The Z/Web Archive
Postings for the Month of December 2008
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
The Tale of Despereaux
Movie: The Tale of Despereaux
I was looking forward to this and expected to like it, but I was crushingly disappointed. I think I could go so far as to say I hated it, which shocks me. How could one go wrong with the story of a funny little mouse who's a hero? I don't know, but somehow this film does it. First of all, the story is way overdone: it's got too many things happening and jumps from plot to plot with no transition at all that it's confusing and breaks your chain of thought. For example, the basic story seems to be that of a brave mouse who saves a princess. But mixed in with that is the story of a rat who's somewhat similar and who helps the mouse. That is further complicated with the story a girl who's a "princess" serving as a maid in the King's castle. All of these stories sound generically familiar, but they purposely resolve differently than we expect; I suppose that's to make things more interesting, but I just found it annoying, since the whole movie you are confused as what is happening. Is the Desperaux the mouse the main character? Then why is so much time spent on the rat's story? And which princess are we to root for: both, neither? It's all bewildering.
Another fatal flaw is the animation. At times it's breathtakingly beautiful, with fantastic attention to detail. I loved the way Despereaux's nose glistened with faint wetness, for instance. Amazing. But the animation is inconsistent, with humans looking awkward and dorky, and very often the movement of characters defying real-world physics. Like in one scene Despereaux is bouncing on the end of a rope and he bounces as though the rope is elastic -- it just did not feel natural. In many scenes the editing is so choppy and the camera angles so poorly chosen it's difficult to tell what is happening. You get a vague impression and you're probably right, but it's not clear. Another problem is that the film's humor is odd: there are many scenes where the mice discuss Despereaux's problem in that he's not afraid and hasn't "learned to cower like a proper mouse." I guess that's supposed to be funny and it is the first time, but it's hammered over and over, with parent-teacher conferences with Despereaux's parents, etc., and in the end it just starts to get repetitive and puzzling. There's also bizarreness associated with the supernatural. While there's an aspect of the film that feels like it should be "magical" (fantasy), we're not really shown that anything is actually magic -- except for a strange talking vegetable man. This being assembles itself from a collection of vegetables (i.e. different vegetables for the mouth, nose, eyes, etc.) and he talks. We're given no history of him, no explanation of what he's doing there, how he can talk, what he is, or what happens to him in the end. (Does he die when he fell down the stairs or was he just forgotten on the cutting room floor?) I wanted to see a world with a lot more magic, or key magic used at just the right moment to save the day, or none at all. This bit of random magic for no good reason was just bizarre and weird and pointless.
There are a few moments of brilliance: Despereaux himself is very good (though he's not on screen enough), the narration has some good lines, and some of the scenes are interesting. But mostly this is just a mishmash of styles, stories, characters, and confusion. I really disliked it and found myself contemplating leaving the theatre on many occasions. Though it's not long, it felt endless. I am extremely disappointed.
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
Writer(s): Robert Heinlein
I've read almost all of Heinlein's stuff, this one had eluded me, I'm not sure why. It's pretty cool. It's written first person female, about an "enhanced" woman's adventure's in the future. She's sort of a spy/assassin, very capable, and the story's about her getting in the middle of a planet-wide coup attempt and an elaborate plot against her life. It's a bit muddled, and the story's not all that compelling (it's more of a rambling tale than a structured plot), but what makes it work is hearing Friday's voice: she's a fascinating character with an interesting and unique personality, with a great sense of humor. It's a blast to read and worth it just for that experience; the plot doesn't really go anywhere and has some serious conceptual flaws. (For example, it was never made clear why she couldn't have been killed on the planet where she escaped to -- the explanation that the bad guys would just let her go at that point was not convincing.) But overall, this was fun and entertaining, if light.
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Director(s): Bryan Singer
When I first heard of this I thought it was fiction; then I heard it was based on a true story. How could we not have heard about this German plot to kill Hitler? Then I watched a documentary on the History Channel and realized it's not new -- I read about the suitcase bomb plot many years ago when I was a kid. What I didn't know, and what the movie reveals extremely well, is the extent of this particular plot (hundreds of conspirators), how close they came to success, and how brilliant it was to use Hitler's own reserve army against him. The problem with any Hitler assassination, of course, is what happens after he's dead? It does no good if his successors are equally powerful and ruthless; the regime continues. So what made this plot different was the idea of using Valkyrie -- Hitler's own contingency plan for his reserve army to keep him in power in case of a coup -- to take over. The reserve army would think they were following Hitler's orders and would shut down the SS and imprison Hitler's real leaders, thus allowing the conspirators to take over. Once they were in power, the rest of Hitler's command could be shut down and a truce negotiated with the Allies to end the war. It was a terrific plan, especially in notion that Hitler did not even necessarily have to die: in the chaos following the assassination attempt, the rebels might have been able to take over anyway. Unfortunately, and tragically, of course, the attempt failed by just hours. It is sad but heroic, and it is easy to see why Germans today are proud of these people who stood up against their own commander and rebelled.
In terms of a film, this is excellently done: the complicated plot is explained extremely well (much better than the confusing History Channel documentary); it's dramatic and interesting, and not boring at all; the bewildering number of characters are kept to a minimum and we can follow what's happening. It's not the best movie ever by any means, but it is very good, emotional at times, and it's an important film everyone should see. It is hard to fathom for us today when Hitler's such a dirty word, but back then he was still considered a hero by most of Germany, who were fooled by his propaganda and did not even know 90% of the evil he was doing, and these military officers who betrayed and tried to kill him were considered traitors. In hindsight we know they were heros, but at the time they had difficult decisions to make. Would you or I make the right decision if we were in that situation today? The film provokes many interesting questions like that. Highly recommended.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Enemy at the Gates
Movie: Enemy at the Gates
I saw this on TV and I was baffled by the description. The title sounded familiar but the plot did not; later I figured out that I had this confused with the Will Smith vehicle Enemy of the State, which explains why I had never seen it. It's an interesting idea: we follow the life of one Russian soldier during the WWII battle at Stalingrad, where he becomes celebrated nationwide as a hero for his efforts as a sniper against the invading Germans. The Germans, frustrated so many of their men keep getting snipped off, bring in their own sharpshooter (played by the brilliant Ed Harris), and the two have a cat-and-mouse game. Interesting and well done, with a happy ending. I liked it. I'm not sure it's the greatest WWII movie ever (I fast forwarded through the dreary and gory battle scenes), but it's different and I liked the one-versus-one aspect of the snipers.
Saturday, December 27, 2008
The Last King of Scotland
Movie: The Last King of Scotland
I still don't understand the title, but the film's a terrific perspective of Uganda dictator Idi Amin (who loved things Scottish). We follow his rise and fall via a Scottish doctor who ends up serving as Amin's personal doctor; he's a wonderfully flawed man, and we're shown all that, and he contrasts brilliantly with Amin's initially personable man. Then as Amin starts to show his true colors, the doctor has fits of conscience, and eventually the doctor is heroic as he helps expose the real Amin to the world. Tremendous acting.
Friday, December 26, 2008
Searching for Bobby Fischer
Movie: Searching for Bobby Fischer
This is about a seven-year-old boy with an affinity for chess. His dad encourages him, starts taking him on the competitive chess circuit, where the pressures of being perfect effect the boy. Eventually the mom and dad and the boy's teacher have conflict over the boy's future: how hard should adults push young geniuses to excel? The film raises some wonderful questions and doesn't give us pat answers, but story-wise it's sluggish, predictable, and not that unusual. The worst flaw for me is that the chess is presented at high speed with "dramatic" camera angles and quick cuts that make it impossible (at least for my slow brain) to keep up with the chess. I suppose this was done to make a "boring" game seem interesting, but because chess is such an important aspect of the story, I found it jarring and frustrating because the chess moves weren't explained and some of the interesting genius moves weren't demonstrated in a way that revealed their genius. They might have just as well eliminated the chess playing altogether and just cut to the trophy ceremony. Still, the film does have its moments.
Thursday, December 18, 2008
The Big Lebowski
Movie: The Big Lebowski
Director(s): Coen Brothers
Though I'm a giant Coen Brothers fan, I disliked this movie intensely when I first saw it. I hated it so much I didn't even understand it: it was a bunch of crazy, lazy, horrible people doing incomprehensible things. This time I was able to follow the plot which is pretty good -- about a loser hired to pay off a ransom of a kidnapping that might or might not be a real kidnapping -- but I still didn't like the characters who are angry, swear constantly, and just unpleasant. That meant I didn't really care what happened to anyone in the film, which means I didn't care much about the film. So my revised opinion is that I can now see some of what inspired the Coens to make this, but sadly it's still their worst film. Not as bad as I remember, but still unpleasant.
Monday, December 15, 2008
The Age of Innocence
Movie: The Age of Innocence
Writer(s): Edith Wharton
Director(s): Martin Scorsese
I thought of this as one of those boring literary period pieces and I'd never seen it, but it showed up on one of my movie channels and I saw it was based on a book by Edith Wharton, who's an author I admire. Yes, the movie is slow, and not that much happens in terms of story, but it is interesting. It does a great job of capturing New York in the pre-twentieth century era, particularly life in the upper class. The story is about a lawyer who's engaged but falls in love with another woman who is estranged from her husband. Morals of the day prevent their having an affair, as much as they desire it, so the whole thing is much ado about nothing, and yet the emotions involved are just as powerful. The subduction of passion is clear and fascinating, but what I liked best were the smarmy jabs at the upper crust and the mockery of the fashionable.
Friday, December 12, 2008
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Movie: The Day the Earth Stood Still
Nothing too new here; it's a by-the-numbers film in most respects, with better special effects and more story flaws than the original. It's not bad, but it's not great. It's interesting, and there are some fascinating moments. I thought the little boy was grating and nasty for most of the film and then suddenly he changes (he's reformed). It made no sense and was ineptly handled, but it's unfortunately a key aspect of the plot. The best thing, for me, was that the way the aliens planned to destroy the earth was scientifically plausible: they released nanobots (microscopic robots) that swarm as a huge cloud and literally eat away buildings, machines, human beings, etc. and simply use the broken-down raw materials to build new nanobots and grow the swarm. The end result is that everything man-made on earth could be consumed, leaving nothing but nature left. That's pretty cool and effective; I can't remember what was supposed to happen in the original, but in most films like this the alien technology is just like magic and never explained. I was worried this film would be preachy, as it has a pro-environment theme, but it's minimally addressed and just hinted at, so that was good. But there really isn't anything here you have to see other than a few scenes with interesting effects.
Thursday, December 11, 2008
What a delightful film! I went into this as a skeptic: the premise seemed fatally flawed. How could a dog not know he was just an actor on a TV show, especially a show where he has super powers? But the film does acknowledge this problem with an "eccentric" director who supposedly wants to get a real performance from his lead animal actor and everyone on the show cooperates to keep the truth from the dog. Still silly and absurd, but you suspend disbelief and go with it. Once you are past that quibble, though, the movie is wonderful. It's not quite up to Pixar standards, but it's darn close. Basically the dog ends up in the real world and is shocked to learn he doesn't have super powers, but he's still so brave and kind-hearted that he will do anything to be reunited with his little girl owner. In the end, of course, he is heroic, but the journey is fun, with some great supporting characters. I really enjoyed it.
Friday, December 5, 2008
Welcome to the Monkey House
Book: Welcome to the Monkey House
Writer(s): Kurt Vonnegut
This is a terrific collection of Vonnegut short stories. I liked that they reflect the wide variety of topics and styles. Some are more serious, almost dramatic, while others are merely quirky, and a few outrageous. But almost all are wonderful. My favorite is a surprisingly tender love story set in a small town about an anonymous man who comes to life each year as an actor in the community theatre. He literally becomes the character he's playing and changes completely, and in the end a beautiful woman falls for him and it's a delightful, magical romance because every week they read a new play together and he's a new person. I just loved the way Kurt captures the magic of the theatre and performance and combines with a clever story.