Alice In Wonderland (2010)

April 13, 2010

Alice In Wonderland certainly wasn’t a terrible movie.  I enjoyed watching it.  It was very entertaining.  The costumes and makeup were great (except Johnny Depp, he looked awful) and it had a good, solid plot.  The only real problem was, it had absolutely nothing to do with Alice In Wonderland.

Sure, it had some of the character’s names in there.  Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, the Red Queen… but they weren’t actually playing their roles at all.  It was like someone went out looking for the Mad Hatter, and brought back someone named Mad Hatter and it was the wrong one.

Alice was always the sensible one in the book.  Always trying to correct the Wonderland characters, trying to make them make sense, trying to use logic to justify her position.  But in the movie, she was the silly one.  Maybe they were trying to say the first visit to Wonderland had changed her, made her silly, but I think at the same time they were implying they got her weirdness from her father.

Alice really needed to simply be a voice of reason in a silly, weird, wonderful world.  Because really, when everything’s mad, you need at least one to play the “straight man”.  But instead they made her some sort of hero, living up to her destiny, slaying the dragon (jJabberwocky).  It would have been very appropriate for one of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe movies, or for a Harry Potter movie, or any other type of child hero fantasy movie.  But it wasn’t at all appropriate for an Alice In Wonderland movie.

Really, what the film needed was a script and a director who can handle having absolutely no plot.  Because there really wasn’t any plot in the Alice in Wonderland book.  It was just one scene next to another, one set of sillyness next to another set, completely unrelated and untied to any story.  The only director I can think of who can pull off such a feat would have been Terry Gilliam.  Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas or The Meaning of Life would have been much more closely related to any Alice in Wonderland adaptation than The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  It just needed one scene after the other, linked with only Alice.

Sometimes studios place way too much emphasis on plot.  After reading through the Avary Sandman script, I realized sometimes movies really don’t need a plot.  Sometimes all they need are some really interesting characters and a proper mindfuck to do the source material justice.  And that’s all Alice was supposed to have been.


Fah talai jone (2000) Tears of the Black Tiger

April 4, 2010

The only reason I added this film, and the only reason I watched it through, was because of the stunning visual effects.  I think of each shot as being like a panel in a graphic novel, and the director has painstakingly colored each outfit, every eye color and set of lips, and the sky, each piece a whole in an artistic frame.  To think of film as art first, entertainment second, can lead to some wonderful results.  Kurosawa was an artist first, and it shows.  It’s said he used to paint the most beautiful, detailed storyboards, whereas most directors stick to simple line drawings.

One of the most amazing scenes came early on, when Dom was playing harmonica on the tree, with the sun in the background.  The entire sky was just a mural, in a very expressionistic style that reminded me of Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (1920), one of my favorite films of the German golden age.  It’s often occurred to me that the world could use another art film, where the background, the sets, and the clothing all fit in perfect harmony to make each scene a work of art in its own right.

Unfortunately this film falls a bit short on that.  Though it is very beautiful, and the carefully colored world persists throughout, it’s not the work of art that Caligari or Dreams were.  Additionally, the story is less than compelling.  It’s a simple spaghetti western where the hero fights for the honor of his father, and the love of his life.  Perhaps it was meant to be deliberately corny, but the comical style of acting didn’t seem to match the more romantic, old visual stylings.  Perhaps the plot would have been better served with more cartoony type effects, something akin to Sukiyaki Western Django.

I certainly wouldn’t watch it again for the story, but the visual effects I will remember for a long time.  I wish more directors would pay attention to the artistic aspects of film making.


Bottle Shock (2008)

April 4, 2010

This film tells the story of how California wine became respected among wine connoisseurs.   It details specifically one family’s winery, the Barretts of Chateau Montelena, and the organizer of the blind tasting, Steven Spurrier.

The film seemed rather disjointed and choppy.  The scenes with Gustavo were especially out of place, such as the part where he breaks off a truckers antenna, or when he has a fling with Sam.  He should have either been given a more central part in the film, or left out entirely.  And I wonder if they ran out of time post-production, because it seemed so unpolished in the end.  In most movies, if the editing is good, you don’t ever notice it.  But in this film the editing was so poor it was distracting.

I love wine, and I wish I could have the knowledge of wines that a taster would.  This movie could have been so much more educational, talking about the process or grapes used to make the award-winning wine.  But instead it glossed over the specifics, going instead for the father-son relationship between the Barretts and the friendships of Bo, Sam and Gustavo.  Honestly by the end I really didn’t care much for any of the characters.

For such a talented cast, I was disappointed with the way the movie turned out.  It could have been so much better with a finely tuned script, better editing, and better direction of the actors.  But it ended up looking very much like a low budget indie film that ran out of money in the last 2 weeks.


How To Train Your Dragon (2010)

March 31, 2010

I took my 4-year-old to see How To Train Your Dragon this weekend.  We saw it in 2-D, since he doesn’t like to wear the glasses and personally, I think 3-D is just a gimmick anyway.  I don’t think we missed out on much.

The plot is fairly simple.  But no one would really go to see the movie because of its plot.  Either you have kids, or you like dragons, or both.  For a kid’s movie, it’s not bad.  It doesn’t rely on gross-out humor and the action is relatively entertaining.  The flying scenes are great even in 2-D.

One of the main reasons we went to see it because the main dragon, Toothless (lame name by the way), looks like our cat.  All the dragons in the movie are very cat-like in their behavior and movement.  So kids who like cats should enjoy it.

Toward the end of the movie you learn that the dragons aren’t stealing sheep to be mean, they’re stealing them to feed a giant dragon that would be killing everyone otherwise.  But then you have to think, why did Night Furies just destroy the shit out of the village all the time then?  Just to be bastards?   But it’s a kids film, just don’t think too hard and you can enjoy it.

I asked my son afterwards if he liked it as much as Wall-E or Kung Fu Panda, and he said “About the same”.  Those are two of his favorite movies so that’s pretty good, for him.


I Am Legend (2007)

April 5, 2008

The movie starts out simple enough. A genetically engineered virus goes terribly wrong and wipes out all of humanity except Will Smith. Sounds normal enough, except for the zombie monsters who live like vampires, only coming out at night. They can’t talk, and they normally rip people to shreds, except when they’re hatching devious plans to trap Will Smith with a well-placed mannequin, a car and some wire. Clever little beasties, but not clever enough to use umbrellas or other sun-blocking devices.

Aside from the zombie silliness it could have been a reasonable movie. A man who has lost everyone he ever loved works desperately to find a cure, slowly losing his sanity and humanity as well. Together with his dog they explore a post-apocalyptic New York hunting deer, planting corn and driving fast in previously traffic-blocked streets. I wonder if he moved all the cars himself, or if everyone was kind enough to pull to the side of the road before they died or turned into zombies. Did I mention in the 3 years since humans died out, New York grew plants and weeds from straight out of the streets and bred an amazing array of wildlife? It must have been nice of the zookeepers to let all the lions and deer out of the zoo before they died as well.

The ending surprised me a bit, but not in a pleasant way. It reminded me somewhat of Signs, where the butterfly would cue Will Smith to say “Swing away, Merrill”. Instead he senses it is a sign from God to quickly give the cured zombie’s blood to Anna and then kill himself in a most unproductive way. Where Anna and the boy escaped to, I have no idea, nor do I know why Will Smith could not have come along too.

The ending I was expecting was for the Alpha Male to break through the glass, only to come for the female, his mate, and they all walk away happy. From what I understand, this is the alternate ending. Unfortunately I did not watch the alternate ending, but had I seen that instead of the theatrical ending, I think I would have been happier.

Another possibility would have been for Will Smith to chuck the grenade through the broken glass and to dive in the little cubby hole, thus destroying the zombies in the room and possibly saving himself. The intent of self-survival would have been a bit more believable than simply letting the grenade go off in the little glass room you’re standing in.

Finally I would like to stress once again, for all directors out there who plan to use CG in your films: It’s not ready yet. Your film looks fake, it looks dated, and 20 years from now when people see it they will think “Wow, what crappy effects!”


Southland Tales (2006)

March 31, 2008

I’ve waited years for Richard Kelly to make another movie.  Donnie Darko is one of my favorites, so I assumed, like most people, that his next movie would be even better.  Unfortunately I can’t say I liked it as much as I liked Donnie Darko, however it does have it’s merits.

At first the plot seems simple.   In a world of war and dwindling resources, everyone is on edge, there is a new revolutionary movement in the US and they hatch a plan to mess with the election in California.  When Boxer Santaros  reads off his script it sounds so dumb, so illogical, you just think it’s a metaphor for all the other crap films coming out of Hollywood.  The movie gets progressively weirder from their, trying to turn a B-movie plot idea into “real life”.

For me, the movie peaked too early.  This was it’s major disappointment for me, that the ending didn’t thrill me or bring me to tears the way Donnie Darko did.  The peak was when Boxer was leaving the mansion, with Krysta leaving before him, the weird little lady from Poltergeist behind him, and Muse’s “Blackout” cuing up.  That was a good moment, and unfortunately the ending did not come close to matching that.

One of the film’s major downsides was it’s casting.  It was like someone took the cast of Donnie Darko, mashed it up with Saturday Night Live and Mad TV, then crapped out the Rock.  He just couldn’t lead the film at all, and his lack of skill nearly made me beat my TV.  Sarah Michelle Gellar was great as the “now” porn star, and Justin Timberlake actually surprised me with his abilities to not piss me off and remind me of a teen idol.  Seann William Scott also managed to stay serious in a role that he probably didn’t even understand, but still make it seem like he did.  The rest of the cast just couldn’t get their act together and play people other than themselves.

Some things in this film did not need to be there, and I felt were just added for the “weird” effect.  Midgets don’t have to be in a movie to make it “weird”.  Respect the midget, let them be humans and not props.  Pimps don’t commit suicide, ok… but what does that have to do with the plot or the film?  Why would the Wife and the Girlfriend comment about him having to die, when they die too?  It’s not like he sacrificed himself to save others, which would have made more sense given the build-up for it.   The Christianity bit didn’t really make sense to me either.  Calling the ice cream truck a “pale horse” was a stretch, and the rest didn’t really fit with what happened on the screen.   And in the end, it’s not clear whether all of human life ended because of the rift, or just Los Angeles, or just the people blown up in the Zepplin.  And lastly, Kevin Smith as a white-bearded guru that apparently has no place in the world besides to try and explain to the Rock how fucked up the plot really is… sigh, I give up.

Despite these criticisms, I still did like the film.  My husband said, while watching it, that if I had succeeded in ever making a film, this would have been it.  I took it as a compliment.  I take the flaws for what they were, and I can still enjoy a film that doesn’t make sense.

One of my biggest regrets from my very short-lived film career is that I never got to work with Richard Kelly.  I hope his next film gives him more success.


The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream (2004)

March 31, 2008

This documentary was well-done and very informative.  I had already read about peak oil and resource depletion in several articles in New Scientist, but this film also lets you know how very much we depend on oil, and all the different aspects of life that will be affected by the oil shortage.  I had always thought that it would be easy to just switch to solar power when the oil runs out, but I had no idea that oil was used in pesticides, herbicides, and basically every other aspect of food production.  I also didn’t realize how damaging the oil shortage could be to the economy and to world peace.  This film, made in 2004, has already made some amazing predictions regarding the increasing cost of oil, the decline in GDP, and recession.

I think it went a bit overboard with it’s doomsday predictions, and that will turn a lot of people off.  Yes there is a problem, but there will be a way to fix it.  One thing I liked about An Inconvenient Truth is it made many suggestions at the end of how you can reduce your carbon footprint and personally use less resources.  However, this film only mentioned New Urbanism, which I don’t believe is a real cure.  From what I understand about the “New Urbanism” developments around cities like Madison is, it’s a glorified subdivision with a few more stores nearby.  They’re still made in wasteful builder-homes, away from jobs and entertainment.

To me, a real solution would be a return to true urbanism, but we need to improve a majority of our cities first.  Right now I live in Durham, which is an unattractive city with poor planning.  This city would need to do some major improvements to attract people to live in the city and not need their cars.  However, when I lived off State Street in Madison, we really could have lived without a car.  I used the car maybe once every 2 weeks to go do laundry at my parent’s house and buy some groceries, but it would have been possible to do my laundry at the laundromat and buy all my groceries from the smaller local grocery store.  That was urban living at it’s best, and I enjoyed it a lot.  I walked to work, walked to the drug store, walked to the lake, walked to parks, and at the time I wasn’t even thinking about peak oil or carbon footprints.  I just really liked living that way.

Someday I would like to live in a city like that again, where I can walk everywhere.  I’d like to have a townhouse with no lawn, because grass is just wasteful and too much work.  When I visited the family in Belgium they had an urban townhouse with a full garden in the backyard, and I thought it was perfect.  They made onion jelly from their onions and served it on fresh endives from their garden.  Heck, in the right city you could even raise some chickens and have fresh eggs every day too!

So I guess my not liking the suburban lifestyle and having already read the studies has made me more accepting of the movie.  But I suppose for someone who likes suburbia, who likes driving their SUV, this movie could feel very threatening.  I wonder if it will really change any minds, or just further divide people into their respective camps.