Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Prestige

Are you watching closely?

"Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called 'The Pledge'. The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird, or a man."


"He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't."

The magician is Christopher Nolan, visionary director of many mind-bending movies and everyone’s favorite superhero. The stage is 1890’s London; dark, smoky and bustling. Stage performances is the way to be entertained, and magicians and illusionists scramble along with the other performers trying to discover a trick no one’s ever seen before, and place themselves above the competition. But the business is a fickle one, and a dangerous one. The ordinary object is two men -- two magicians -- Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) and Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman). And of course they are anything but ordinary. Borden is a talented magician; his tricks are unique and hard to spot, but he doesn’t know presentation like Angier; he can present the simplest trick with a dramatic flair that makes it seem amazing.

Filling in the background for support are many more talented actors including, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson, Rebecca Hall, Andy Serkis and David Bowie.

"The second act is called ‘The Turn.’ The magician takes the ordinary something, and makes it do something extraordinary."



This may be a very short review. As interesting and complex as this movie is, almost everything want to say about it could be a spoiler. An incident causes these two magicians to wage war on each other throughout the film, and their rivalry is blown into enormous proportions.

The performance is immaculate. Filming sets the dark, suspenseful tone with a deep, rich, 1800’s beauty. The script is polished, and filled with mystery; every word conceals important clues. Nolan, as usual gets everything he needs out of his actors. Bale and Jackman stand out as exceptional of course, -- and I especially enjoy Jackman -- but no one stands out as giving any less than they should.

Every element of skillful movie-making falls into place with ease, and the result is a gritty, thoughtful, complex tale of magical revenge... and a little mind-blowing.

“Now you’re looking for the secret, but you won’t find it because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be… fooled.”


I could nit-pick a few things that don't quite make sense if you really think about it, and the movie is very dark and sad; if you're all about sweet happy movies where you never have to worry if the ending is going to be a "good" one, this might not be the best movie for you... but still I would encourage you to give it a try.

This movie goes deep and dark, presenting its twists and turns masterfully, in a way that explains everything, yet lets you think you figured it all out yourself. It appears to be extremely complicated, but you always understand exactly as much as you should in the moment. Its thoughtful sobriety is the kind that usually makes a film a one-time deal -- except if you like downer movies as long as they're good -- but unless you absolutely loathed your first viewing, a second is all but required. The first time you understand it; the second time you get it.

Now I don't mean to say in any way that this is not an enjoyable film. It is dark yes, and sometimes melancholy, but it is also energetic, engrossing and sometimes astonishingly magnificent. The messages may not be the most uplifting, and they certainly don't teach through example, but they are honest and true. And there is plenty of excitement to be had -- if there's one thing Christopher Nolan is good at, it's making serious, seriously thrilling movies.


"But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call 'The Prestige.'"


Eleven.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Stardust

Sometimes it seems that the best, most original premises for stories can be summarized in a single question. For instance, the question, "what if we aren't alone in the universe?" has sparked countless alien movies, and then "what if aliens aren't evil?" sparked countless more. The more simple and unique the question, the more interesting and unique the story could be.

So take this one; "what if the stars gaze back?" Simple and unique to be sure, and also a bit quirky -- it would be right if its story was quirky too, It's imaginative, so a fantasy, with magic and sword-fighting, and flying pirates and witches. It might be a bit cheesy, but it would also be funny, exciting and sweet.


Stardust is all these things and more. Stars do gaze back, and what more, sometimes they accidentally fall. (Shooting stars!) One star named Yvaine (Claire Danes) is unceremoniously knocked from the sky by a large gemstone set in a necklace when the dying king of the realm of Stormhold sends it flying into the night, telling his three sons that one must retrieve it to claim the throne. As the star falls, three sister witches see it, and one goes out to find it, so they can consume the heart and be young again.

"A toast! To the new king of Stormhold... whichever of you fine fellows it may be."

In 1800's England, in a small village called Wall (so named for a mysterious wall on its border), a boy named Tristan (Charlie Cox) is trying to win the hand of his beloved, the beauty of the town, Victoria (Sienna Miller). They see the star falling, and make an agreement; if Tristan can bring the star back to Victoria by her birthday in one week, she will marry him; if not, she'll marry that pompous rich fellow Humphrey (Henry Cavill, and almost totally, hilariously, unrecognizable). Tristan is determined to succeed, but no one ever crosses The Wall. Once that little hurdle is jumped there's an unexpected problem; Tristan had no idea the star would be... a woman. And she's not too keen a being a birthday gift.

Obviously, she needs some convincing. Maybe bribery.

If there is one movie that just screams "high-flying, full-throttle, incredibly fun fantasy adventure" it would be this movie. The story, based on a novel by Neil Gaiman, is wonderfully complex for a lighthearted fantasy, with basically three plot lines running simultaneously, and intersecting every now and then. Tristan and Yvaine, on a time limit, hurrying towards the wall, the witch Lamia, Michelle Pfeiffer, growing older and uglier the more magic she uses, in pursuit of the stars heart, and the youngest prince, Septimus, Mark Strong, a likable bad guy if there ever was one, in pursuit of her necklace. There's also a pirate with a fearsome reputation, Robert De Niro being unpredictable, a kidnapped princess, ghosts for comic relief, and what fairy tale would be complete without a unicorn?

Oh no! Not... unicorns!! Just kidding, everyone knows unicorns are nice!

Acting wise there's nothing special, in spite of the all-star cast, which lesser-known Charlie Cox as the unlikely, awkward hero holds up against very well. Claire Danes' sarcastic heavenly being is a little strange at first, but she grows on you. The two together don't click as well as they should, which is slightly disappointing, especially when I realized that a sweet moment between girl and mouse was just as romantic as a sweet moment between girl and boy. Still, I hardly noticed that enough to care; there's so much more to occupy your thoughts.

A star learns to waltz...

The quirky plot unfolds briskly and smoothly from beginning to end. Aided by active, sweeping cinematography moving from place to place and scene to scene seamlessly, tying everything together with style. It also showcases some beautiful, middle-earth-like locations, and some epic, magical sets. The humor is hit and miss, and as the rating says, some of it is mildly rude, but it is usually at least mildly amusing, and sometimes it hits and is downright funny. The cheesy-ness is sometimes laughable as well, but in a purposeful way. (Self-deprecating humor makes everyone like you!) The action is swashbuckling at times and magic-y at times, and is good and exciting all the time.

Yikes.

Stardust is the practically the definition of it genre. Yet I consider it to be extremely original. It succeeds in telling a fun adventure story and in making it funny, romantic and fantastic. It's very light fare -- never going deeper than about, oh, two inches, but it lightheartedness also makes it endearing... and cheesy. Still it has its "serious" moments and its fantasy action and violence. It may go overboard, but it does it whole-heartedly, making you want to join in on the craziness, the fun, the giddy enthusiasm. And with a unique, memorable story is told this well, I have nothing else to say except jump on in.

Number ten!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Jack the Giant Slayer

Not to be confused with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, or Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Those are nothing like this movie; they have colons in their titles!

Okay, there is one pretty big difference I suppose... Jack the Giant Slayer, with a cheesy PG-13 rating, is more of a kid's movie. But does that really set it apart?

Fee fi fo fum. Ask not whence the thunder comes. For... giants-- giants make the thunder... yeah.

Jack starts out just farm boy, not a giant killer -- he doesn't even know that giants exist! When he was little, his father used to read him stories at night about the giants, but now his father is dead, and Jack lives with his uncle. One day Jack's uncle sends him to the market to sell a horse and cart, but Jack is distracted by the local beautiful princess making an appearance, and the cart is stolen. Then he sells the horse for a tiny bag of beans. Okay, so the horse was basically stolen too.

Later that night the free-spirited princess Isabelle -- whose now dead mother also used to tell her bedtime stories of giants -- runs away from the castle and her father, who wants her to marry his right-hand man Roderick. In the storm, she finds her way to Jack's house, where a few minutes later one of those beans gets wet, grows very large very fast and very high, taking the house and Isabelle with it. Jack, well... falls out. After he explains what happened to the king (and they have to believe him because there's a huge beanstalk towering right behind him) he volunteers to go with the search party assembled to find her, led by Elmont, who is the head knight, or personal guard to Isabelle, or, something important. Roderick and his henchman also come for devious reasons of their own, and the adventure begins!

Hero shot of heroes heroically climbing bean stalk!

So take an old fairy tale, take away anything "uninteresting", add epic elements, a dash of comedy, a smattering of romance, then smother in digital effects and blend thoroughly, and you have yourself a nice modern take on a classic tale that everyone will love. Guaranteed. Or so it seems every filmmaker is thinking now. Fairy tales have never been out of style of course, but the modern fixation on making them... epic -- at the expense of other things -- only seems to degrade them. Some worse than others; the two I mentioned at the top I wouldn't waste time on, but Mirror Mirror was cute, and I laughed my way through Snow White and the Huntsman. I'm even looking forward to Kenneth Branagh's Cinderella. But how does Jack do? Well there are good things, and there are bad things.

("The good thing don't always soften the bad things, but vice-versa, the bad things don't necessarily spoil the good things, and make them unimportant.")

Good things: The acting, and characters, definitely. Nicholas Hoult as Jack was a good hero, very sweet and brave, but his real acting skills were mostly underused I think. My "oh yeah, I have seen him before" moment: He kissed Jenifer Lawrence in X-Men: First Class, was killed by Medusa in Clash of the Titans, and (my personal favorite) was totally creepy in a Kenneth Branagh Wallander episode. I'm looking forward to getting around to watching him in Warm Bodies sometime, and hopefully in many movies to come.

Everything I think of to say here gives away the fact that I think this is a very cute photo... so I'll just admit it.

Ewan McGregor was the picture of charisma as Elmont, with his spiky hair, his charming smile, and his twirl-able mustache. His true talent was also not really used, but I really enjoyed his character, being heroic at every turn, and keeping the energy high. Without him, Jack (the person and the film) might have easily ended in dismal failure. He's the true hero of this tale.

You know that's right!

Then there's Isabelle, played by Eleanor Tomlinson, and I can't say if she was used to her full potential or not; I've only seen her before as a young version of Jessica Biel in The Illusionist. But she did impress me by not being a completely generic princess. She was, however, a completely generic damsel in distress, not the fighting princess who can take care of herself. I thought that was strange, but I'm definitely not complaining.

Jack and Isabelle take a breather for a "moment."

Stanley Tucci as the traitor baddie Roderick wasn't as good as I was hoping he'd be, but I guess my expectations were just too high. He was very good, just, again, underused. Lastly I'd like to mention Bill Nighy in the role of the two-headed leader of the giants. He was pretty much the only enjoyable thing about the giants. As my brothers said, "he sounds like... like, Davey Jones." Yep, and it's a good sound for him. He made the bad guy actually memorable.

Roderick and his... minion.

And that leads me perfectly into... the bad things. Deep breath. It seemed like the digital effects were the whole point of the movie, but they were no good. The opening sequence looked seriously like a video game. Lazy, I suppose? Everything looked cheap, and the giants were barely animated better than they appeared to be in the trailer (which was horribly). There was also too many gross-out moments with them -- too childish -- but, on the violent side, there was too much as well. Was this supposed to be a kid movie, or a teen movie? I don't think anyone decided; some ridiculous stunts and stupid "humor" didn't match the more mature PG-13 violence level.

Story/script wise, it was pretty mixed. There were some unique plot devices and details, but overall it was pretty lifeless, despite some valiant efforts from the cast. Interestingly, I thought it got better as it went along, unlike most movies that just give up about halfway through. And the ending actually surprised me very pleasantly. Even though it was immature and cheap at times, I enjoyed it thoroughly in its good moments, and there were plenty of them. Not to be taken seriously by any means, but it was a fun ride.

Number nine!

Thursday, June 20, 2013

War Horse

War Horse. Steven Spielberg. Good movie. Tom Hiddleston. Benedict Cumberbatch.
The end.

Okay, okay, that's my short version. I'll see if I can come up with something a little longer...

War Horse. Steven Spielberg's WWI epic based on a novel and a play about a remarkable horse named Joey and his journey through the war. Young and unbroken, Joey is bought by Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan) who was supposed to buy a plow horse. Ted's wife Rosie (Emily Watson) is obviously none too happy with him when he brings back the useless beauty as they need a plow horse to make the money they need to keep their farm.

The Narracott's have a nice family argument about Ted's latest foolish purchase.

Their son Albert, who has been watching Joey grow up, is already enamored, and convinces them to let him keep and train Joey -- which he does -- and the two become as inseparable as a boy and his horse can be. Albert even gets Joey to plow the field, which is nothing short of a miracle, and things are looking up... until a huge storm washes away the crop and the Narracott's are right back where they started. When Britain goes to war Ted takes the opportunity to sell Joey for much needed money. Captain Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston) buys Joey, but promises to return him to Albert... if he can.

Promises, promises!

This is definitely a Spielberg movie. There is one dead give-away to that fact; no matter how you look at it, the leading character is a horse. No human characters get enough screen time for it to be anything else. But Joey is a good lead -- I could even praise the many horses that played him as good actors if I felt like it -- even though he never speaks we come to understand him and pull for him as he witnesses the horror of war, and finds the silver lining.

Best buds Joey and Albert.

If "main character" requirements include being human though, the title would fall to Albert, played by the then-newcomer Jeremy Irvine. Since he's starred in a couple more movies, including a version of Great Expectations that I'm almost dying to see, and see if Irvine isn't just a one-hit-wonder. In spite of being a newbie in a big Spielberg film, Irvine does a great job, and puts in a pleasing, solid performance, and holds his own against some pretty big names.

Benedict Cumberbatch, don't-know-don't-care, and Tom Hiddleston.

These guys are my favorite. I mean, really, how awesome is it that Loki and Khan were in this movie together before anyone even recognized that they were talented enough to play those iconic characters so amazingly? I find it to be... epic. And though they have small roles, they really stand out in them, and bring so much to the movie. It's amazing how quickly I became attached to those two characters. And as for "don't-know-don't-care" I feel that I should apologize... but I still don't care.

That's better. :)

It's a very large cast after all; I can't keep track of everyone. Besides the Narracott's and my favorite villains being good guys, that remarkable horse Joey crosses paths with, and makes an impact on many, many people, each very different and memorable and important in their own way. A real ensemble cast, and everyone's performances blends together ideally.

Emilie, a young French girl played by Celine Buckens.

Now, Spielberg sometimes tells his stories at the expense of reality and logic, and this film is certainly no exception, faulty logic and plot holes make appearances, and if they bother you, well, they bother you... but the beauty of his movies never really lies in the realm of realism, does it? Spielberg makes movies magical, and again, I find no exception here. It that magic that I love, and in my book, it easily overshadows some silly plot holes.

And speaking of classic Spielberg, the cinematography! Oh my goodness... there's no way I could do it justice by description, but even pictures can only show so much. (For the full effect, you know what to do!)



He might as well have left his signature on it.

My favorite thing about Spielberg is his use of imagery to create the feelings he wants convey, and the story of War Horse is completely equal and complementary to this style. The best moments in this movie are either silent, or subtext, and they're enhanced beautifully by camera work that borders on surrealism it's so perfect. Through this unique sentimental style War Horse becomes memorable a tale of courage, honor, love, and sacrifice, told episodically and sometimes with extra sap, but beautifully, artistically, and boldly. Not perfect, but if you allow it, it can sweep you away along with its many brief characters, and its brave four-legged hero, on a journey that I say is certainly worth taking.

Review number eight!