Thursday, January 1, 2015

Now Playing

Greetings and welcome to a brand new season of Mr. Director’s Reviews!  You’ve come to the right place for the correct opinion on movies, books, theater, and any other storytelling medium I feel like reviewing.  You’re sure to be enlightened!

Okay, so I’m really just another guy with a blog and an opinion.  But I enjoy watching movies, I’ve made a handful of amateur productions with the goal of directing a feature film for wide release someday, and I enjoy writing about movies.

What makes a movie good or bad?  That is a question that is entirely unanswerable.  Certainly there are technical aspects of a film which should reach a certain unwritten standard necessary to getting the film into a viewable form at all.  But after those basic requirements, it becomes a matter of taste.  And while we could debate what constitutes good taste and what does not, the simple fact is no two people are going to have the same taste all around.

So the reviews here are simply my personal take on things.  You’re welcome to stop in often, leave notes, agree or disagree, and have fun with it.  If, somewhere in there, I can pass on a little of what I believe makes a movie good or bad, then I’ve succeeded.

See you at the movies!

Friday, January 3, 2014

The American Masterpiece

Movie Review:
Citizen Kane

1941 / 1 hr., 59 min. / Unrated [PG]

Director: Orson Welles

It has survived decades of competition to remain the touchstone of American cinema, perhaps even world cinema.  It holds first place on the American Film Institute’s One Hundred Greatest Films of all time.  For years it was dissected annually by Roger Ebert at film festivals.  It is a staple of college film courses.  One wonders if there is any reason to add yet another review to the pile of literature surrounding Citizen Kane.

I’ve decided to engage in this potential futility as a feeble attempt to counter the growing sentiment that Citizen Kane is uninteresting.  So many years have elapsed since the film’s creation, and we have been so barraged with an escalating glut of movies in recent years, that laudatory remarks for the film are increasingly relegated to film critics, film students, and industry insiders.  The rest see merely a tired old monochromatic drama and find themselves stifling yawns.

I was once part of the crowd that considered Citizen Kane a dull experience.  I made the mistake of viewing the film for the first time when I was barely twelve or thirteen, renting it simply because I was aware that every budding film maker was supposed to admire it.  I was bored.

Then I saw it again in my early 20's, more informed about film production and (slightly) more mature in my outlook on life.  Suddenly the film was irresistibly gripping, in both its cinematic technique and its philosophical import.  If your first impression of Citizen Kane was lackluster, or if you have yet to bother watching it, please read on for just a small dose of what makes this movie a fascinating study.

Following the classic format of world literature’s greatest tragedies, Citizen Kane explores how a character’s flaws lead him ever deeper into an inescapable despair.  The film opens with Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) alone in a dimly lit bedroom within an expansive estate.  He lies in bed, clutching a snow globe.  He utters one word: “Rosebud”.   Then he dies.

Why a man who rose to tremendous heights of fame and fortune would die so alone, with such an enigmatic final word, is the subject of an investigation by news reporter Jerry Thompson (William Alland).  Kane’s story begins with his childhood at his parents’ boarding home in Colorado where his mother (Agnes Moorhead), in an effort to keep the boy’s legacy out of the hands of her husband, signs her son over to the care of Walter Parks Thatcher (George Coulouris), a banker.  In effect, Kane is adopted by a corporation.

Lacking parental guidance and nurture, Kane becomes a wild and prodigal youth, growing up merely to become an adult version of his adolescent intemperance.  He squanders his inheritance on whatever comes to mind, such as the purchase of a newspaper which he commandeers to print whatever he desires – including stories that may or may not be entirely true.

In line with his impetuous personality, Kane marries twice, first to Emily (Ruth Warrick), a woman who would have made a wonderful wife and mother if Kane had taken the time to notice.  As his marriage begins to bore him, Kane turns to Susan (Dorothy Comingore), a pretty young thing he passes one day, and the affair leads to divorce and the second marriage.  But this marriage collapses also, because although Kane dotes upon Susan to no end – paying for her operatic career and even building the marvelous Xanadu estate just for her – Susan wants real love, something Kane does not understand or know how to give.

It is Kane’s desire to receive and give what he thinks is love that leads to the alienation of everyone who would befriend him.  Lifelong companions desert him, his newspaper empire falters, and his political campaign dissolves in the wake of scandalous activities.  He spends his last days alone in a palatial estate that has nothing to offer him but the echoes of his footsteps.

So why is this film held in such high esteem?  Without re-writing all the books that have covered this question, let me put forth some brief thoughts.  These will perhaps not be in the same order others would propose, but I have my reasons.

First, and perhaps the reason with the least impact, is its notoriety.  Though Orson Welles (The Third Man) never admitted it out loud, it was obvious that he was presenting a thinly disguised and highly scathing biography of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst: The comparisons between Kane and Hearst are too numerous to be coincidence, and Hearst knew it.  He did everything in his power to ruin Welles and prevent the film’s release, but even his vast fortune and leverage could not stop it from reaching the public.

While that history is interesting, I assign it the lowest significance because Hollywood is regularly churning out films that anger people.  If Citizen Kane had had nothing else in its favor, the publicity inadvertently afforded it by Hearst would not have been enough to sustain its power up to the present day.

Second, and decidedly more amazing, is the fact that this was Welles’ first film.  Given the tremendous skill that even some of the worst directors must possess to get a film finished, Citizen Kane represents an astounding achievement for someone whose previous experience had been entirely in radio and theater, and who was only in his 20's when he began production on the film.

Third, Citizen Kane represents great leaps forward in cinematic creativity.  My guess is that it was Welles’ own inexperience that actually contributed to this ingenuity: He was not bound to the conventions of contemporary cinema because he had never been trained in them, so he did things that went thoroughly against the grain.

This was the man who so successfully imitated emergency news broadcasts in performing The War of the Worlds that he caused real panic among listeners.  In the same way, Welles’ attention to detail enabled him to craft the opening scene in Citizen Kane to mimic the style and idiosyncracies of actual news reels that would play in theaters before the feature.  I remember watching for the first time and being confused by all the “authentic” news footage of a man I was certain was fictional.  I’m fairly sure Welles would have felt satisfaction on hearing that.

The deep-focus lenses, long single shots, double-exposure of the film negative, massive crane movements, and many other techniques we now take for granted were once new, and many of them are now commonplace in modern films precisely because Orson Welles first tried them.  Everything in the film, from the lighting to the editing to the music score (when is Bernard Herrmann not innovative?), is a product of that fertile and undomesticated creativity Welles brought to Hollywood.  Innovations abound, many we are not even aware of when watching.

No single reason supports the film’s status by itself, but my fourth reason holds the most weight in my opinion: It’s a powerful movie!  Certainly we have made vast improvements in film stock, sound recording, editing, and all the other technical aspects of production.  But Citizen Kane rises above its archaic elements by telling a strong and timeless story.

In the same way we suffer as we watch Hamlet lose himself to his vengeful obsession, or feel horror creep over us as we realize the heinous crimes Oedipus the King has unknowingly committed, we watch with sadness as Kane sinks because of his own selfish choices.  He buys a newspaper because it feeds his ego, he marries Susan because it makes him feel good, he lavishes gifts upon her because he wants to feel loved.  Kane is a man who never learns to shed childhood impulse; he is classic self-absorption – Me, Me, Me! – even when he sincerely believes he is doing things for others.

Perhaps a line by Jed Leland (Joseph Cotten) summarizes it best: “You don’t care about anything except you.  You just want to persuade people that you love ‘em so much that they ought to love you back.  Only you want love on your own terms.  It’s something to be played your way according to your rules.”  By the time Kane accepts this (if he ever really does), it is too late.

If you’ve tried Citizen Kane and gave up or dismissed it, or if you’ve never even bothered because it was just “some old movie,” let me encourage you to try it again with these ideas in mind.  Check out some books on Welles’ journey in making the film.  Or, if your reading time is slim, find the DVD edition that features Roger Ebert’s commentary.  Within a compact two hours, Ebert brings up some interesting anecdotes about the making of the film, and points out many of the tricks and techniques that Welles and cinematographer Gregg Toland invented.

And then back up and really watch it for what it has to say about humanity, particularly the difference between love and selfishness.  In my opinion, this more than anything is what gives the film its richness and longevity.  As long as we remain a race of self-absorbed beings, the warnings from Kane’s tragic plight will be potent and poignant.

Artistry: 10
Entertainment: 8

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Heroes at the Local Level

Movie Review:
Ladder 49

2004 / 1 hr., 55 min. / PG-13

Director: Jay Russell

On Veterans’ Day my family goes to the parade that marches through Redmond’s downtown section.  Like every parade in Redmond, you know it is over because the fire trucks drive by.  I remember wondering, as a teenager, who really cared.  I mean, yes, they’re fire trucks; we see them often, thank you.  But on one particular Veterans’ Day in my adulthood, I happened to see Ladder 49 later that evening.  And now I think we should have fire truck parades more often.

Ladder 49 begins with a massive fire in a grain silo in Baltimore where fire brigades are searching for trapped workers.  One worker on the twelfth floor is saved by firefighter Jack Morrison (Joaquin Phoenix) – and then an explosion inside the building sends Jack plummeting to the floor below.  Painfully incapacitated, Jack radios to his captain (John Travolta) outside, and a rescue attempt begins.  As Jack lies on the floor, debris falling around him, we are taken back to his first day on the fire crew, and from there through the highlights of his life so far.

There’s Jack’s arrival at the station, complete with something akin to a mild fraternal hazing by “the boys.”  The rush and thrill of his first call to a fire, with his captain right behind him coaching him on using the fire hose.  The meeting and marrying of a beautiful young lady (Jacinda Barrett).  The joy of a child.  The honor of saving lives from burning buildings.  The solemnity of losing a comrade to an unpredictable blaze and the reminder that firemen do not always come out alive.

The list of scenes in Ladder 49 would suggest that it will settle comfortably into one of the most formulaic, predictable, and droll films ever made on the subject.  But writer Lewis Colick (October Sky) and director Jay Russell (My Dog Skip) have infused the whole production with a certain life of its own.

For one thing, the film is not about fire-fighting.  It is not a macho assembly of action set pieces designed to numb our minds and excite our adrenaline or raw masculinity.  It is an exploration of the people at Station 33.  Our primary focus may be Jack and his rise from rookie to honored hero, but we also get reasonably fleshed-out portraits of the other men.

We get snapshots of the crew’s lives as they loosen up over a few drinks.  We feel a younger brother’s pain when his older brother falls into a burning building.  We are in the hospital with Jack when he sees the face of a comrade after it was boiled off by an exploding steam pipe.  They are only glimpses, to be sure, but they add to the whole picture instead of being ciphers whose only purpose is to direct our attention to Jack.

Joaquin Phoenix (Gladiator, Signs) is an interestingly appropriate choice to play Jack Morrison.  In another (and I would say lesser) version of this plot, our hero would be the sexiest hunk the casting directors could find, and the director would find multiple excuses to feature him shirtless.  Phoenix may be a reasonably nice-looking gent, but he hardly fits the mold.  He has a scar under his nose, and speaks and breathes in a way that hints at nasal injuries earlier in life.  He has a large frame, but it is more hulky than chiseled.  He is starkly lacking a tan.  And one scene in the movie reveals something of a tummy.  While it is not my habit to study the male body, I bring all this up to showcase the wisdom Jay Russell had in casting him.  Phoenix is an excellent choice for an everyman, the average fire-fighter, the man who does not stand out in a fashion or fitness contest.  The man who is simply a husband, a father, and a humble worker in one of those jobs where people neither notice nor thank you until you are directly involved in their lives.

John Travolta (Phenomenon, Get Shorty) plays Jack’s captain in one of his more enjoyable roles.  Travolta is one of those actors I appreciate and tolerate much more now that he has matured.  As I look back over the movie, his role really does not stand out in my memory, and I think that’s because of the way he plays it.  He headlines the show with Phoenix, but he is very much a supporting character instead of a main one.  For Travolta to take his prominent personality and contain it in a smaller character that way takes talent.

Jacinda Barrett (The Human Stain) is the love interest, and her role approaches and recedes at various times.  There are times she is the classic worried wife found in most guy movies, and there are times she is more obviously central, especially to Jack’s life and happiness.

The other characters are somewhat interchangeable, although Robert Patrick’s grouchy older coot on the force makes an effort to stand out more than the others.  His rodent stare that served him well in Terminator 2: Judgment Day is replaced with a roughened interior and exterior, complete with mustache, that makes him more of a scratchy personality than his usual typecasting from his earlier movies.

The film is set in Baltimore, and uses the location for much of its production design.  Some sets were created for scenes of burning interiors, particularly for the grain silo blaze which is very realistic.  Jay Russell and his crew agreed (and finally someone besides me feels this way!) that computer-generated flames do not have the necessary realism for a film where fires are its central pivot.  All of the flames in this film are real, “live” on the set, including the burning chunk that catches Phoenix’s costume on fire as he slides down the collapsing concrete floor of the silo.  I imagine the dangers of shooting for such realism were high, but the result is worth it.

There are a few distractions in the telling of this story.  One is that it covers too much time without being clear about it.  Apart from growing longer hair, Phoenix never seems to age, so it was a lurch in the viewing experience to suddenly land in a scene where his second child (when did she enter the picture?) is having her fifth birthday.  This is only one instance, but there are several times where the delivery makes the passage of time vague, and we are distracted from the storytelling as we pause to figure out when the new scene is taking place.

The other distraction is certain attention-getting camera techniques.  In a handful of scenes, the camera is either functioning as the direct point of view of the character, or it is mounted securely to things like the fire hose nozzle, or an object a fireman is carrying.  These shots jump at us with no preparation, and do little more for the film than point a large neon sign at the cinematographer that says “Look how creative he is being!”  A film is successful when it can completely submerge the audience in the story for the entire duration, without ever once drawing attention to its technique.  In this, Ladder 49 stumbles along the way.

The film has been picked on for being melodramatic, for glamorizing firemen, and for sensationalizing their jobs.  Yes, I’m sure there is some grandstanding, like the way a majestic and triumphant musical composition accompanies Jack’s first fire.  I doubt the people whose possessions were being burned to a crisp were feeling quite so roused and patriotic.  But with the way many of these people put their lives on the line to keep the rest of the community safe, I think a little grandstanding is certainly permissible.

So I feel the overall viewing experience is a good one.  And it is a good reminder to us that our towns, our cities, our quality of life would not survive were it not for public servants like firemen.  Someday soon I’m going to take him to the local fire station and let him see the men responsible for putting out fires in our area.  So that he will know who they are, so that he will never be cynical enough to ask, “Who cares?”

And so I can get a picture of him in one of those huge hats.

Artistry: 8
Entertainment: 8

Monday, January 21, 2013

Practically Perfect

Movie Review:
Mary Poppins

1964 / 2 hrs., 20 min. / G

Director: Robert Stevenson

The “G” in the ratings system stands for “General Audiences,” as in a film that reaches the youngest children, the oldest adults, and everyone in between.  Modern studios don’t seem to understand this – most of their “G” films really need a “K” for kids, since adults will typically find the product mind-numbing.  Not so with Walt Disney.  Mr. Disney was the Grand Master of true Family entertainment.  He knew how to find and produce stories that truly reached all ages: Eye-catching visuals for the kids, humor and poignancy for the adults (something Pixar seems to have picked up on in the wake of the Disney corporation’s floundering after Walt’s death).  While I enjoy practically every feature project created during Disney’s lifetime, I have found none that so exemplifies Family entertainment as Mary Poppins.

This is a film that everyone needs to see, first as a child, then as a teenager, then as a young adult, then as a parent – and as frequently as possible in between all of those stages – for it has something to offer at every stage of life, and its offerings get richer the older one gets.  Of course, there is the likelihood that the modern cynical teenager will not have the patience for the film’s cutesy veneer, but it is his loss if he does not stick around and learn something about life.

George Banks (David Tomlinson) is aptly named, as he is a banker at a prestigious London bank in 1910.  His wife (Glynis Johns) is a strange blend of Vigorous Suffragette and Submissive Housewife.  His children, Jane (Karen Dotrice) and Michael (Matthew Garber), look up to him and want ever so much to love him – but George does not see it.  Children are to be patted on the head and sent up to bed, educated by a nanny, and generally molded by their fathers and mothers into new fathers and mothers who will then do the same to the next generation.  Such is the precision a British home requires.

When the previous nanny (Elsa Lanchester) quits in a huff, George advertises for a new one – but only after tearing up the advertisement his children wrote on their own.  Children could not possibly know what is good for them.  (Well, I agree on a limited basis, but not to the extreme George Banks believes.)  In a fun interview scene, George meets the first and only applicant for the position of nanny, Mary Poppins (Julie Andrews).

The children quickly learn something is not quite ordinary about the new nanny.  After all, she literally breezed in by coasting over London using an open umbrella as a sail.  She does not deign to walk up the stairs to the nursery, but slides up the bannister instead.  And not ten minutes into her new job, she is pulling impossibly large objects out of her carpet bag, cleaning up the nursery with a mere snap of her fingers, and talking to her reflection in the mirror.  Yes, we’ve all done that, but who among us has a reflection that answers back with a mind of its own?

From there, Mary Poppins takes the children on an outing to the park, where they meet up with Bert (Dick Van Dyke), a jovial cockney bloke who employs himself with whatever comes to mind (including narrating the film at a few key moments).  He is first seen as a one-man band, in the park he’s a chalk artist, and later he’s a chimney sweep.  Together, the four of them enjoy an afternoon inside one of Bert’s chalk pictures, complete with animated singing animals.

But it is not my job to tell the whole story here.  In short, the seemingly frothy and pointless adventures continue, quietly building to a purpose that leads to Jane’s and Michael’s running away from their father, whom they are sure is out to destroy them.  “He’s bringing the army, the navy, and everything!” Michael claims.

And thus we come to the amazing beauty of the film.  Yes, all of these adventures are fantastic tales for youngsters to watch.  I laughed my pre-teen self silly at the sight of Jane and Michael magically cleaning the nursery, hopping into the chalk picture, and having a tea party on the ceiling with Uncle Albert (Ed Wynn).  But it was not until my late teens, perhaps even early adulthood, when I realized what was really going on.

It happens in the scene where George decides to dismiss Mary Poppins.  Lecturing her on the importance of raising the children with a certain mind set, Banks is prepared to let Poppins go because of her apparently frivolous methods.  But before he knows what has happened, she has pegged his unloving short-sightedness dead on, and has done so in such a way that he has no clue his soul has just been laid bare.

From there, George’s world falls apart.  His children inadvertently cause a run on the bank, bringing the terror of the bank’s executives down upon George.  He is called to a late-night meeting where he will be sacked, and his walk to the bank in the middle of the night, through the empty London streets, is one of the most powerful moments of the film.

And then, he gets it.  He finally gets it!  In the midst of the chaos his life has become, the reality of what his life should have been all along strikes him.  And isn’t that often the way?  When we are rising to the top, our field of vision overlooks the objects of real beauty, joy, and love that surround us.  It is not until we are toppled by one of life’s misfortunes that we take time to look around and see what is truly worthwhile to our existence.

But I should back up and do my duty as a reviewer.  First, in dealing with the cast, Julie Andrews (The Sound of Music) plays Mary Poppins flawlessly.  I mean that.  I can’t find anything to quibble about.  Apparently neither could the Motion Picture Academy, as Andrews was awarded Best Actress by her peers.  Dick Van Dyke (Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) appears to be having an unrestrained blast in his role as the everyman who guides the story along.  Linguistic purists will cringe over his version of a cockney accent, but I don’t find it distracting.  And watch for his other appearance as Mr. Dawes, Sr., the role he quite begged Disney to let him play.

David Tomlinson (The Love Bug) was Disney’s every-villain for a while, and while he’s not so much a “villain” here, he does a good job as the crusty father.  Glynis Johns (While You Were Sleeping) is humorous as Mrs. Banks, one moment bravely asserting that women should get to vote, and the next repeating, “Yes, dear,” to her husband in meek acquiescence.

And then there are the two children, played by Matthew Garber and Karen Dotrice (The Gnome-Mobile).  They are self-proclaimed adorable children, and I agree.  Matthew is quite funny as Michael, especially when he is hopelessly frustrated by his inability to snap his fingers.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, these two joined the long list of Child Stars Who Failed to Make the Transition to Adult Stars, because aside from one or two other Disney features, they are almost completely unheard of after this film.

The script by Bill Walsh and Don Da Gradi did not win P.L. Travers’ approval, but it is lively, joyous, and in the hands of director Robert Stevenson (Bedknobs and Broomsticks) is told with great enthusiasm, wit, and fun.  It also approaches its point with wonderful subtlety.  Although there is an episodic nature to the little outings the nanny takes the children on, all of these things slowly and quietly build to the main point without ever stating it.

The songs are some of the most memorable ever written for a film.  “Spoonful of Sugar,” the award-nominated “Chim Chim Cheree,” and the immortal “Supercalifragilistic” are among the gems of the music track.  Websites that specialize in movie trivia inform me that Disney’s favorite song for the rest of his life was “Feed the Birds,” which I will agree is tender and haunting at the same time.  The Sherman Brothers were brilliant in numerous films, and their compositions shine here.

The Disney company has always been a major innovator in new effects, and they are used here extensively.  This is not to say the effects are perfect – the wires used to fly Andrews onto the Banks front porch are quite visible – but the sheer joy the film exudes tends to blur over the occasional flaw.  Watching Dick Van Dyke dance with four animated penguins is a high point.

This is one of a handful of films I could discuss all day, and I feel like this review only begins to explore its depths.  But I won’t do that; I will let you explore it for yourself from here on out.  It is a treasure, assembled with care into one of the most touching films I’ve ever seen, with a beautiful life-affirming message about the joys of children, fatherhood, and family.  See it often.  With the whole family.  It’s rated “G,” after all.

Artistry: 9
Entertainment: 10

Friday, January 18, 2013

Dead Parrot Included

Movie Review:
And Now for Something Completely Different

1971 / 1 hr., 28 min. / PG

Director: Ian MacNaughton

There are times when it is completely pointless to review a movie.  And if I weren’t attempting to manage a blog with regular content in the hopes that someday someone will actually read it, And Now for Something Completely Different is a film I would not review at all.  Not because of the film’s quality, good or bad – indeed, the trashing of a truly awful diseased piece of celluloid can provide some wicked relish – but because of what the film simply is: Sketch comedy.

The one question anyone wants answered regarding a sketch comedy film is, “Is it funny?”  As regarding this particular example, I would say, “Yes.  Yes, it is.”

End of review.

But since I’m here, and it’s a movie I’ve seen, and I manage a blog with regular content in the hopes that someday someone will actually read it, here are some deeper (relatively speaking) thoughts on the product.

Younger audiences may have passing acquaintance with the names of Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, and Michael Palin, as all of them have been involved in one degree or another with Hollywood productions in the past thirty years.  But before they were individual comic talents visiting America, they were a sextet of sketch performers in Britain known collectively as Monty Python, and their television show was “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”.

With a wit that surpassed “Saturday Night Live” or “Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In”, these six spent the early part of the 1970's skewering all things British (and occasionally American) with uproarious success.  But it is a simple reality that while Brits satirizing British customs and public figures works for British audiences, Americans to this day are in the dark about why the laugh track hits a crescendo at certain moments in the various “Flying Circus” episodes.  I’ve even had some of the more obscure gags explained to me and I still don’t get them.

In an effort to expand their popularity across the Atlantic, Monty Python assembled some of their best (and nationality-neutral) skits into one film, which is titled after the show’s famous introduction: John Cleese in a formal suit, seated at a desk in some absurd setting, looking at the camera in all seriousness and saying, “And now for something completely different.”  Following the traditional opening sequence involving Sousa’s “Liberty Bell”, we find the marriage counselor who lusts after the wife of one of his nebbish counselees, the accountant who wants to become a lion tamer, the enthusiastic instructor of self-defense against violence involving all manner of fresh fruit, the mountaineering expedition helmed by a man with double-vision, the talk show host who can’t decide what to call his guest, the documentary exposing the increase in street gangs of old ladies, the joke so funny that people literally die laughing, the talent show featuring trained mice, and the restaurant staff who go into self-destruct mode when a customer complains of a dirty fork.

Also included are the skits that have endured to become true classics.  If you know nothing of “The Dead Parrot”, “Nudge, Nudge”, or “The Lumberjack Song”, this movie is not only recommended but required.

The Pythons were all versatile performers, and for this first film effort they reprise their usual habit of playing multiple roles throughout.  Sometimes two of one actor’s characters even appear on screen at the same time thanks to stand-in actors.  Within the course of any ten minutes of the film, we can see all six of them go from snobby upper-class Brits to lower working-class Londoners with ease – with a brief stint as Canadian Mounties thrown in for good measure.  Fellow “Flying Circus” regular Carol Cleveland reprises many of her roles as well – especially the buxom ones, which she was naturally suited for.

Indeed, in the history of modern comedy, I would say the Pythons are a benchmark.  They understood comic delivery and comic characterization.  Almost everything in their repertoire tops anything found on the “Best of Saturday Night Live” specials.  And their repertoire was vast – sometimes overacted and with terrible accents, but vast nonetheless.  Seeing John Cleese, for instance, play both a subdued arts show host and the manic self-defense instructor gives a sample of how diverse any one of them could be.  Or take note of the fact that Eric Idle performs the rather complicated dialogue of “Nudge, Nudge” in one single shot – no easy feat for a script that follow no logical order, making one’s lines a pain to memorize.  Talented men, all of them.

The film also includes many of Terry Gilliam’s animation sequences for the show, linking sketches together in surreal and absurd ways.  At times the animation takes over and becomes its own sketch entirely, as with the fairy tale adventure of the cancerous black spot or the advertisement promoting American Defense against the evil infiltration of Communism.

Overall, the film is a notch up from the show.  The nature of shooting film is that more time is taken on production value, and scenes are cleaner in their delivery.  This is not to say that And Now for Something Completely Different is any sort of high-brow masterpiece, but it is definitely an improvement over the wobbling sets and improvised shots found on the “Flying Circus”.

So there it is: The review that has nothing to say.  If you’re aware of “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”, this is all old news.  If you’re not, the most important part of the review was where you asked me if it was funny and I said, “Yes.  Yes, it is.”

Artistry: 7
Entertainment: 8

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Irresistibly Austen

Movie Review:

1996 / 2 hrs., 1 min. / PG

Director: Douglas McGrath

The people of Jane Austen’s novels talk.  And talk and talk.  For the English ladies of that era, there was not much else to do.  It was, by and large, a man’s society.  But one can accomplish quite a lot by talking, especially if one says the right things.  Austen’s world was one in which “Mr. Knightley” was proper, “Knightley” revealed unwholesome familiarity, “My Mr. Knightley” was reserved for the bride alone, and women who knew the difference held the power.

In Miss Austen’s tale of Emma, the author created a heroine who says much, and in doing so manages to wreak a polite havoc on her circle of friends and neighbors.  Douglas McGrath’s film adaptation of the book does a wonderful job of taking all that talk and turning it into something comical, something sweet, and something very beautiful.

Emma Woodhouse (Gwyneth Paltrow) is a young lady who fancies herself to be rather perceptive in the area of match-making, and the film opens at a wedding she firmly believes herself to be the cause of, since she had the foresight to introduce the couple to each other.  “What a triumph!” she declares to her father (Denys Hawthorne) and her friend Mr. Knightley (Jeremy Northam).  And based on that triumph, she plans to do it again, this time by connecting her new friend Miss Harriet Smith (Toni Collette) to the local parson, Mr. Elton (Alan Cumming).

Unfortunately, Emma and Harriet are the only two who do not see the obvious: Mr. Elton and Miss Smith will never go together.  Class differences, as well as Harriet’s lack of breeding, put them in two separate worlds, even if they do live in the same neighborhood.  Although Harriet is temporarily crushed when Mr. Elton ends up proposing to someone else, she is willing to bounce back.  And Emma is determined to try again.

One of the positive delights of the film is the number of cleverly written supporting roles, which is also one of the negative frustrations of trying to concisely summarize the plot.  Let me quickly say, then, that the rest of the film involves such fun as the obnoxious Mrs. Elton (Juliet Stevenson) that the parson brings home after his sabbatical in Bath, the arrival of the extremely eligible Frank Churchill (Ewan McGregor) which prompts Emma’s brain to turn over every possible combination (“Harriet and Frank,” or “Frank and Emma,” or ... ), the dotty Miss Bates (Sophie Thompson) and her practically mute mother – there is a quiet hilarity to the oft-repeated phrase “Mother couldn’t stop talking about it” – and Mr. Martin (Edward Woodall), the simple farmer who is spurned by Harriet at Emma’s suggestion.  By the end of the film, Emma has failed completely in the art of match-making, only to discover one who was patiently waiting to make his own love for her known.

This is Douglas McGrath’s first directorial effort, after writing “Saturday Night Live” material and a couple of forgettable screenplays.  His script for Emma, together with his creativity in the director’s chair, results in a film that is sparkling in every way.  Had I been assigned to write a screenplay for this novel, I would have been at a loss to find the comedy in it; I just can’t visualize personality types in Austen novels.  McGrath has infused his characters with a wide but very human array of quirks that turn an ordinary story into a jewel.

Other film versions of Emma have us ready to spank a bratty child, but the portrayal by Gwyneth Paltrow (Shakespeare in Love) has us shaking our heads in bemused disbelief at her blindness; like a parent comforting a child, and while the child’s head is buried on our shoulder, we smile at the little life lesson the child just learned, perhaps even having to stifle a laugh.  We watch, helpless but bemused, as Emma misinterprets every single affectionate cue from Mr. Elton as being for Harriet instead of someone else.  But then we also cry along with Emma when she realizes the pain she has caused Miss Bates at the picnic.  This Emma has a heart.  I’m not sure which focus Miss Austen would have preferred, but I personally like Paltrow’s version better.

I could praise every performer in the film, for there is not a single actor out of place; but my favorite is Juliet Stevenson (Mona Lisa Smile).  Her take on Mrs. Elton is so funny!  Her facial expressions, her gutteral little laugh – and listen for that hideous sniffing while she talks with her mouth full.  It is an expert presentation of an obnoxious elitist I would never want to be stuck at the dinner table with.

The script in itself is quite joyous.  It’s a feel-good film without the usual smarminess that comes with that genre.  The characters breeze through the day, doing whatever it was they did back then; no one ever seems to ever really work at anything, not even paperwork.  They engage in lively conversations, lively parties, lively picnics – they were lively back then, in an untainted, innocent way.  They engaged in true wit, not caustic sarcasm.  In fact, it is Emma’s single instance of barbed humor that has everyone so shocked during the picnic on Box Hill.  They were gentlemen and ladies in those days – I find that any film from this era has a certain appeal to me.

As with any adaptation, new scenes have been invented to bring out elements of the book that would otherwise be unfilmable.  One particularly creative piece of symbolism has Emma and Mr. Knightley practicing their archery while they discuss Emma’s plans for Harriet.  As Mr. Knightley presses harder and harder his criticism of her match-making skills, our female cupid’s arrows go further and further afield, until Knightley has to request, “Try not to kill my dogs.”

The costumes are both simple and beautiful, and the lighting often serves more purpose than just the illumination of the set.  Watch Emma burn with jealousy as she passes through a single shaft of lamplight during Jane Fairfax’s (Polly Walker) piano recital.

Music by Rachel Portman (The Cider House Rules, Nicholas Nickleby) won an Academy Award for Best Comedy Score.  It is a beautiful main theme, often accompanied with very simple harmony and instrumentation, but it is full of the same joy and life that the film is infused with.  This was the first I had ever heard of Portman.  I have since heard much more of her music, and I’m surprised she is not yet a bigger name in cinematic conversations.

A couple of the film’s elements draw my interest specifically as a student of film production.  First, the editing department created some fun transitions between scenes.  One technique I found clever, and thankfully not over-used, was the cutting of a scene right in the middle of sentences.  It happens twice that I recall, both times serving to save a lot of dialogue elsewhere.  Emma is speaking to her former governess (Greta Scacchi) about what she plans to say to Harriet: “I shall say to her, ‘Harriet ... ’”  A sudden cut shows her seated opposite Harriet as she finishes with, “I have some news.”  It’s simple and effective; editing students should take note of it.

The other element is something I consider a flaw, but analyzing it has been educational.  Every film has a point of view, a perspective for the audience.  We live out the story through the main character’s experience, for example; or perhaps we are given a more omnipresent view as we move back and forth between scenes of the hero and of the villain.  In Emma, McGrath keeps the perspective on Emma the whole time – the camera is always with her; and if Emma doesn’t know something, we don’t know it either.  With one exception.

At one point during a dance party, Emma and Mr. Knightley are outside talking together.  The conversation ends, Emma steps away – and Knightley says one more thing.  “Arrgh!” I wanted to cry.  (I think I did, actually.)  The line itself was not necessary for us to perceive what was going on; and in letting the audience hear something that Emma does not, for one brief moment McGrath’s unfailing perspective is diverted elsewhere.  Some will argue that this does not spoil anything at all, and I guess it does not, really; but I was intrigued by a film that could maintain a solitary perspective for the course of the story, and was a little piqued that it could not hold on for a mere three seconds more.

Sweeping that complaint aside, I have nothing but positive admiration for Emma.  It is well-written, beautifully cast, the production design is spectacular in its quiet way.  It teaches about life without preaching, and what it teaches is wholesome and uplifting.  With the exception of young ones who might be rather bored, or cynical teenagers who won’t find enough explosions, swearing, and sex to keep them interested, this is a film for the whole family that leaves us cheering on the happy couple at the final wedding, and cheering on life as the end credits roll.

And I plan to keep cheering on Mr. McGrath for as long as he chooses to take classical novels and turn them into films.

Artistry: 10
Entertainment: 9

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Bringing Back Swashbuckling

Movie Review:
Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

2003 / 2 hrs., 23 min. / PG-13

Director: Gore Verbinski

I have been a life-long fan of the Disneyland attraction “Pirates of the Caribbean”.  As a child, I rode through in general glee (and brief terror when the boat went down the hills).  As an adult and film student, I ride through it as a study in amazing technological achievement and incredible production design.  For a ride, it is very cinematic – as is much of Disneyland, setting it worlds apart from the ordinary amusement park.  The single most vivid image in my mind is the skeleton lashed to the helm of a wrecked vessel, still seemingly piloting the craft as lightning crackles around him.  And on a trivial note, the lighting scheme for the opening bayou section was declared by critics to be the most believable indoor sunset ever created.

In what has turned out to be an on-going marketing strategy, albeit with its ups and downs, the Disney empire has turned yet another of their park attractions into a film.  Having casually charted the quality of entertainment over the past couple of decades, I was apprehensive of the potential childishness or sheer stupidity of such a plan.  I was pleasantly surprised by what I saw; but “pleasantly” is an understatement.  For reasons I will present shortly, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl instantly earned a place on my Top Ten list of favorite films.

The film departs greatly from the ride, which is fine since the ride is basically a ten-minute tour through a town on the Spanish Main as pirates plunder, pillage, and burn it to the ground.  But the two are not connected in name only: A handful of the ride’s key tableaux provide a springboard for the film, including prisoners trying to secure a key from a guard dog, a pirate ship attacking a fort at night, a pile of treasure with a dead captain on top, a bottle of wine pouring through a skeleton’s rib-cage, and on it goes.  But I suppose I should talk about the film itself.

Laughably notorious Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) arrives in Port Royal, having lost command of his ship, the Black Pearl, and not doing any better in his leaky dinghy.  Upon being spotted and captured, he is sentenced to be hanged the next morning and imprisoned.

During the night, the Black Pearl sails into the harbor and fires upon Port Royal.  Throngs of pirates wade ashore and kidnap the governor’s daughter Elizabeth (Kiera Knightley), because she wears a gold medallion they have been seeking.  Her friend Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) witnesses the kidnaping from a distance, and sets out to reclaim her.

He cannot do so, however, without the help of Jack, who knows where the ship is headed and why it is headed there.  So Will turns pirate, and he and Jack head off after the Black Pearl, pursued by Port Royal’s military and Commodore Norrington (Jack Davenport).

Now under the command of Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), the Black Pearl heads for the Isla de Muerta, where Barbossa and his pirates hope to lift the curse that plagues them by replacing the gold medallion in its Aztec coffer, and adding a few pints of Elizabeth’s blood for payment to the gods who cursed the gold ages ago.  The curse itself is a beaut, lending the film some of its most memorable images.

From there, the plot thickens (downright congeals) with various twists and turns as Will rescues Elizabeth, Jack confronts Barbossa, Barbossa captures Will and discards Jack again, Norrington rescues Elizabeth, and so on.  It sounds messy, but the execution of it is brilliant, energetic, and unadulterated fun.

Director Gore Verbinski (Mouse Hunt), working with a wonderful script by Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, has crafted one of the most entertaining adventures I have seen in years.  In the wrong hands this could have been a very cheesy, really dumb movie like the multitude of Disney films from the past two decades, including First Kid, Blank Check, and even the other “ride” movies, The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears.  The “family” films that might give the kids a laugh but which waste any intelligent person’s money.

This film does not stoop for a moment to anything less than superb.  The production design is fantastic, costumes are wonderful, the orchestral score by Klaus Badelt is rousing, the special effects are awesome; camera angles, lighting – it is an all-around well-crafted film.  Okay, the parrot reciting the ride’s key line (“Dead men tell no tales”) is chintzy, and I had hoped that somewhere (end credits?) they’d play the entire song of “A Pirate’s Life For Me,” but when those are the only things I can find to criticize, I think the movie did pretty well.

Johnny Depp (Edward Scissorhands) takes what would have been an ordinary role in someone else’s hands and turns Jack Sparrow into a sauntering, swaying, half mad, half drunk lunatic that you have to see to believe, and he does so with just the right level of intensity; not over-bearing, not too under-stated.  If any others had tried to do it his way, they would have gone overboard and turned Sparrow into another stupid kids’ film clown.  Bizarre as it seems at first glance, Depp’s performance is the perfect note for the film.

Depp also gets the best lines, including some delightfully witty ones that trample on every pirate cliche out there.  We’ve all heard tales of ghoulish villains who never leave any survivors; when Jack hears such a tale, he retorts: “I wonder where the stories came from, then.”  Why has no one thought of that before?

Geoffrey Rush (Shine) is wonderful as the villainous Barbossa, and he hams it up all over the place.  His is the traditional leering, growling, gravel-voiced swashbuckler, turned up a few notches.  He swaggers, glares, and otherwise chews the scenery to bits.  Some critics have viewed this as a fault, but Rush does it in a way that fits into the aura of the whole production with comic delight.

Orlando Bloom (Wilde), Kiera Knightley (Bend It Like Beckham), Jack Davenport (The Talented Mr. Ripley), and Jonathan Pryce have roles that do not call for excessive creativity, but they fill their positions ably.  Pryce (Brazil, Something Wicked This Way Comes) is one of my favorite character actors, and I would have enjoyed seeing him on screen more.

What is beautiful about this film is how all of its excellent elements add up to just so much gosh-darn fun!  We are not bogged down with political statements, excessive focus on the romance, weak scripting, or lagging pace – I heartily disagree with those who feel its running time is too long.  The comedy is funny without being inane, the adventure is rousing without being tiring, even the sidekick roles are well balanced – unlike irritating sidekicks that dominate other productions until I’m ready to strangle them, like the parrot in Aladdin and the two demons in Hercules.

On the topic of fun, I’d like to highlight the sword fights.  Hollywood has the general attitude that the mere presence of a fight, battle, or chase should somehow in itself be entertaining.  And maybe there are enough muscle-headed viewers who thrive on the raw adrenaline of such scenes to prove Hollywood right.  I am not one of them.  I despise a movie that puts the plot on hold while characters run each other through or plow into every fruit cart in town.  So I tip my hat to Verbinski & Crew for creating sword fights and ship battles that are engaging and clever.

The film falls short of a perfect score for small issues.  The town of Tortuga sports some rather busty women – which may fit the town’s atmosphere, but it is gratuitous in a film you know kids are going to want to see.  And there is the questionable ethic of having us root for lawbreakers.  An attempt is made to excuse Will’s behavior at the end, but it is fuzzy in its logic and I am not completely satisfied on that count.

I concur with Jon Hanneman, the friend who recommended I see it, when he said it was the most sheer fun he had at the movies in a long time.  No cares, no worries, no depressingly burdened hobbits.  Just good old-fashioned heros and villains swashbuckling their way across the Caribbean.  The only thing missing is the hill at the end to bring you back to port.

Artistry: 10
Entertainment: 9

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Burton Begins

Movie Review:
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure

1985 / 1 hr., 30 min. / PG

Director: Tim Burton

How and why Paul Reubens came up with the stage act of Pee-Wee Herman in the early 1980's is beyond my research interests as an armchair critic, but by 1985 the bizarre amalgam of grown man and hyperactive child had received the green light from Hollywood, and thus came Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure.

Pee-Wee Herman lives the life of a young boy in a man’s body.  His bedroom is cluttered with toys, he assembles breakfast using a machine that would make Rube Goldberg drool, his front yard puts the phrase “storybook house” to shame, and his one passion is his very colorful bicycle – which is also coveted by his rich friend Francis Buxton (Mark Holton).  When Pee-Wee’s bike is stolen and his one suspect denies any involvement, Pee-Wee sets off to find it.

Convinced by a fortune-telling huckster that the bike resides in the basement of the Alamo, Pee-Wee begins a hitch-hiking trek to the historical monument.  Rides are provided by an escaped convict (Judd Omen), a spooky old female trucker (Alice Nunn), and a boxcar complete with a toothless hobo (Carmen Filpi).  Pee-Wee also gets into scrapes with a jealous boyfriend (Jon Harris), a gang of bikers, and the casts and crews of several Hollywood motion pictures.  Along the way he supposedly learns some valuable lessons about life from a bike repair specialist (Elizabeth Daily) and a waitress (Diane Salinger), among others – but the plot and any meaning attached to it are primarily a clothesline on which to hang episodic scenes of silliness.

And that silliness is actually quite effective.  I first saw the film shortly after its arrival on VHS back in the ‘80's, and just recently showed it to my son for his eighth birthday: Nearly thirty years after my first viewing, I still enjoyed it as a successfully comic achievement.

The screenplay is by Paul Reubens along with Michael Varhol and Phil Hartman.  As one of the few legitimately funny writers and performers in the history of “Saturday Night Live”, Hartman (who also makes a cameo appearance as a reporter) was undoubtedly a major contributor to the film’s enduring cleverness.  To this day I still smile at Pee-Wee in a nun’s habit, at one of Large Marge’s particularly surprising facial expressions, and at the outrageously boring spiel of the Alamo tour guide (improvised by Jan Hooks on the spot).

The film is the freshman effort of director Tim Burton.  With his previous experience limited to working on cell animation for the Disney studios and crafting a couple of short films, Burton takes the reins of a full-length feature with a delightfully carefree hand.  Colorfully improbable characters and scenes bounce right along, with doses of Burton’s macabre sense of humor and his love of stop-motion animation thrown in, adding up to a wonderfully eclectic mix that all manages to work together.  Decades later, as Burton’s career wallows in heavy-handed remakes of both his own and others’ material, it is refreshing to come back to a time when he was just plain zany in his artistic focus.

Which brings us to Pee-Wee Herman himself.  How does one even begin to critique the acting for a character who is designed on purpose to lack credibility in our world?  He is someone whose mental maturity and physical maturity are not in sync, and if he existed as anything other than a theatrical fabrication of Reubens, he would have been institutionalized long ago.  He wears a suit that is too small; holds no job we can discern yet has money to dispense at will; his personality would rub just about everyone the wrong way; and apparently he totes a wig, mustache, and green knitted coat in his knapsack – yet he is adored by a young woman (Elizabeth Daily), greeted with a smile by his neighbors, and is ultimately embraced by everyone he meets on his journey.  I am reminded of the more recent Napoleon Dynamite here, in the sense that both characters simply need to be accepted as plausible in their fictional worlds before they can be truly enjoyed for what they are.

And since the film represents so many first-time cinematic efforts, I should mention the music by Oingo Boingo’s lead singer, Danny Elfman.  After years of writing songs for one of the foremost bands of the “New Wave” era in pop music, Elfman was approached by Burton to write his first feature-length score.  Though convinced he would send Burton’s career down in flames, Elfman went ahead and produced what is perhaps one of the most iconic scores of his career.  As with Burton, I find Elfman’s career drifting off into scores that are far less interesting than his earlier works, so popping the original soundtrack of Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure into my CD player is never disappointing.

There are movies of such intricate artistic expression that they cry out for an essay-length review.  Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure is not one of them.  As professionally published critics look with increasing disdain on any movie that dares to be trivial in its political and social commentary, it is important to remember that movies were once about plain old-fashioned entertainment.  This is a film that feels like everyone involved just wanted to have the fun of making a movie, so that we could have the plain old-fashioned fun of watching it.

Artistry: 7
Entertainment: 9

Sunday, January 6, 2013

From Trekkies With Love

Movie Review:
Galaxy Quest

1999 / 1 hr., 42 min. / PG

Director: Dean Parisot

The success of the Star Trek phenomenon is amazing.  Flat acting, cheap special effects, and more than a handful of absurd plot lines should have relegated the original series to the scrap heap after only a few episodes, but it flourished, sprouting offshoots, fan clubs, and massive conventions decades after its inception.  I confess to liking it a little myself, but I do not own plastic Vulcan ears or a toy phaser.

It doesn’t take long to see the parodical references to Star Trek being made in Galaxy Quest.  According to the film, Galaxy Quest was a cheesy sci-fi TV show of the late 70's or early 80's, featuring a standard collection of characters designed to appease every gender, ethnicity, and age demographic available: A white, stalwart, risk-taking captain (Tim Allen), a buxom female officer (Sigourney Weaver) whose function was to intermediate between human crew members and the computer, an Asian technician (Tony Shalhoub), an alien science officer (Alan Rickman), and a black child pilot (first Corbin Bleu, then Daryl Mitchell) who cheerfully reports, “We made it, Captain,” in much the same way that a member of the peanut gallery would concur with Howdy Doody.

Now it is about two decades after the show went off the air.  The cast is older, but not much wiser, as they spend their time making appearances at Galaxy Quest Conventions, where they sign autographs for obsessed fans who wear costumes, recite lines, and debate strategies used in the show.  People who really need a life.

The ragged, self-absorbed, squabbling band of has-beens is approached by what appear to be more eccentric fans, who plead with them to come save the dying race of Thermians.  It is not long before the cast realizes they are dealing with actual aliens who believe them to be the actual crew of an actual starship.

It turns out the Thermians have been monitoring Earth’s television broadcasts for years, and assume that everything we’ve beamed across (or off of) our planet is factual, historical, documentary archive footage.  Taking their cues from the brave and fearless (and scripted) crew of Galaxy Quest, the Thermians have built a space station, starship, weaponry, uniforms, and even the mess hall’s menu, exactly to spec.

The skeptical cast soon find themselves beamed aboard the Thermian ship, where the Thermians eagerly await their brilliant maneuvers to conquer and destroy Thermia’s archnemesis, Sarris.  But can a handful of B-list actors pull off such a victory?  It’s a feel-good comedy, so what do you think?

This prosaic synopsis does not do justice to what is one of the most flawless and funny comedies I have seen in a long time.  Writer David Howard (in what is apparently his debut screenplay) and director Dean Parisot (Home Fries) have crafted something that is simultaneously a satire and an homage to the Trek mystique, and have done so without missing a beat.  The script is witty, fast-paced, and joyously abandoned to the marvel that is Star Trek.

Every quirk of Trek is brought into play, both in the Galaxy Quest shows, and now in the crew’s attempts to live up to their reputations.  Like Captain Kirk, Nesmith’s “Peter Quincy Taggert” apparently had a narcissistic penchant for going shirtless on several occasions, and he does so again while wrestling with a large animate rock creature.  Gwen DeMarco finds herself repeating the Thermian’s computer, exactly as she did on the TV show.  Sam Rockwell (Matchstick Men) tags along as “Crewman #6,” and spends his time on the Thermian ship worried that he is going to bite the dust early on, the way “Crewman #6” did in the original episode.  And on it goes.

The entire cast is well chosen, from the energetic and cocky Tim Allen (The Santa Clause) to the toffy-nosed Alan Rickman (Die Hard), whose character “was an actor once!” and laments the way his stint on Galaxy Quest ruined his Shakespearean career.  Tony Shalhoub (Men in Black) has a role that strikes me as the funniest, but you have to look for it, because he plays it calm and subtle.  For one thing, his character is Asian: Watch him do a little squinty-eye move as his sole means of switching from Italian actor to Oriental technician.  And notice what his constant hobby is.  I won’t spoil it by pointing it out, but it has become a game with my wife and me to find out how many times he engages in it during the film, even in the most desperate of situations.

The aliens, led by Enrico Colantoni (Stigmata), are also comical as they attempt to relate to earth-going humans.  Their methods of speaking, walking, and constantly smiling are judiciously stilted, making it believable that they are normally squid-like creatures who have temporarily assumed another form that they are not used to.

The final group that contributes to the adventure is a collection of nerdy teenagers, led by Justin Long (Jeepers Creepers).  We first meet them at the convention as they attempt to discuss a fine discrepancy in one of the “GQ” episodes, and later they help save the day with their excessive knowledge of the original show.  There is the question of whether the current generation would really find such interest in a lousy older show, but Long and Company are convincing as sincere and intense followers.  (And maybe today’s teens really are fascinated by the original Trek; I wouldn’t know, as I don’t go to the conventions.)

What makes this movie more than an inane comedy is the way the crew learns to relate to each other.  It borders on sincerely touching, the way Nesmith comes to realize what a jerk he has been over the decades to the fine bunch of supporting actors who were his fellow performers on the show.  And Alexander Dane’s humble acquiescence to the wishes of his biggest fan actually brings tears to my eyes.  Here are comedians who are truly human.  They are not playing anything for cheap yucks; they are playing the natural comedy of the given situation, and learning about life along the way.

Technical highlights include the alien race led by Sarris, which is very well crafted, and which should be, since they are supposed to be real, unlike the cheesy beings that Captain Kirk had to wrestle with.  It may have been possible to pay a little more attention to Sarris’ mouthpiece, which doesn’t always look as if it is actually enunciating the vowels and consonants we hear, but it is still an excellent achievement.

And I would also like to compliment David Newman’s score which is rousing from the beginning, and should be ranked alongside Bruce Broughton’s work for Silverado, or James Horner’s The Rocketeer score.  A strong trumpet motif gives us the spirit of boldness and adventure needed to watch this fearful crew timidly go where no man has gone before.

In deciding how to rate this film, I think I have to give it a perfect score.  This will probably be an affront to cinephiles who have written multi-page lectures on the innovations of Citizen Kane and the genius of Ingmar Bergman films, but let me defend my decision.

Every film, from the most intense drama to the fluffiest comedy, participates to some degree in the Unity of Art, a concept that describes how all elements should contribute to the central theme.  The more every facet of a film contributes to its unified whole, the stronger the film.  And ideally, nothing is out of place for even a moment, from characters to storyline to concept designs to costumes to make-up to musical score.  And though Galaxy Quest is of a slightly more trivial nature than grand masterpieces like The Godfather or Casablanca, it nevertheless achieves that Unity of Art as expertly as the best of them.

The script, the look of the film, the wry tone, the sets, the music – it all fits exactly as it should.  There was never a moment where I felt something was out of place or incongruent, or even delivered with less energy or flair than the other elements.  The creators of this film deserve the perfect grade that I am giving them.

By Grapthar’s hammer, what a movie!

Artistry: 10
Entertainment: 10

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

My Favorite Movie

Movie Review:
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

1988 / 2 hrs., 6 min. / PG

Director: Terry Gilliam

“This is precisely the sort of thing no one ever believes,” says Baron Munchausen while climbing up a crescent moon in a galaxy filled with living constellations.  That line encapsulates the entire two hours of one of the most imaginative fantasy adventures I have ever seen.

For The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the third film in his “Trilogy of Imagination,” director Terry Gilliam (Time Bandits, Brazil) adapted the tall tales of Hieronymus Karl Friedrich Baron von Munchausen, a real German cavalry officer around whom a series of absurd fictional adventures centered.  I have heard two reports, one which states that a friend wrote the tales to the Baron’s chagrin, and the other which claims that the Baron himself was a grandiose liar in real life.  Regardless, the tales became part of German folk literature, and have been made into films twice previously.

Gilliam’s adaptation opens with “The Town” under attack by “The Sultan” – a humorous vagueness that runs throughout the film.  The town administrator (Jonathan Pryce) is a legalistic paperwork fiend who thinks everything, even the Sultan’s war, can be solved by science, reason, and signing the right parchment, a theme continued over from Brazil.  And the chief civilian divertissement is the local theater, where Henry Salt (Bill Paterson) and Company are performing The Adventures of Baron Munchausen.

At one evening’s performance, the real Baron Munchausen (John Neville) shows up.  Incensed at the license the young whipper-snappers are taking at the expense of his good name, the aging soldier interrupts the show, hijacking the stage to correct the injustice.

The Baron claims that he personally is the cause of the Sultan’s war.  In a flashback with a beautiful transition shot, the Baron relates how he managed to win the Sultan’s entire fortune of gold and jewelry in a bet.  Quite unhappy at losing that wager, the Sultan (Peter Jeffrey) pursued the Baron.  Now, decades after the original affront, the Sultan has him trapped in the Town and persists in wasting cannon shot in the hopes of flushing him out.  But exploding theater walls and flaming sets do little to dissuade the Baron from his determination to regroup his cadre of servants so that they can defeat the Sultan once and for all.

The Baron’s personal attendants in younger days were Berthold (Eric Idle), who could run thousands of miles per hour; Adolphus (Charles McKeown), who could see well enough to shoot an apple off a tree halfway around the world, and had the gun to do it; Gustavus (Jack Purvis), who could hear a man snoring from miles away; and Albrecht (Winston Dennis), who was strong enough to lift entire sailing vessels and sling them around by their anchors.  This collection of fantastic misfits helped the Baron win the original bet, and now they are needed to save the Baron’s head from becoming part of the Sultan’s collection.

The Baron takes off to find his compatriots accompanied by Sally Salt (Sarah Polley), who has just enough childhood innocence and naivete to believe the Baron when he says he is the Town’s only hope.  The adventures that ensue are a tremendous joy to watch, and I will not lessen their impact by analyzing them here, except to say that if seeing a man fly to the moon in a hot air balloon bothers you because you can’t help thinking about the impossibility of space travel without oxygen, this movie is not for you.

This film reminds me of such children’s books as The Five Chinese Brothers and The King With Six Friends, in which a bizarre collection of talented individuals pool their abilities to attain a happy ending.  Gilliam’s creativity in bringing this particular story to the screen is as thrilling as those books were to me as a young boy.  I love watching Berthold chasing a bullet, or Gustavus standing in Turkey gaging the wind speed in Italy just by listening, or the Baron blasting his way out of a whale using a pinch of snuff.  And I often tried, as a boy, to lift myself off the ground by pulling up on my hair – the Baron actually succeeds.  This wild story is told with energy and flair, and never fails to provide new and interesting wonders for us to behold.  Watching the King of the Moon (Robin Williams) literally lose his head as it wrenches itself from his body is both comical and, if you have retained any youthful capacity to dream, amazing.

The theme here is one that Gilliam has presented before: Enjoy Your Imagination.  We live in a world that has little patience for people who refuse to keep their feet on the ground, a world that would label someone like the Baron as insane.  In one of the Baron’s many death scenes, he grouses to little Sally: “It’s all logic and reason now!  No place for three-legged Cyclops in the South Seas, no place for cucumber trees and oceans of wine!  No place for me!”

But Gilliam is not telling us to simply abandon rational behavior in favor of our wildest dreams.  There is a time and place for responsibility, a fact which Sally must repeatedly remind the Baron of before his imagination distracts him to the point of rendering him completely useless in life.

John Neville (The Fifth Element, Little Women) portrays the Baron with uncompromised zeal, charging into each new adventure with anything ranging from casual aplomb to vigorous enthusiasm.  Although the film flopped miserably thanks to some shenanigans in the Columbia corporate offices, it did launch Neville’s North American film career, and his performance makes it easy to see why.

Sarah Polley is an excellent choice as Sally Salt.  She is precocious, and has just the nagging tone of voice she needs to break the Baron out of his reveries and get on with saving the Town.  Polley has since gone on to appear in films such as Go and the remake of Dawn of the Dead, but I will always remember her as the girl who wanted to hear the end of the Baron’s story.

A handful of character actors fill out the rest of the cast, the most notable of which is Eric Idle (Nuns on the Run, Monty Python and the Holy Grail), who is always likable and has great fun as Berthold.  Jack Purvis (Brazil) appears in one of his last film roles, the rock star Sting drops in for about thirty seconds as a wounded soldier, and Winston Dennis finally gets some dialogue after being mute for both Time Bandits and Brazil.

These fine performers work well with a script by Gilliam and Charles McKeown that is generally clever and exciting.  Though the story is somewhat episodic in its leaps from one destination to another, thus preventing any real subtext or character arcs, the script doesn’t seem to care; it is too busy having fun.

The film is a very lavish production which looks like it spared no expense.  As much as I want to be a film director, I am intimidated by the thought of such huge sets, such broad sweeping beaches filled with soldiers and armaments – all of which was real since CGI crowds were not a possibility at the time.  Vulcan’s ornate ballroom is a masterpiece, the belly of the whale is awesome, and the surface of the moon is where the art directors obviously relaxed and got delightfully silly.  There are imperfections, to be sure – the scale models and some flying wires are easily detected – but the look is still fantastic.

All this technical artistry was recognized with four Academy Award nominations: Art Direction, Costumes, Make-Up, and Special Effects.  (It lost, respectively, to Batman, Henry V, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Abyss.  I was ticked.)  And yet, I was surprised to learn, the film has earned a place in cinematic history for being the textbook example of what Hollywood calls a fiasco.  I don’t have room here, and apparently there is a whole book on the subject if you’re curious.

Having acknowledged its imperfections – and I’ll mention that, due to the Baron’s philandering and an artistic nude scene, it would be more appropriately rated PG-13 – I will say that this is without a doubt my favorite film.  The Baron is a vigorous, enthusiastic figure whose laugh alone is enough to urge us to get on our horses, whip out our swords, and charge headlong into life’s challenges.  The creativity of the storyline and the many fantastic whims that decorate the film never lose their savor with me, even after the gazillionth viewing.  From the opening fanfare (by the late Michael Kamen – one of the most thrilling bars of music I have ever heard) to the triumphant ride into the sunset, my day is always brighter after watching the Baron’s exploits.

Floating heads, a two-dimensional city, a waltz with Venus, a three-headed mechanical bird, a tea party with the god of war, a card game with Death – these are things no one ever believes.  But every now and then, just for a moment or two, maybe we should stop and imagine.

My Score: 8