrifying wandering around the landscape. The characters are mostly grotesques, with the bulbous-headed Red Queen leading the pack looking not unlike a forced perspective illusion.

This is a fabulous cast, and Depp is terrific as the Hatter, lending the character depth that it was never accorded either in the Lewis Carroll book or in the many film and animation versions that follow. His madness isn’t just a joke; it is hard-won by devastating events in his life. As good as Depp is, he doesn’t overwhelm the movie and is content to be a cog in the wheel rather than the straw that stirs the drink. Carter is also clearly having a great time as the Red Queen and screams “Off with their heads!!!” with great gusto.

The story isn’t taken straight from the Alice books that Lewis Carroll wrote but is rather inspired by them. Burton chooses to take a route that ages Alice into young womanhood and while he keeps the Victorian era (which in many ways seems as strange to us as Wonderland itself does) he gives the story a logical flow that makes sense within the confines of the universe created by Carroll, and still works for modern audiences. The writing is absolutely audacious and brilliant.

Some critics have groused about the action sequences in the final act but I find that a bit prissy. Certainly Burton could have come up with something a little more talky or prosaic but I found the action curiously satisfying. It helps wrap things up from a Wonderland standpoint, and gives Alice the necessary courage to finally embrace her own strengths.

Not everyone is going to love this movie as much as I did. Certainly purists are going to grumble at the liberties taken with Carroll’s story and those expecting a live action version of Disney’s animated feature of Alice are going to be extremely disappointed. There are those who won’t like Burton’s vision and may find it too esoteric and too fantastic.

Never mind them. I admire imagination in all its forms and even when I don’t get it, I at least try to give props for the attempt. Here I clearly connected with what Burton was trying to do and I wasn’t the only one. This is a marvelous movie that has only a few minor flaws that keep it from my highest rating possible. I can recommend it without reservation to anyone except those who like their fantasies safe and spoon-fed. Those sorts probably shouldn’t be reading my blog anyway.

REASONS TO GO: Completely imaginative, this is a movie that actually improves on a classic. Great acting, a believable story and impressive visuals make this one of the year’s top movies early on.  

REASONS TO STAY: Wasikowska is at times a little bland as Alice. Purists will shudder at the liberties taken with Carroll’s work.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some mildly disturbing images and the wee small tykes may be a bit frightened by some of the fiercer creatures, but otherwise suitable for everyone.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: If you look carefully at images of the Mad Hatter, one of his pupils is dilated and the other is not, which implies a serious brain injury.

HOME OR THEATER: This is best served on a big screen in 3D; even better in IMAX if that’s available near you.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: Body of Lies

The Wolfman (2010)


The Wolfman

Someone's in need of a manicure...REEEEEEAL bad!

(Universal) Benicio del Toro, Anthony Hopkins, Emily Blunt, Hugo Weaving, Art Malik, Geraldine Chaplin, Nicholas Day, Michael Cronin, David Sterne, David Schofield, Roger Frost, Rob Dixon, Clive Russell. Directed by Joe Johnston

We may carry a civilized veneer, but inside we all carry the soul of the beast. Inside, we are primitive, vicious and impulsive. The beast is never far from the surface, nearer for some than for others.

Laurence Talbot (Del Toro) is summoned to Blackmoor, the country village near Talbot Manor where he grew up. His brother’s fiancée Gwen Conliffe (Blunt) has written him to inform him that his brother has turned up missing. Laurence is a distinguished actor on the London stage, but he hurries out to his old stomping grounds, from whence he’s been estranged for nearly his entire adult life.

When he arrives there he finds his ancestral home is falling apart at the seams. Fallen leaves and dirt have blown into the main hall, bringing the autumn indoors. Cobwebs adorn the rafters and ghosts roam the hallways. His father, Sir John Talbot (Hopkins) inhabits the house but he doesn’t really live there – it couldn’t possibly be called a life. His faithful servant Singh (Malik) tends to his needs, but Sir John is a shadow of his former self and has been that way since his wife killed herself in full view of young Laurence.

His father greets him with the bleak news that his brother’s body had been found only the day before. The body has been severely mutilated, so much so that nobody’s really sure whether it was the work of an animal or a human lunatic loose on the moors. The suspicious and superstitious townspeople (really, is there a Universal horror picture that doesn’t have suspicious superstitious townspeople?) know what they think – that it’s the work of a group of gypsies that have been in the vicinity at about the time that other bodies similarly mutilated started turning up.

Laurence meets Gwen, whose staying at the house until the funeral and it becomes quickly apparent that there is a very strong bond between them. Laurence’s main concern, however, is to find out what happened to his brother and make sure the guilty party is brought to justice. Although he is warned to stay indoors that night because of a full moon, Laurence decides to go to the gypsy camp. He meets there with an old woman named Maleva (Chaplin) who knows more about the murder than she is letting on. Before she can tell anything, however, a group of angry townspeople burst into the camp, looking for retribution. Just then, the camp comes under attack.

The attacker is incredibly fast, savage. Both gypsy and townsperson are at risk; nobody is safe and people on both sides are maimed and killed with abandon. Laurence himself is viciously wounded in the attack.

He is taken back to the Manor where he is found to be healing unnaturally fast from his wounds. While he is convalescing he is questioned by Inspector Abberline (Weaving) of Scotland Yard, who has been called in to investigate the gruesome murders. It becomes apparent that Abberline regards Laurence as a suspect more than a victim.

Secrets from the Talbot family’s past slowly begin to surface from the bowels of the decrepit mansion and an unspeakable horror is soon unleashed on London. Can Laurence discover a way out of the events that are spiraling to an inevitable conclusion before he is swept under by them?

This is not a faithful remake of the 1941 horror classic of the same name. Director Johnston (Jurassic Park III, Jumanji, The Rocketeer) does an excellent job of creating a gothic atmosphere that is filled with foreboding and grimness. The moors become a palpable presence, shrouded by mist and filled with primeval beauty that comes upon them unexpectedly. Of all his directing efforts (which have been marked with considerable box office success), this is his best work to date.

One of the hardest things to do is remake a classic because if you go with the same elements that worked the first time, you’re accused of ripping off the original and if you try to put your own stamp on it, you are criticized for desecration of the original. It’s a lose-lose situation, and only rarely have these types of remakes succeeded (as The Mummy did). The writers here tend to go more extreme with gore and special effects in order to differentiate itself from the original. I’m not sure that this will completely eliminate unfavorable comparisons with the original.

I will admit this movie resonated with Da Queen much more than it did with me. She found Del Toro’s Laurence Talbot to be understated and subtle, expressing his inner torment on his face without resorting to shouting at the camera. He managed to elicit compassion from Da Queen and, I suspect, much more of the female portion of the audience than the male. She found it a convincing performance.

For me, Del Toro was a bit too understated. I would have liked to see a little more passion from him. I think in many ways he was trying to distance himself from the original Lon Chaney Jr. performance by distancing himself from the audience; in that he is successful. His character was meant to be a tragic romantic hero and in an era when gothic romance means Edward Cullen, the Laurence Talbots of the world get swept aside in a wave of female teenaged hormones. In some ways, Del Toro never had a chance.

He has some support though. Rick Baker was the only name on the short list of make-up effects wizards to pull off the look of the Werewolf, and he does an amazing job. The hirsute look of Del Toro allows him to look bestial and feral while retaining the human emotions that Del Toro is obliged to display. There’s enough difference between the make-up design here and on his seminal An American Werewolf in London that it doesn’t feel like he’s repeating himself.

Effects-wise, the one area that disappoints is the actual transformation from human to werewolf. We’ve seen it done in a variety of ways from the original optical dissolves to the practical effects of The Howling and the aforementioned An American Werewolf in London. What we see here doesn’t really make me forget any of those movies and quite frankly, given today’s digital technology, it should have. I was certainly expecting better.

There is a lot of gore here but not enough of the eye candy that modern audiences have come to expect. There is a terrible misuse of CGI; the scenes of the werewolf bounding through the forest looks patently fake and serves to jar the viewer out of the atmosphere of the film, which is a pity because Johnston and his team worked so hard in creating a good one. I love the classic gothic horror movies, and this one retains enough of the original that I can recommend it, but walk into the multiplex with the expectation that this remains the dark shadow of the original, reflected by flickering candlelight. Which, in its own way, is appropriate.

REASONS TO GO: Johnston really captures the gothic and grim atmosphere of the moors. Rick Baker’s make-up is astonishing.

REASONS TO STAY: Del Toro isn’t particularly scintilating in a role that calls for a romantic lead who’s actually romantic. Transformation sequences aren’t any better than, say, An American Werewolf in London.

FAMILY VALUES: Gruesome, horrific violence and gothic images make this strictly for mature teens and older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Inspector Abberline is a fictionalized version of an actual historical figure. He was, as Laurence alludes to in the film, the man who was a crucial member of the Jack the Ripper investigation for Scotland Yard. Francis was the nickname of the detective, whose real name was Frederick. He would wind up working for the Pinkertons after retiring from Scotland Yard.

HOME OR THEATER: The chilling atmosphere is definitely suitable for the small screen and the intimacy of house and home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: September Dawn

Stardust


Stardust

Danes and Cox are bemused by DeNiro's assertion that Martin Scorsese taught him how to waltz.

(Paramount) Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert De Niro, Charlie Cox, Claire Danes, Peter O’Toole, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Henry Cavill, Rupert Everett, Ricky Gervais, Kate Magowan, Ian McKellan (voice), Nathaniel Parker, David Kelly. Directed by Matthew Vaughn.

This arrives to us from the mind of Neil Gaiman, one of the most respected names in the Graphic Novel field today. The man who gave us such works as Sandman, Death: The High Cost of Living and Coraline also gave us this, his version of high fantasy.

The village of Wall in England is so-named because of a long wall running along the edge of the town. It seems like an ordinary wall, with a breach in it where the stones have collapsed over the year – it’s a very old wall, after all – with the town on one side and pleasant fields on the other. However, persistent town legend has it that crossing through the wall takes you to a place not known to man. The legend is so widespread that the town actually has a guard posted 24-7 at the breach, although few in Wall are so addled as to wish to see what lies on the other side.

One night, a young man does so and meets a girl, a beautiful girl who says she is a princess being held captive by a witch. The young man and the girl do what comes naturally to young men and girls and nine months later, the young man has a special delivery from the wall guard – a baby, who the young man is charged with raising.

Years later – 18 of them, to be exact – the baby has grown into a young man himself, a shop boy named Tristan (Cox). He is deeply besotted by Victoria (Miller), a town beauty who is very rich and being wooed by equally rich (and equally shallow) Humphrey (Cavill). However, she finds a soft spot for the lovestruck Tristan and agrees to go on a late night picnic with him. Tristan is devastated by the news that Humphrey has gone to Ipswich to buy an engagement ring which he intends to present to Victoria at her birthday party a week hence. She intends to say yes to Humphrey.

Just then they are interrupted by the descent of a falling star. In a moment of romantic passion, Tristan promises to retrieve the star for Victoria. She agrees if Tristan can do this, she will be his. In the meantime, the star has landed and it’s not a piece of rock or a chunk of metal. It is, in fact, a beautiful girl (Danes) who goes by the name of Yvaine. Her arrival has signaled a time of great changes in the land – not England, for the Wall is in fact a magic dividing point that separates the land of reason (England) from the land of magic (Stormhold). The King of Stormhold (O’Toole) is dying, and as is customary in that autocratic land, the crown princes are murdering one other in order to be the last prince standing in line for the throne.  It turns out that since four…er,  three princes remain and the King doesn’t have time to wait for the others to go about finishing the others off, he sets a challenge – the prince who can retrieve an amulet and restore the color to the ruby within it will be King. The trouble is that the ruby is around the neck of Yvaine.

There is also a wicked witch named Lamia (Pfeiffer) who knows that the heart of the star bestows youth and beauty on those who know how to use it. For her and her sisters, it is absolutely vital that they retrieve this star since their last one is almost gone and the old girls are beginning to show their age.

Everybody is after the star, but it is Tristan who finds her first. He promises to help her return home to the heavens once he’s presented her to his true love, so Yvaine – who doesn’t like this overly earnest and awkward young man – begrudgingly agrees. This sets in motion a series of perils, pirates (led by the able Captain Shakespeare, played with panache by De Niro) and all manner of really bad people.

This is a movie of charm and wit. There are some great moments and a few real good laughs, but there are some moments of poignancy and real insight as well. Director Vaughn, best-known for Layer Cake, balances all of the elements very nicely. Yes, it’s definitely a fantasy but there isn’t an over-reliance on special effects. Sure, there are some breathtaking moments like the Sky Pirate Ship landing on the water, or a duel between Tristan and Lamia, but the appeal here is in a lovely simple story and some solid acting.

Cox is very likable in his role, and De Niro is obviously having a good time in his role as the pirate captain with a reputation to uphold, but it is Pfeiffer who in all ways is the real reason to go see this movie. She makes a really terrific villain (as those who’ve seen her in Hairspray can attest) and isn’t afraid to have a ton of make-up and prosthetics applied to artificially age her, despite being one of the most beautiful women in the world (still). She plays the part with supreme self-confidence and unleashes one of her best performances in years. It’s a surprisingly demanding role and one critical to the movie’s success, but Pfeiffer pulls it off admirably. This may not be necessarily Oscar material, but it’s the kind of work that gets the kind of work that a good actress wants to do for her.

I was enchanted with Stardust from the very first moment when McKellan’s stentorian narration begins. The world here is richly detailed, which is I think one of the great selling points to most fantasy readers, in the same way that Tolkein’s Middle-Earth is, or Lewis’ Narnia. Stormhold is a world that is lived in and watching this you naturally want to live in it too. I highly recommend Stardust for anyone who loves fantasy movies, fairy tales, adventure stories or romances – and especially for those who love all of the above.

WHY RENT THIS: Charming and witty. Lovely performances, particularly from Pfeiffer. A fully realized fantasy world that you want to live in.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Drags a bit in the middle. Some of the plot points are a bit worn thin.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some minor violence and sexuality but nothing not suitable for kids.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Captain Shakespeare’s vessel, the Caspartine, is named after director Matthew Vaughn’s two children, Caspar and Clementine.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Daredevil