If I were, I suppose, a less realistic fellow, I would probably make a New Year's Resolution about staying on top of my reviews, instead of letting five months go by before getting down to it. But, to borrow from the inestimable William Goldman: "We are men of action; lies do not become us."
Let's get down to it then, shall we?
Little, Big, by John Crowley: As regular readers may know, one of my favorite authors in any genre is Gene Wolfe. So when I heard that John Crowley, and particularly his book Little, Big, were important to understanding Wolfe, I immediately put it on my list. Having finished it, I can see a lot of similarities to Wolfe; there are also echoes of Steinbeck and Gabriel García Márquez. It took me a long time to read it, it was difficult and took work to understand, and even having finished it and having had several months to think about it, I'm sure that there's a lot I missed. Yet just like a Wolfe novel, the prose was beautiful, the story was layered and profound, and the experience, though challenging, was deeply rewarding.
Little, Big is the story of Smoky Barnable, who at the beginning of the book meets the beautiful and enigmatic Daily Alice Drinkwater, and goes on a journey to fulfill a prophecy and marry her. It's also the story of the complicated history of the Drinkwater family, their roots and their destiny. It's also the story of the strange house that the Drinkwaters live in, which sits on the edge of two worlds. And most of all it's a fairy tale, but the older, darker, twistier sort of fairy tale. It's a beautiful though often puzzling story, and filled with little pearls, some of which have stuck in my brain. This one, for example:
"Cloud had said: it only seems as though the world is getting old and worn out, just as you are yourself. Its life is far too long for you to feel it age during your own. What you learn as you get older is that the world is old, and has been old for a long time."
I am certain that I'm going to revisit this book some day, and I'm equally certain that when I do, I'll discover all sorts of nuggets I didn't notice the first time. It'll be a while before I'm ready to put in the time again, but when I do, it'll be worth it. (Read 4/11/2012 - 7/9/2012.)
The Sharing Knife, by Lois McMaster Bujold: It seems to be a bit of a pattern for me that what I like most about Bujold's books is the setting. This series, comprising four novels (Beguilement, Legacy, Passage, and Horizon), follows an unlikely couple on a series of adventures exploring their world and its magic. Fawn is a young woman who leaves her farm to make her own way in a nearby town after her boyfriend gets her pregnant and then leaves her. Dag is a Lakewalker, a member of a roving patrol dedicated to keeping the land safe from malices--ravening monsters who feed on life energy.
I've heard that this series was intended as Bujold's experiment with blending the romance and fantasy genres. For me, the strength of the series is as usual for her writing: an intriguing and well-imagined world with a rich (if sometimes frustratingly unexplored) backstory; a novel system of magic, the consequences and details of which are well explored; and a (mostly) interesting cast of characters. Where I personally felt it lacked compared to Bujold's other work was in the more romance-y parts--Dag is a little too competent, Fawn is a little too much of a diamond in the rough, and much of the character tension felt a bit melodramatic. Still, I read the entire series in just a few days, so you can tell I was entertained. (Read 7/13/2012 - 7/18/2012.)
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender: What if you could taste the emotions of whoever made the food you were eating? What insights would it give you into the people around you, and would you be able to bear it? In Aimee Bender's book, this is exactly what happens to the protagonist, Rose Edelstein, on her ninth birthday. We follow Rose through her childhood and early adulthood, as she learns to cope with this affliction, as well as to deal with what she inadvertently learns about the people around her. It's a beautiful book, lyrical at times, and with a haunting ending. Fantastic stories give us the opportunity to explore the familiar experiences of life in new ways, and The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake does it better than most any story I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. Highly recommended. (Read 10/12/2012 - 10/16/2012.)
Summerland, by Michael Chabon: I think Michael Chabon may just be the perfect writer for me. Perhaps not, but in any case he clearly thinks about and loves many of the same things I do. In The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay he showed his interest in the 1940's and the golden age of comics. In Manhood for Amateurs, his anecdotes about being a father, a son, a husband, and an American felt so familiar that it almost felt like he could have been talking about me. And now with Summerland he shows that he loves a fable, a fantasy, and a coming-of-age story just as much as I do. Summerland is a fairy tale drawn from the legends of many cultures--including Norse, Irish, and Native American myths and folklore--but told in a deeply American way. It's a YA novel, but like the best YA it holds up just as well for more mature readers. I absolutely adored this book, and I can't wait for my kids to be old enough for it. (Read 10/31/2012 - 11/6/2012.)
The New American Economy, by Bruce Bartlett: This book is somewhat inflammatorily subtitled "The Failure of Reaganomics and a New Way Forward." So I was a bit surprised at how much of it the author dedicates to defending the basic principles of supply-side economics. On the other hand, he also spends a good deal of time explaining and defending the roots of Keynesian economics, as well, so it does seem fairly even-handed, at least from a historical perspective. To sum up the general thesis of the book, Bartlett argues that both Keynesian and supply-side economics were developed to respond to very specific economic problems, and while each was very good at dealing with those specific problems, both encountered difficulties when they were expanded beyong their initial intentions. In the last chapter, Bartlett goes on to explain why he feels that spending cuts alone will be insufficient to solve our nation's fiscal issues, and why he believes that consumption-based taxes--and particularly a VAT--is the best way to raise new revenues. I'm not sure that I buy every aspect of Bartlett's argument, but if nothing else I found this book to be clearly written, easy to understand, and it gave me an interest in doing further research of my own. (Read 11/8/2012 - 12/19/2012.)
The Odd Life of Timothy Green: Back in August, Juliette and I had a rare date night and decided to go out for dinner and a movie. Unfortunately, the movie we planned to see--I can't remember which it was--was sold out, so we ended up seeing Timothy Green instead. There's not a whole lot I feel I need to say about it. The writing was mediocre and the acting wasn't much better, but even so, it was fine. Not particularly good, but not terrible, either. (Viewed 8/17/2012.)
The Campaign: This may sound like thin praise, but this was probably one of the better Will Ferrell movies I can recall. Of course, that was largely due to the presence of Zach Galifianakis, who imbued his performance with an earnestness that was quite surprising. I know that that may sound a bit hyperbolic--after all, the movie overall is a pretty broad and crass comedy. Still, there was something kind of touching about Galifianakis' Marty Huggins, without which I don't think the movie would have worked nearly as well without it. (Viewed 9/1/2012.)
Argo: I'm sure that by now everyone has heard all about how amazing this movie is, how skillfully the tension was built, how masterful the performances were. Certainly I heard all of that before we went to see it. I kind of wish I hadn't, because I'm pretty sure that there's no way that any movie could have lived up to the hype showered on this one. Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I certainly thought it was well done. But to hear some people talk about it, Argo was a tour-de-force, a masterpiece, and while I liked it quite a bit, I don't see myself coming back to it in the same way that I regularly revisit, say, Casablanca, or even The Big Lebowski. (Viewed 10/19/2012.)
Wreck-It Ralph: Given the importance of video games in my childhood--especially the games of the Atari and 8-bit eras--you'd think that Wreck-It Ralph would have my name written all over it. It didn't quite push all the right buttons--though not for lack of trying--but I did enjoy it pretty well. Moreover, I got to see it with Jason, and getting to share a movie experience with my son always improves it for me. The nerdy/retro game references were fun for the most part, even if they felt a bit shoehorned in at times, but what really worked for me were the scenes between Ralph and Venelope--there was an honest cuteness and nice chemistry between the two characters and their voice actors, which I quite liked. In any case, I'm sure that we'll be buying this one when it comes out on disc, since Jason loved it so much. I won't mind when we do. (Viewed 11/17/2012.)
Silver Linings Playbook: The last movie I saw this year turned out to be the best. David O. Russell's mixture of mental illness and rom-com tropes was one of the most refreshing and interesting takes on the romantic comedy genre I've ever seen. It was funny without being forced or clichèd, the humor stemming from genuine interaction and fully realized characters. It was also emotionally rich--heartbreaking at times, joyous at others. The performances were outstanding, including, of course, Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence as the leads, but Robert DeNiro very nearly stole the show with his portrayal of the protagonist's obsessive-compulsive father. I'm so glad to have ended the year on this movie, because it was just about perfect at what it did. (Viewed 12/22/2012.)
I estimate that I've seen each of the Toy Story movies at least fifteen times over the past four years. Those being Jason's most enduringly favorite movies over his life, that's no surprise, but in fact I've seen most of the Pixar features multiple times. Cars probably ten times, Cars 2 three or four, Finding Nemo seven or eight, A Bug's Life three, Up nine or ten. The one exception has been Wall-E, which I've seen exactly once, only because we don't own it. And now, of course, Brave.
I mention all of this because many of Pixar's movies hold up quite well to repeated viewings, even over a relatively short span of time. Some are better than others, but so far the only one that I find really grates on me is Cars 2, and, thankfully, Jason doesn't ask for that one often. By and large, though, I'm able to keep coming back to these movies and still enjoy them.
With that in mind, I'm curious to know how well Brave will fare after the fifth or tenth time I've seen it--as I'm sure Jason will insist on getting it as soon as the Blu-Ray comes out.
Now, overall I have to admit that I liked this movie quite a bit. As I've come to expect from Pixar, the animation and voice acting were superb, the comedy was well done, and there were moments of genuine emotion, especially near the climax. And while I agree with some of the critics who've wished that the filmmakers had done more to create a more feminist story (which is to say: one without princesses), I think that it's clear that the writers and directors were at least trying to break out of the typical family movie mold, and I think they deserve credit for that. It's been said before, but the fact that this company is so consistently able to churn out such high quality work is nothing short of astonishing.
Still, one of the things that struck me as I left the movie was how straightforward and simple the plot was. Unlike some recent favorites like Up and Toy Story 3, I never really felt very surprised by anything that happened, and if not for the fact that the voice acting was so good and the relationships so well realized, Brave might not have had much emotional impact for me.
Of course, throwing out an "if not for" like that sort of trivializes just how good those aspects were. Billy Connolly's distinctive voice has always been one of my favorites, and I don't think I've ever seen Emma Thompson not do well in a movie. And I've been a fan of Kelly Macdonald since No Country For Old Men made me go back and revisit her earlier work, so it was quite gratifying to hear her adding her talents to this movie as well.
And then there's all the rest: the wonderfully atmospheric setting, the comedy, the animation managing to be highly expressive with surprisingly few words, the characterization. There's a lot to admire about Brave.
So the question is, will all of that good stuff be enough to keep me coming back despite the sort of weak main plot? I think it most likely will, since after the twentieth viewing it's really the characters that hold my interest. Only time will tell, though.
Viewed: 6/29/2012 | Released: 6/22/2012 | Score: B+
Catching Up: Movies
I've somehow managed to average one movie a month since December, largely due to the fact that Jason is old enough to go to the theater now. That's way up from the past few years, but on the other hand, taking Jason with me means my choice of films has changed somewhat.
The Muppets: There aren't that many movies I get excited to see with Jason, but this was one of the few recent ones that fell into that category. I know that a number of purists--including Frank Oz--felt that too much license was taken with the characters, but for me this newest in a long line of Muppet movies hit all the right notes. The movie is overtly nostalgic, most of which would likely miss the younger audience members--especially those who are under the age of 4. But it worked perfectly on me, managing to both bring me back to my own childhood while still being clever enough to appeal to my current, "mature" self. And Jason liked it, too. (Viewed 12/27/2011.)
Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked: Look, sometimes you just need something to do that will keep your kid occupied. This was not a good movie, but that came as no surprise, and though I wasn't thrilled to see it, it also wasn't nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It gave me an excuse to eat popcorn and candy with my son, so at least on one level it was successful. (Viewed 1/2/2012.)
Beauty and the Beast 3D: Just as with the recent 3D re-release of The Lion King, I think that this movie was poorly served by the addition of 3D and I wish they'd leave well enough alone. Because we have it on DVD, Jason has seen Beauty and the Beast at least 20 times, so when I saw that it was coming back to the big screen I knew there was no way we'd be missing it. The thing is, though, it didn't need the 3D--we would have seen it anyway. Without the glasses sucking up the light from the screen, we'd have been able to see all of the color and brightness we were supposed to see. But the theater chains have to have some way to make money, and jacking up the ticket prices for 3D movies is the flavor of the week. As to the movie itself, I'm becoming more and more uncomfortable with the "love" story the more I watch it and the closer I get to my daughter being able to understand movies, but at this point it's become such a fixture in Jason's film life that I'm kind of stuck with it. (Viewed 1/21/2012.)
The Hunger Games: When the buzz around this movie first started and Juliette asked me whether or not I wanted to see it, I gave the following reasons for why I did not:
- I enjoyed the book and found it well-paced, full of action, and with a compelling central character, and I didn't see what the movie could possibly add to the experience.
- Film as a medium is great at showing action and visual scenery, but it is bad at showing the internal state of its characters. So much of the book revolves around what Katniss is thinking and how she feels, and it's just not possible for a movie to do a good job of showing all of that, especially not in a couple of hours.
- In order to fit into a reasonable amount of time, parts of the book would definitely have to be cut out, but the book was already lean enough that there was a strong risk of important nuance or characterization or plot being left out.
As we were walking out of the theater after the movie, she asked me what I thought, and I told her that everything I thought beforehand, I still thought. It turned out to be about as good an adaptation as could be hoped for, and several of the performances were pretty good--Jennifer Lawrence, of course, but I also quite liked Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci. At the end of the day, though, the movie just didn't bring anything new to the table--I really could have done without it. (Viewed 4/12/2012.)
The Pirates! Band of Misfits: I've been a fan of Aardman Animations since high school, when a friend of mine introduced me to Wallace and Gromit. I was really excited when Chicken Run came out. So the fact that I got to have a fun Daddy-Jason day at the movies at a time when this one was available was a real treat. I'm not sure I would put this latest title quite as high as some of the earlier favorites, but I found Pirates to be thoroughly enjoyable. A lot of the voice acting was top notch--Hugh Grant did a wonderful job, I thought, and I quite enjoyed Martin Freeman and Brendan Gleeson as well. I was also surprised and delighted to see that David Tennant provided the voice of Charles Darwin. Overall, a cute and fun movie that made for a fun afternoon out with my boy. (Viewed 4/28/2012.)
Fall Review Roundup
Here's a brief, non-inclusive list of things that have happened since I wrote my last review: I had a birthday, Jason had a birthday, the seasons changed, I shot my first wedding, and my daughter was born. I also read five books and saw three movies. Here are some quick takes, just to help me get caught up:
The Wise Man's Fear: After such a strong debut and after waiting impatiently for as long as I did, I was a little worried that the second installment of Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle wouldn't live up to my hopes. I needn't have worried, though--this second chapter may be even better. I'm not sure how Rothfuss will be able to wrap up this series in just one more book--there seems to be so much story still untold--and I'm sure that it will be years yet before I get to find out, but, man, I'm hooked. (Read 6/26/11 - 6/30/11.)
Manhood for Amateurs: I received this as a birthday present from a friend of mine who has very good taste in books, and who paid me the incredible compliment of telling me that she chose this for me because it reminded her of my writing. Having read it, I can kind of see what she means, in that the essays in this collection are about the same sorts of things that I tend to think and write about: fatherhood, American culture, pivotal moments of his youth and young adulthood. The difference is in the quality of writing--it almost seems impossible but his prose is both unmistakeably in his voice, so particular to himself, but at the same time so resonant and familiar that it felt like he was reading my mind. Suffice it to say, if you enjoy the stuff I write here, you will love this book. (Read 7/6/11 - 8/15/11.)
Cars 2: It seems thin praise, but mostly what I can think to say about this movie is that it's not as bad as everybody said it was. Sure, there wasn't much to it, a lot of the milieu didn't make sense, and the first movie was better. But it was a fun little diversion, and Jason liked it enough that he's still talking about some of the characters three months later. (Viewed 7/9/11.)
Winnie the Pooh: I wish I could tell you more about this movie, but I fell asleep about 20 minutes in, and didn't wake up until the credits rolled. What I do remember seemed a little smug in its postmodernity--the movie is presented as a book being read, and it breaks the fourth wall several times by having the characters interact with the printed text of the book--but the characters were mostly as I remembered them and Jason liked it. ("Viewed" 7/17/11.)
Storm Front and Fool Moon: One of my co-workers loaned me the first two books in Jim Butcher's Dresden Files series, and I tore through both of them in three days. They were, as he presented them, quite fluffy but very fun reads. Urban fantasy isn't typically one of my favorite genres, but I enjoyed the characters and the fast-paced, action-mystery plots, and I'm looking forward to picking up the rest of the series one of these days. (Read 8/16/11 - 8/18/11.)
The Lion King: Ever since we got that CD of Disney songs for Jason, I've been excited for him to see The Lion King, and he's been excited as well. When it came to theaters in advance of the Blu-Ray release (I could go on and on about how much I hate the whole concept of the Disney Vault, but that didn't stop me from snapping up the Diamond Edition as soon as it became available) we headed over to our local cineplex, where we found that the only showing at a good time for us was in the 3D theater. Which is unfortunate, because this movie was really not well-served by being re-done in 3D. Let's leave aside the argument that 3D is gimmicky and distracting and potentially migraine-inducing--the bigger problem is that the 3D version is way too dark. This is a movie that is all about bright, beautiful, cinematic scenes, and to have it all smothered and dulled by light-eating 3D glasses is just shameful. It looks better on my TV at home, and that's just not right. (Viewed 9/17/11.)
I do have one more book left to review, but since I just finished it a couple of days ago I'm going to let it marinate a bit more and give it its own post, hopefully next week. Until then, have a happy Halloween!
Just a little administrative note: I'm no longer part of Amazon's affiliate program, so I no longer receive a commission for sales through links on this site. The links are there now only as a convenience to you.
Kung Fu Panda 2
The Monday after I saw Kung Fu Panda 2, I mentioned to a coworker that I had done so. "I'm sorry," was his response. Which struck me as strange, since not only was it quite a good movie, but so was the first one. It turned out that he hadn't seen either, but it really speaks to the perception of DreamWorks as an animation studio that he would jump to such a conclusion.
Not that I can really blame him, of course. DreamWorks Animation initially made its name with Shrek, which wasn't bad (even though I do think it's ludicrous that it beat Monsters, Inc. for Best Animated Feature). But then came the second and third Shrek movies, which were awful, not to mention such gems as Shark Tale, Flushed Away, Madagascar, and Bee Movie. After such a long string of stinkers, I had, like my coworker, pretty much written off the studio.
Starting in 2008, though, with Kung Fu Panda, DreamWorks seems to have finally gotten its act together. The first Kung Fu Panda was a lot of fun, and 2010's How to Train Your Dragon was strong enough to give Pixar's offering from that year--Toy Story 3--a serious run for its money. In fact, I'm still not sure which I like better. And heck, even the fourth Shrek movie was decent.
So, coming into Kung Fu Panda 2, I had high hopes and expectations, and I'm happy to say that they were all met. I really liked it. I liked all of the returning cast--Jack Black, of course, as well as Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Seth Rogen, David Cross, James Jong, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu. Together, they formed a very effective ensemble, with a very good mix of comic sensibility and depth of character. Throw in Gary Oldman as the villain, Shen--a role perfect for Oldman's often over-the-top style--plus smaller appearances by Victor Garber, Dennis Haysbert, Danny McBride, Michelle Yeoh, and even Jean-Claude Van Damme* and you have a cast of voices that made me rejoice to hear it. Yes, there are a lot of famous names in there, but they all worked really well in their roles.
Plus, there was a lot of range to the script. It had me laughing at some points and actually got me a little choked up at others. I mean, who knows, I have become a bit of a crybaby in the past few years, but there was an honesty to some of the character interactions that I just found touching.
I'd put this as the first must-see family movie of the season, whether or not you have kids. And if you haven't seen the first one, throw it on your Netflix queue, because it's also well worth seeing.
* And, by the way, if you haven't seen Van Damme's 2008 film JCVD, I highly recommend it.
Viewed: 5/30/2011 | Released: 5/29/2011 | Score: A
Given that Sky Blue Sky Studios was the same group that brought us Ice Age and Robots, I really wasn't expecting much from Rio. After all, we live in an age where Pixar has repeatedly shown us that not just animated movies but family movies can have full, rounded characters with complex relationships in stories with real emotional depth. In comparison, Blue Sky's movies have typically just tried to cash in on celebrity voices and visual gags. And in a lot of ways, Rio follows that same formula. Still, I have to admit that it did a better job than any previous Blue Sky offerings, and while that's not exactly high praise, I can say that I enjoyed the movie well enough.
There's not really a lot to the movie, plotwise. Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg) is a rare blue parrot who lives with his owner Linda (Leslie Mann) in Minnesota. It turns out that he's the last known male of his species, so a Brazilian biologist named Tulio (Rodrigo Santoro) brings Blu and Linda down to Rio de Janeiro to try to pair Blue with a female blue macaw, Jewel (Anne Hathaway). But Blu and Jewel wind up getting stolen by bird smugglers and wacky hijinks ensue as the parrots try to escape.
I think the main problem I had with this movie was Jesse Eisenberg's voice acting. Not that he did a particularly bad job, and in a lot of respects that casting choice makes sense. Blu is, after all, shy, awkward, and young. If you want a voice that sums that up quickly you're pretty much down to Eisenberg or Michael Cera. The problem is that both of those actors have such distinctive voices that hearing them immediately evokes their images, so having Eisenberg voice a cartoon bird kept jarring me out of the movie.
On the other hand, despite the fact that the jokes were mostly pretty facile, they were executed well enough by the various actors that I found myself laughing out loud several times. Plus, the movie was quite pretty to look at--it's really amazing how far computer imagery has come in such a short amount of time.
It's pretty unlikely that Rio will be winning any awards, but if all you need is a movie you can take your kids to without too much pain, you could definitely do worse.
Viewed: 5/8/2011 | Released: 4/15/2011 | Score: B-
Gnomeo & Juliet
2010 was a pretty good year for animated movies. Of course, Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon were fantastic, and I wrote before about liking Tangled quite a bit. Heck, even the latest Shrek offering was decent. And then Jason's interest in movies has been growing steadily, and we had a bunch of theater gift cards left over from Christmas, so we decided to take a chance on Gnomeo & Juliet.
Unfortunately, though perhaps unsurprisingly, this gnomish take on Shakespeare's classic tale of star-crossed lovers failed to measure up to the high bar set by last year's animated hits.
I had my suspicions going in, of course. I mean, a tragedy ending in a double suicide doesn't seem like the most fertile ground for a family cartoon, does it? But then, animation studios have been doing a great job with creating more honest, engaging children's fare lately, well-written stories with fully realized characters. Maybe this one would follow that same path, I thought. And then I heard Kenneth Turan's review on NPR's Morning Edition, in which he called it "playful, inventive, and endearing," and "the pleasantest surprise of the season." With that kind of praise, I let myself be talked into overcoming my initial reservations.
Having seen it for myself, I have to wonder whether Mr. Turan and I actually saw the same movie. The writing was completely formulaic and dull, replete with your wise-cracking sidekicks and pop music montages. The performances were forgettable. The humor was tired, and there was no real sense of emotional engagement. In short, there really wasn't anything to lift this above the level of, say, Shark Tale or one of the middle Shrek movies.
Leaving the theater afterwards, I had this image of a bunch of clueless studio execs sitting around saying things like, "Our focus studies showed that parents appreciate pop culture references," and "You know what would be hilarious? Let's give this one character a bunch of malapropisms for no reason. And then he'll be voiced by Michael Caine!"
Now, look, I don't have anything against these ideas, per se, but if you must put in pop culture references, could you at least put in some fresh ones? There must be hundreds of movies at this point that have used the Matrix bullet-time gimmick or the American Beauty rose petals or thrown in an "I wish I could quit you" for no reason. Maybe that was OK the first year after those movies came out, but it's just not topical anymore. Nobody cares anymore.
The really tragic thing about this movie is that there was actually some evidence that somebody involved actually did know something about filmcraft, because there was one scene that had some genuine emotional content. (Tellingly, there was no dialogue at all in that part.) But even that didn't really work in the context of the film as a whole, being almost a throwaway scene that ended up just feeling incongruous with all the silliness in the rest of the movie.
Of course, there's always the chance I'm just being snobby. Most of the other families coming out of the theater with us talked about how good and cute it was. They seemed pretty happy on their ticket purchase. Maybe they really did like it; maybe they just liked having a chance to get out of the house with the kids. I don't know. But in an era where Pixar is repeatedly proving that you can make animated movies that are both entertaining and emotionally complex, I just can't recommend a movie like Gnomeo & Juliet.
Viewed: 2/19/2011 | Released: 2/11/2011 | Score: D+
I've been a bit ambivalent about Disney movies for a while now, and particularly with Disney princess movies. Like everyone, I grew up with the Disney classics--Snow White, Cinderella, Bambi, as well as the newer ones, at least from The Little Mermaid through The Lion King. I loved those movies as a child, and like most bits of entertainment from my past, they'll always have a special place in my heart.
As I've grown up and revisited some of the movies with adult eyes, I've noticed things about the stories and characters that don't sit well with me. I've talked about my issues with Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid before. It all boils down to Disney's general tendency toward facile storytelling, which has become ever more obvious since the arrival of Pixar in the mid-nineties, who continue to show how much depth you can achieve with "children's" movies.
So, going into this movie--Disney's new take on the Rapnuzel story--I didn't have very high expectations. But since I only went as an experiment in family movie-watching, I didn't really care much about what I was seeing. Surprisingly--and I have to wonder if it's precisely because of the comparison with Pixar--but Tangled turned out to be both very entertaining and rather nuanced.
Structurally, Tangled has a lot in common with most other Disney princess movies. You have the wistful girl singing about what she wants, the dashing, handsome male lead who leads her on a transformative journey, and so on. And, like the other modern Disney animated movies, you have the wisecracks.
Where it's different is in the characterizations. Here, instead of being a damsel in distress or a rebellious teenager, Rapunzel finds herself in her predicament mainly out of a sense of duty. And rather than a cartoonishly villainous antagonist, the "evil stepmother" here turns out to be merely selfish. This sets up a dynamic between the two that is both more plausible and considerably more interesting.
Of course, no story, however well written, can work as a film without good acting, and here Tangled does very well. The movie is essentially carried on the shoulders of the three leads: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, and Donna Murphy, and each of them executes perfectly. The humor never feels forced or desperate, nor do the emotions ever feel dishonest. What's more, the animation is simply brilliant, with so many details of the facial expressions and body language being just spot on.
My only difficulty came with Levi's performance, but not through any fault of his. No, he did a wonderful job here, but after watching him in Chuck for two seasons, it was just too difficult for me to separate his voice from his character in that show, which in many ways is the polar opposite of his Flynn Rider in this movie.
Of course, it's possible that my opinion of Tangled is colored by the fact that it was the first movie outing I took with my son. On the other hand, the fact that it kept him entertained for an hour and a half does speak to its quality. I'd say that whether you have kids or you just enjoy solid animated entertainment, this one is well worth your time.
Viewed: 12/4/2010 | Released: 11/24/2010 | Score: A-
Toy Story 3
I heard today that Toy Story 3 recently passed the billion-dollar mark in worldwide box office sales, making it a member of a very exclusive club--only six other films in history have done that. And, despite the fact that the movie is now over two months old, it's still in first-run theaters and still apparently chugging along. My local cineplex still has three showtimes for it.
What with the movie being pretty old at this point, rather than doing a normal review, I'd like to take the opportunity to meld in a topic that I've been thinking about a lot lately: coming to movies after the hype.
Obviously, at this point we're way after the hype for Toy Story 3, but even though I saw the movie almost four weeks ago now, that was also still far enough after the premiere that I couldn't help but be aware of the huge buzz about the film. That's just how it goes for my wife and I now that we're parents; we see movies late, if at all. On the one hand, it's good for us, because we see so few movies nowadays that we want to make sure we get the most out of our time at the theaters. We just can't waste time with the mediocre ones the way we used to.
On the other hand, though, it also means that it's more or less impossible for us to see a movie without being biased. Of course, now that every movie is previewed and reviewed inside and out for months before it debuts, almost nobody actually goes to see a movie without any preconceptions. But back when we saw 50 or 60 movies in a year, we'd see them before most of our friends and before we knew that this movie was a flop or that one was a critical darling or this other one made a trillion dollars. Having all that information ahead of time can't help but influence the way you view a film.
Take Inception, for example. Everyone I know that saw that film came out discussing theories about what was really going on. None of them gave me any of those theories, of course, not wanting to spoil it for me, but just the fact that I knew that they were doing it meant that I watched that movie with an eye toward "figuring it out." Now, I generally do watch movies with a more analytical mindset than the average audience member, but this one had me examining things like themes and cinematography not just from an aesthetic standpoint, but also with the intention of unraveling some sort of secret. I still enjoyed it a lot, mind you, but I can't help but wonder what my reaction would have been had I seen it on opening night.
Similarly, with Toy Story 3, I went in with the knowledge that a huge percentage of my friends (both offline and on social networking sites) had talked about the fact that they cried at the end. So I knew that there was going to be a big emotional moment, and it absolutely changed the way I reacted to the plot and characters--there were several points in the film, for example, where my predictions about what was going to happen next were way off base. Even the fact that I was consciously making predictions in a movie that isn't about "figuring it out" says something.
And this brings me to the "review" portion of this post, because the fact that I knew what everyone else's reaction was, my tendency is to remove myself to a cool, analytical distance from the story and characters, one where I'm more likely to notice how a scene evokes an emotion than to actually experience the emotion for myself. So the fact that I was still hit hard by that emotional payoff and did cry, and that it came in such an unexpected and truly heartwrenching manner, that speaks volumes to the skill and talent of the filmmakers.
That I can still be amazed by what Pixar does, that I've come to the point where I can simultaneously take for granted that their films will be amazing and yet still be profoundly touched by them, that is something wonderful. With every new offering, Pixar keeps managing to bring me back to that place where film is new and exciting, where I remember what it is that keeps me coming back to theaters, and for that I cannot thank them enough.
Viewed: 7/27/2010 | Released: 6/18/2010 | Score: A