Archive | December, 2007

The Man Who Hates the World, Part 2

29 Dec

When I was in high school and college and grad school, I was a seven-movie-a-week sort of guy. At least. Sometimes I’d see two or three movies in a single day, so I might miss a day here or there, but I always made my quota, as it were. And the count sometimes went higher — rarely lower — than seven a week.

In recent years, what with, oh, you know, work and family and, frankly, movies seeming to get worse and worse with each passing year (and, yes, I realize I’m generalizing ridiculously) my moviegoing has decreased to the point of near non-existence. Oh, yeah, let’s not forget increasingly obnoxious audiences and the fact that DVD’s and a killer home theatre set-up make going out to a movie almost unnecessary.

In any event, I go to a lot fewer movies these days than I used to. And when I do go out to see a movie, I usually end up disappointed. I mean, so many of ’em are all bluster and explosions and CGI nonsense. I just don’t have the patience.

Still, I miss the movie-mad guy I used to be and so, the week of Christmas, I got off my duff and went to see as many movies as time permitted (a pathetic three) and, wonder of wonders, ended up loving — not liking, but loving — all three. I think of this as my little Christmas miracle…

The movies were The Golden Compass, Enchanted and Juno. Three very different films (though I guess they all have female leads, which probably says something…). Let’s look at them one at a time.

The Golden Compass

I’ve been waiting for Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series to hit the big screen for years. I really wanted to make the game, long before the film came out, but that’s another story… If you haven’t read the books (The Golden Compass — or, Northern Lights, as it’s called in the UK, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass), stop wasting your time reading this and go get ’em and you’ll understand my enthusiasm. Come back when you’re finished. I can wait.

Back? Cool. In the books, Pullman went after, as my lovely wife would say, “mighty big game.” Just in case some of you are slackers and didn’t take my advice a minute ago, and haven’t read the books, I won’t spoil it for you by going into specifically what sort of big game here. Let’s just say the books are about life, death, religion, the nature of god and humanity. Nothing big. Pullman was inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, which should give you a clue, and he’s annoyed some of the insecurely religious along the way, which I’ve never understood. Shouldn’t faith be challenged and tested?

Anyway, the books are long on ideas and feature some of the most amazing characters, settings and situations since Tolkein. Great books — books I try to reread every year, finding something new each time.

The movie? Not quite so great, but really darn close. Frankly, while the conservative religious crowd’s negative response to the film comes as no surprise, I am surprised the book’s fans aren’t being more supportive — seems like a lot of folks are disappointed that the movies aren’t exactly like the books, which is darn foolish, if you ask me. Sure, some of the more controversial content may have been toned down, but just a bit. If you’ve read the books (you have all read the books by now, right?), you can fill in the blanks for yourself and for those who haven’t there’s still a dandy story being told up there on the screen.

Other than some cuts (necessary or not), the movie sings — at least to me. The acting is first rate. I mean where did they find the kid who plays Lyra? And the rest of the cast is right there with her. Perfect casting, top to bottom. The visuals are amazing. The daemons (please read the books and you’ll know what daemons are…), well, they’re just fantastic — among the finest CGI characters ever (though, as I’ll talk about later, they were outdone in Enchanted). In terms of production design, everything in the film lines up with the world I imagined when I read the books. Everything.

Perhaps most amazing to me, the pacing’s right on — amazing in a world of movies that overstay their welcome and/or weary viewers with MTV-style quick cutting. The Golden Compass just moves. In fact, it ends kind of abruptly, leaving me wanting more. When was the last time you felt that way at the end of a film? I just pray The Golden Compass does well enough to warrant the sequels necessary to tell the rest of Pullman’s story. And that the film-makers have the guts to go where Pullman did.

Enchanted

The Golden Compass was Wednesday’s movie. Thursday, I went to see Enchanted. Disclaimer time: Enchanted is a Disney film. Disney now pays my mortgage. That fact is completely irrelevant.

Disney film or not, I was enchanted by Enchanted — much to my surprise. I don’t know what I expected. A (pardon the expression) chick flick? A kiddy movie? A look-how-cool-we-are condescending look at fairy tales? Wrong, wrong and wrong.

Enchanted perfectly and completely embodies Disney’s “movies for the entire family” concept. The lovely wife and I shared a theater with dating couples, dads and their daughters, entire families and, if laughter, tears and gasps are any indication, everyone found things to like in the movie.

Again, the cast is fantastic. Amy Adams and James Marsden are great as a cartoon princess-to-be and her prince mostly-charming. Timothy Spall is wonderful as the required Disney comic henchman with a heart that’s, at least, gold-plated. Patrick Dempsey makes a fine world-weary lawyer who learns the power of love and magic. And Susan Sarandon. ‘Nuff said.

The film opens with a cartoon sequence that totally sets the tone for the entire film. It takes itself seriously enough that the kids in the audience can enjoy it at face value but it’s ironic and self-aware and over the top enough (just enough) that adults will get that the movie’s as much as send-up of the Sleeping Beauty/Snow White/Cinderella fantasy as it is a retelling of those myths. And when the film moves to the real world — when that princess-to-be arrives in Times Square — the film kicks into a whole new gear. I was constantly surprised. Not by the plot, which is, to be fair, let’s just say predictable, but by the specifics, the details, the way in which events played out.

I kinda feel like I’m flailing here and if I were an actual film reviewer, which I haven’t been in years (as I’m sure you’ve all noticed!) I’d be a little worried. Anyway, cutting to the chase, Enchanted was clearly a film made by people who love the source material they’re spoofing — they know their fairy tales and their Disney animated features inside out and respect them enough to satirize them in knowing, affectionate ways. The film’s serious enough for kids and ironic enough for adults.

Oh, and there are two more things that make Enchanted enchanting:

First, it’s a musical. People burst out into song at various points and ordinary people — lots of them — dance in the streets. Your mileage may vary, but I love musicals and have long lamented the fact that Hollywood doesn’t make ’em anymore. Well, with the High School Musical movies and, now, Enchanted, my employer has brought musicals back and I’m pretty pleased about it. Who knew Amy Adams, James Marsden and Patrick Dempsey could sing?

Second, there’s Pip. A chipmunk. Who steals the show. In the cartoon part of the film, Pip struck me as sort of a Bugs Bunny-ish twist on the animal-friend-of-the-princess character from every Disney film. In the real world portion of Enchanted, Pip morphs into a CGI character who can no longer talk and has to act out anything he wants to communicate to the hapless humans in the film. What a performance. I swear, this is the most amazing acting job by a CGI character ever. No kidding.

Look, I know nothing I say is going to get shooter-crazed, deathmatch-obsessed gamers to go see Enchanted. Their loss, I say. If you have an ounce of magic in your soul, the least bit of innocence in your heart, any memory at all of what it was like to be a kid, go see it. And if you HAVE a kid, take him or her along, too — you’ll both have a great time.

Juno

Things quieted down for me, movie-wise, on Friday. No magic, no crazy visual effects, no chipmunks playing charades with dim-bulb cartoon princes. Just a kid having a baby. Talk about a movie that wasn’t made for me — a 50-something, no-kids, male videogame developer. And yet, this little movie, this jewel of a movie, was the perfect way to end the week.

Ellen Page, who plays 16-year-old, pregnant Juno, is a wonder — the third great female performance in three movies. I remember when the TV series My So-Called Life debuted years ago and everyone described the teenaged star, Clair Danes, as “luminous,” well, Ellen Page has a smidge of that glow-in-the-dark quality about her. The character she brings to the screen is sarcastic and serious, strong and overwhelmed, smart and child-like — she offers a spot-on portrayal of adolescence as I remember it, not as it’s typically portrayed in movies.

The adults around her feel like real people — not Good and Evil, not anything, really, just folks trying to get by, the way we all do. I’m trying to remember the last time I saw people — real people — on the screen, with all their flaws and strengths and foibles and loving and pettiness on display in the service of a wonderful, simple story. I’m drawing a big blank.

The dialogue is fantastic — capturing the way teenagers talk to each other (okay, as I imagine they talk to each other, since I have no actual experience in this area that isn’t decades out of date!)… capturing the way adults talk to each other… capturing the way kids and adults talk to each other (and often fail to communicate in any meaningful way).

Juno’s tone is tough to pin down. It’s funny and sad and moving and exhilerating. It’s about growing up — and knowing when not to. In no way is Juno an “issues picture” — it isn’t trying to Make a Point About Teen Sexuality… it isn’t about abortion or adoption or anything. It’s just a story about life and love and maturity and being a kid. Still, if seeing this film doesn’t get teenagers thinking about the consequences of their actions (you know what I’m talking about…), and offer kids and parents the opportunity to talk about some Important Topics (again, you know…), nothing ever will.

Juno includes not a single explosion or car crash or death. Its pacing is deliberate and its editing features none of the MTV-ish seizure-inducing quality so loved by today’s filmmakers. Despite the lack of these modern-day-movie must-have features, it was as exhilarating as any movie I saw in 2007.

So there you have it.

My Christmas break — a serious fantasy film dealing with Big Themes, a family friendly animated musical comedy fairy tale(!) and a more-or-less realistic, modern day, comic drama about teen pregnancy. Other than maybe that first one — the serious fantasy — I’m not sure I’m in the target demo for any of them. Still, I fell in love with these movies, and it must be said, with The Movies, in a way I’ve really missed the last few years.

Happy Holidays, everyone.

The Man Who Hates the World

29 Dec

Among my friends and intimates I have a reputation for, well, not liking anything — media things, I mean. It’s mostly deserved. Ask me about the movies I’ve seen recently, or the games I’ve played and my usual response is, “Hated it” or “Man, that could have been better if only they’d done X, Y and Z.”

I like to think this is a reflection of a well-honed critical sensibility combined with really high standards.

Or maybe I’m just a curmedgeonly old coot.

Whichever it is, imagine my amazement when I find myself compelled to report that I’m playing some really fun games these days and, wonder of wonders, I’ve seen three movies this week that I can honestly say I loved.

Wow.

I’ll come back to the movies in another post some time soon. But let’s look at the games I’m playing — Rock Band and Legend of Zelda: The Phantom Hourglass. No big surprises there, I guess. Both are getting the kinds of kudos they deserve. They’re exceptionally well-executed, nicely balanced, graphically appealing, fun and challenging.

Rock Band has enchanted my wife, who loves the singing bit, and some friends, including a guy who plays drums in my band and finds the Rock Band drumming more difficult than the real thing! — for the record, I ascribe the latter phenomenon to the fact that he’s played the drums most of his life and he’s played Rock Band drums for a couple of hours — but whatever it is, it hasn’t stopped the playing, not a bit. And Rock Band has certainly enchanted me (though I wish I could wrench the microphone away from the lovely wife, and the drumkit away from the drummer — I’ve been relegated to the guitar, the instrument I actually play in my semi-real life, which is annoying).

Even more than my Guitar Hero experience, I feel like playing Rock Band, as fun as it is, is more than just fun. It might actually make me a better musician, which kinda freaks me out. I can hear things in the remixed tracks that aren’t apparent in the real thing (at least not to my ears) and I’ve certainly been exposed to some music I never would have listened to if I weren’t obsessing about beating a game! I know I’m going to end up a better singer. And I really want to learn to drum now. Go Harmonix! You’re changing my world.

And, man, does my avatar rock. The character customization features are terrific. (I won’t go into how much time my wife spends fiddling with her character to get it JUST right…) When the crowd starts singing along and my guy’s up on the stage, gyrating around the way I’d like to (if I lacked anything resembling shame!), I’m the rock star I’ve always wanted to be. Can’t ask for much more from a game.

As far as Phantom Hourglass goes, well, y’all know how I feel about the Zelda games. Love ’em! I’m not getting as strong a sense of story, or of doing something truly heroic, the way I usually do in Zeldas, but the puzzles are exceptionally well crafted. And I love the way I’m being introduced to new game elements in isolation and then offered the opportunity to use them in combination to achieve new effects.

It’s also cool to feel like I have some control over something in a Zelda game — the ship customization stuff, I mean. It’s nowhere near as amazing as the Rock Band avatar stuff, but it’s something.

To be frank, I hate having to go back through the main dungeon over and over, and having it timed and all. But other than that, I’m loving Phantom Hourglass.

Incredibly, these two games have actually prevented me from loading up Mario Galaxy (the game I was most looking forward to playing this holiday season), Call of Duty 4 and Metroid for the Wii (yeah, I know I’m way behind…). But with Rock Band and Phantom Hourglass, who has time for anything else?

I’ll talk about the movies I’m loving soon. Gotta jet now. Later.