"A Wrinkle In Time"
This made-for-TV adaptation of Madeline L'Engle's much-beloved children's fantasy classic has its good points, as well as it's moments of flatness and tedium. I enjoyed lead actor Katie Stuart's performance as Meg Murry, the story's teenage heroine, and young David Dorfman is good as her little brother, Charles Wallace. Some of the special effects are relatively weak -- the CGI animation on the pegasus' back, for example -- but the story still evokes a sense of wonder. Still, after getting hit over the head with the sledgehammer-y anti-fascist, anti-conformist message when the kids are trapped on and then liberate a joyless police-state planet, I found myself wondering, jeez, was the book really that good, after all. I'm kind of afraid to go back and find out.
"The Incredible Hulk"
"No Man Of Her Own"
(Warner Brothers, 1946)
Barbara Stanwyck in a B-movie potboiler is still better than most anybody in a high-class epic. This romantic melodrama focusses on the gossip of small minds -- not small-town gossip, mind you, since it's mostly set in Chicago, but gossip nonetheless. Stanwyck stars as a recent widow who finds life -- and her libido -- go on after her husband passes away. Stifled by her controlling mother and equally controlling, judgmental friends, she is wooed by a sweet but unexciting family friend, and then while on vacation, she's swept off her feet by a masculine, amiable army man who sticks to her like glue, despite her mixed emotions. As he follows her back to Chicago, people start talking, and when the gossip boomerangs back and reaches her children, she finally fights back and stands up for herself. The sexual politics of the era may seem impossibly remote today (one of her sons blurts out, "you belong to daddy, even if he is dead!") but the retro social politics are half the fun. The other half, of course, is Stanwyck herself -- she's riveting even if the Sirk-ian script is a bit slow. Her character is a sap and a simp -- she seldom dazzles us with her trademark zingers -- but you can't take your eyes off her. Not a great film, but worth checking out.
"Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog"
(Mutant Enemy, 2008)
As you may recall, I'm pretty much a Joss Whedon loyalist -- I loved Buffy, had a little trouble with Angel (and drifted away for a season or two, but came back towards the end and enjoyed it as well...) and I'm still mad at Fox for canceling Firefly. (Grrr, argh... indeed!) I heard about Dr. Horrible from somewhere or another, checked it out and watched it like a bazillion times in one night, and when I heard they were selling it on Amazon, I figured I should give it a little plug. It's not as elaborate or as brilliantly crafted as the fabled "Buffy, The Musical" episode, but kind of in the same ballpark. Neil Patrick Harris is a revelation: I sure hope he and Whedon are going to work on other stuff as well. Nathan Fillion clearly has so much fun working with Joss that he invariably lights up the screen as the obnoxious-jerk superhero, Captain Hammer. Clearly this low-budget mini-miniseries was a labor of love for all involved, and the results are fabtabulous --but jinkies, I wish there was a sequel!
"The Dark Knight"
(Warner Brothers, 2008)
Finally, at long last, we get a superhero movie that lives up to the dynamism and creative vigor of the original comicbook medium! This second installment in the rebooted "Batman" franchise is easily the best Batman movie yet, with an intelligent, surprising, suspenseful script, a fluid sense of action, and vastly superior acting.
The first glimmer of how much this film (and its director) really "get it" comes early on, when we see that Maggie (oh, god, yes!!) Gyllenhaal has been cast to replace Katie (please make it stop!!) Holmes in the role of district attorney Rachel Dawes. Similarly, Aaron Eckhart brings just the right tone to his performance as the public crusader Harvey Dent, and Gary Oldman has completely nailed Police Commissioner Jim Gordon (as the character has evolved in recent years, particularly in the late series, "Gotham Central.") And, of course, Heath Ledger is absolutely stunning as the Joker. What a cruel tragedy that he is dead and can no longer excel in this role: he lights up the screen and makes it crackle with terror every second he's on screen. He, and this film's version of Two-Face, are the first Hollywood supervillains -- ever -- that actually feel feel terrifying and real. Director Christopher Nolan is in no small part responsible for this amazing success, and although he's been handicapped by losing a star (and by plot choices described below) I have no doubt that he will continue to breathe vitality and life into this genre: this guy is the future of comicbook movies. Warner, please keep him happy.
As thrilling as I found this film, I was disheartened to find that the end (really just the last five minutes) fell flat, and in particular that it fell into one of the major faults that has plagued many other Hollywood comicbook adaptations. The decision to kill Two-Face at the end of the film was a mistake. The same mistake was made in the first Batman film (with the Joker apparently killed at the end) and has been replicated in several subsequent films. I honestly don't know why the studios seem to feel that audiences need this kind of blunt closure in these films, or why they assume that every super-film has to be so big and grandiose, and have such a decisive finality at the end. Killing these characters doesn't make sense: it unnecessarily hamstrings future scriptwriters, and it doesn't give audiences what they want. We **don't want** to see a great, creepy character like Two-Face die -- we want to see him again, in the next film, and we want to see Eckhart reprise his role! It's not necessary to kill the villains -- just throw them in jail, let them break out later, and cause lots of mayhem. Also, Dent's death is used as a dramatic pretext to put Batman "on the lam" at the end... Like the decision to kill the Two-Face character, Batman's melodramatic response rings false and was a big misstep on the part of the studios -- it just feels dramatically forced and doesn't add anything to the overall direction of the franchise that wasn't there already, with Batman being a costumed vigilante, etc.
It's my belief that too much pressure is being placed on creative teams to make these films overly-epic, when really comicbook stories are plenty exciting on their own, and don't need the added layers of mythologizing and grandiosity. What's great about this film is that, until the lame ending, it almost entirely avoided the top-heavy pretentiousness and leaden storytelling of previous super-films. It's my hope that the studios will learn from this success, and loosen up a little bit. When they learn to tell these stories with the same sort of prolific abandon as the comicbook companies themselves -- when making super-movies becomes more normal and more routine -- then perhaps they can just settle down and deliver some spectacular pyrotechnics and dynamic, mind-blowing action and leave the clunky exposition and too-all-encompassing story arcs behind. Really, we just want to see the super-dudes battle it out. And we want it to be fun. This film delivers on all fronts. Hoorah.
"My Kid Could Paint That"
(Sony Pictures, 2008)
This is a fascinating, vexing, involving documentary about four-year old Marla Olmstead, an apparent child prodigy whose rapid elevation in the modern art world led to a media frenzy and inevitable attempts to "debunk" her work. The least interesting and most cliched question is the "but is it art?" trope. Yes, it's art; it doesn't matter if a four-year old painted the pictures. But more troubling is the question of whether or not the girl's parents coached her or did touch-ups of her paintings. My wife and I pored over the film (and the highly helpful postscript bonus features) and debated the likelihood that the girl's father may have faked or doctored some of his daughter's art. Ultimately we decided it was unlikely: the child seems pretty articulate and able to speak up for herself, and if her parents had been using her in a hoax, she probably would have said something and blown their cover. Also, as doting parents ourselves, we are all too familiar with the dynamic of trying to get our little angel to show off some clever new thing to her grandparents, etc., and having freeze up or only say "poop!" instead of reciting the Gettysburg address. So, yes, it seems highly probable that this kid is an amazing painter and that, when some news crew or whatever tries to film her painting a masterpiece, that she'd get self-conscious and do something less complex than she otherwise might. At any rate, the film itself is well structured to stimulate lively conversation and debate, and it is an utterly fascinating film. It would be great to see a follow-up film made several years from now, in sort of a "21-Up" format. Definitely worth checking out!
"Jakers: Sheep On The Loose"
My kid picked this one out at the library, and I shuddered... I shuddered again when we started to watch it, and the faux-claymation CGI kicked in... But then, it turned out that Jakers is pretty good! It helps that the show is ostensibly Irish (the show's anthropomorphized animal kids are growing up in a rural Irish village) and that there are so many cute accents. The content is also good, fairly complex stories about these polite, cute little kids solving life problems -- starting school, losing a pet, etc. -- with a much-welcome absense of loud music, shrill voices or simplistic, dumbed-down writing. The episode where one of the kids loses a pet -- his goldfish, Thor -- was particularly strong. Ferny, the kid, gets completely bummed out and his friends can't think of anything that will cheer him up. They start to get worried and ask an adult what to do... The parent suggests that they hold a wake to celebrate Thor's life, and frank, compassionate discussion about loss and mourning ensues. It was a pretty good treatment of the subject, I thought... This show is probably best for slightly older kids (six and up?) but I thought it was surprisingly well produced. Worth checking out!
"Go Diego Go: Wolf Pup Trouble"
(Nick Jr., 2005)
She also picked this out. **Sigh** But I gotta say, while the original Dora The Explorah show is completely moronic, at least Diego has a little bit of intellectual heft to it. Not much, but a little. And it's nowhere near as shrill or repetitive as Dora. Plus, the music is a lot better. Thank god.
"Do Not Adjust Your Set"
(BBC/Tango Entertainment, 1967/2005)
And now, for something completely different. This short-lived 1967-68 BBC series was, indeed a proto-Flying Circus, with the core of the Monty Python crew just waiting for Graham Chapman and John Cleese to arrive. Many reviewers have mentioned that this was originally intended as a children's programme, which in effect meant that the comedy skits, while often quite similar to the later versions that would appear on "Monty Python," are mainly different because of their brevity: the same kooky tone is present, but the ensemble generally quit a skit at the simplest iteration of the joke, whereas in the later shows, they would have things get much weirder and let the jokes go on and build up to greater degrees of absurdity, with the excessiveness of the repeated punchlines being a big part of the humor. Still, it's pretty cool to see Idle, Jones and Palin testing their craft. Probably more immediately gratifying is the extensive footage of the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, which generally performed 1-2 songs per show, in a variety of daft concepts and weird clothing: for fans of the band, this collection is a clear must-have, and a great chance to see Vivian Stanshall and cohorts in their early glory years. (Included in one episode is their Elvis-y version of the fabled "Death Cab For Cutie"; the same episode also features Eric Idle fronting the band for a psychedelic tribute to Captain Fantastic, the hero of a somewhat belabored dada-ist spy sketch that ran the length of the show... Captain Fantaastic was dumb, but the song is great.
(Koch Lorber, 2008)
As with his previous film, Man Push Cart, director Ramin Bahrani paints a bracingly honest portrait of immigrant life on the economic edges of New York City. In "Chop Shop" we meet two orphaned children, energetic, enterprising Alejandro, and his older sister Isi, who he takes care of more than she takes care of him. At the start of the film, Ale is out on the streets, working any angles he can think of to find food or small change. When an opportunity for work (and a place to stay) arises, he seizes it instantly, and swiftly settles into a position as an assistant in a low-rent auto garage in New York's "Iron Triangle", where dozens of so-called "chop shops" compete for business from gruff New Yorkers driving an endless stream of beat-up old cars. Alejandro winds up in one of the more honest shops, living in a cramped space above the garage floor, learning the tools of the trade and using his considerable charisma and self-confidence to steer potential customers into the front door. Chop Shop shares several themes with Bahrani's earlier masterpiece, Man Push Cart, but differs from that film in that no back story is presented to explain why or how these kids would up homeless -- they just are, and they simply deal with the situation as best they can. Like Man Push Cart, the movie is full of tension and dread, but often defies viewer expectations, which are generally shaped by decades of cliched storytelling. Bahrani's films, however, are anything but cliched -- his cinema verite style creates an earthy, palpable reality, one that draws you in completely and rivets your attention. The dramas he presents are both so humble and so dire that they are utterly compelling, and make this a very fine film. Great acting from his cast, particularly from Alejandro Polanco, a natural actor with as much charm and inner wit as his character, and Ahmad Razvi, who plays one of the neighboring garage owners. The cast features many actual chop-shop workers, adding an extra layer of reality and authenticity to this remarkable film. Definitely worth checking out!
"Peter And The Wolf"
Technically stunning, and thematically dark, this amazing adaptation of Sergei Prokoviev's classic children's piece, features marvelous stop-motion animation from director Suzie Templeton. The film places "Peter" squarely back into its Russian origins, but rather than an idealized rural-agrarian past, it places the story in a more modern setting, amid glum, drab, rundown shacks and tattered forests, a grim vision of a Soviet-era or post-Soviet Eastern Europe, complete with gun-toting thugs (the hunters of the original story here seem more like cold-hearted militiamen) and the nearby village appears as a rundown, dismal cinderblock outpost. Amid this crushing gloom, Peter finds wonder and joy, unlocking a secret garden where he and his friends the bird and the duck (both crippled and unable to fly) are able to play and forget the bleakness around them. While this may sound a bit miserable, the film itself is a marvel: the amount of work that went into this film is amazing, with Templeton devoting a full five years of her life to completing the piece. Equally engrossing are the added special features, including a making-of video and interview with Templeton and her cohorts that gives a sense of the sheer scope of their project, and the level of detail that went into this production. While the film itself may be a bit dark for smaller children, it will enthrall older kids and adults alike... This is a real class act, a film worth having and viewing for years to come. Recommended!
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