Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Midnight in Paris

 To set mood: Push play, and start reading.

Gil is a self-proclaimed Hollywood hack who never took his chances with anything. He writes movie scripts and wishes he'd tried novels first. He lives in California and wishes he'd given Paris a shot. He also wishes he lived during "the Golden Age" -- the 20's, but that's not his fault. He's engaged to Inez, who is beautiful, and can be charming, but never seems to be while around him. Maybe she's just annoyed with him currently; they're in Paris for her dad's business, and he's talking about staying permanently; he's trying his hand at a novel, faltering, and stubbornly refuses help or advice, and he keeps mentioning how amazing Paris must have been in the 20's... in the rain. What's up with that?

"What's wonderful about getting wet?"

Gil is certainly a romantic. Longing for a time when he considered everything to be better -- and who could argue with the 20's in rainy Paris? Paris is still beautiful in the 21st century of course, so when faced with the decision of wandering the streets by himself at night, or spending another couple hours tagging along with Inez, and her friends Paul and Carol who they met by chance earlier, the answer is easy, and the answer is "alone."

A little while later, he's lost and sitting on some steps somewhere, watching the city, listening to the clock strike midnight. A vintage car pulls up. Heavily accented people call him to hop in, then he's at a party. The guy playing Cole Porter at the piano actually looks like Cole Porter. That's not possible. A feisty American lady introduces herself as Zelda, and then calls over her husband, Scott. Fitzgerald. Gotta be a coincidence.

The Fitzgeralds!

No, Gil Pender has somehow time-traveled, and that was just the beginning of his experience in that allegedly perfect time that is 1920's Paris. He muddles through the day with Inez and her increasingly annoying friends in 2011, then spends his nights living it up in the 20's with the likes of Hemingway, Picasso, and a breathtaking French girl, Adriana.

Adriana and Gil at a surrealist's wedding. Hence the taxidermy birds. ...That makes sense, right?

This little Woody Allen film starts out with various lovely, saturated shots of Paris slowly progressing day to night as a soprano sax belts out a jazzy tune. An easy, effortless artistic feel flows from there through the rest of the movie. None of the shots look really "composed," but if you pay attention, you begin to appreciate the scenes composed of a single shot, drawn out over several minutes as characters walk about and interact with each other realistically; competing to get a word in, and having to make an effort to express themselves intelligently.

And who exactly is in this movie? Everyone. Okay, maybe not, but it certainly does seem like it at times. Owen Wilson is our protagonist Gil, and is his usual charming, goofy, funny self. Rachel McAdams is Inez, and is great at being, well, dis-likable (to put it nicely), but you can see her appeal as well. Michael Sheen is Inez's "pedantic" friend Paul, perfectly described with one word. Then there's the crazy coroner Woody from Psych, Kurt Fuller, being normal as Inez's dad, and the assassin girl from MI4, Lea Seydoux, playing a local girl.

Paul, Carol, Inez and Gil touring Paris. Paul serves as tour guide, and says "if I'm not mistaken" a lot.

In the 20's side, the ever-lovely Marion Cotillard is the equally lovely and sweet Adriana. When Gil says she has "one of the most interesting faces ever" I couldn't agree more. Adrien Brody gets a single, memorable scene as Salvador Dali. Kathy Bates plays Gertrude Stein. Corey Stoll is Ernest Hemingway, and this movie's scene-stealer, which is really saying something when there's also Tom Hiddleston there, playing F. Scott Fitzgerald with a great "20's American" accent, and his classic, but (as of then) not-quite-yet discovered charm.

Gil, Ernest Hemingway, and Gertrude Stein examine Picasso's latest painting.

I must briefly mention a kind of technical aspect here. The film is rated PG-13 for "some sexual references and smoking." As to the smoking, I just wonder why they don't mention all the drinking as well, but the sexual references are scattered around the film, and are not especially crude like some PG-13's can easily be, but are inappropriate enough to warrant a warning.

Loose morals abound just as you'd expect from the 20's and 2000's, but the moral of the film goes in a much different direction.

First we are drawn in with simple, delightful appeal, to fall in love with a place we've perhaps never been to, and feel nostalgia for a time we never experienced. It's easier than it seems; I don't get all the references to the time, and I don't know all the famous people of the 20's introduced or mentioned, but when nostalgia is this contagious, it doesn't make a difference. I think Woody Allen could make me nostalgic for last week if he presented it like this.

Because I really, really like this still.

Midnight in Paris is pleasingly sentimental and nostalgic. But instead of ending there and letting us wallow in our new-found disappointment of having to live in the here and now, it says it doesn't matter; everyone wishes their lot was different. Paris is still here, so if you want to live there, go. If you want to write a novel, take the risk and try it. Walk in the rain if you can appreciate it. It encourages us to love the past if we want, but to live in the present.

And then, when paired with the easy artistic delivery and cute wry humor, it becomes much, much more than a typical comedy. Instead of cheap jokes and meaningless romance, you actually get to think while watching. And sure it doesn't go as deep as some serious thinking movies, but that's not bad -- it simply doesn't presume to be anything it's not, and doesn't take itself too seriously. Because what it is, is plenty good; lighthearted, fun, genuinely charming... like a walk through Paris in the rain.

-- 4.5/5 stars
Old-Fashioned Charm
My sixth review for this!

Bonus -- because I can't resist. Tom Hiddleston is being interviewed for The Avengers and Midnight in Paris, and does the most perfect Owen Wilson impression. (Start at 3:55 to avoid The Avengers part, which is mostly the smitten host flirting awkwardly anyway.)

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Illusionist

It's the classic story. Poor boy meets rich girl. Girl's parents forbid them from seeing each other. Boy promises to run away with girl. Boy leaves alone instead. Fifteen years later, boy returns, a skilled illusionist, and meets girl again, ready to make good on his promise, just as she's about to marry the Crown Prince of Austria.

Alright, so maybe that's not that classic, but every good story needs a good twist, right?

He remembers her, but does she?

Edward Norton plays Edward, or Eisenheim - what he is known as when he becomes an illusionist. Eisenheim's show becomes very popular when he returns to Vienna. So popular, in fact, that he attracts the attention of the Crown Prince Leopold (Rufus Sewell). Leopold is one of those not-so-nice princes, for instance, he plans on overthrowing his father, the Emperor, and his plan hinges on his marriage to the Duchess Sophie Von Teschen (Jessica Biel). When Eisenheim discovers his childhood sweetheart's impending marriage, he not so inadvertently humiliates the Crown Prince, prompting him to retaliate. He uses the Chief Inspector Uhl (Paul Giamatti) -- who is more his personal assistant than anything else -- to that purpose. When he is instructed to shut down Eisenheim's show, Uhl is conflicted, as he is fascinated by Eisenheim and his tricks, but loyal to the Prince; suddenly he finds himself caught in the middle of their two-man war.

The Crown Prince doesn't know what he's getting into.

Eisenheim is certainly meant to be the main character here, but he's a pretty classic magician; mysterious, unreadable. We only get glimpses into his mind as often as other characters do - not often at all. Thank goodness then that Uhl is there to carry the movie. You think the main character is the one who carries the movie? It is an illusion. Paul Giamatti is us; trying to keep up, trying to piece together the mystery - enjoying it immensely. He is our connection to the strange world of The Illusionist. He is also convincingly British.

Inspector Uhl brings the story to life.

Not quite so much for fellow Americans Norton and Biel. Thankfully though, they both under-did the accents; much smarter than overdoing it, and it works out fine. Otherwise, they are very fine. I'm not a fan of Jessica Biel, but I don't mind her in this movie at all, and her costumes are so gorgeous. Norton is a great brooding magician. Subtle and... I want to say "deadpan" but that gives a bad impression... is there a way deadpan can be good? At any rate, it gives me the impression that the character is putting on an act, and that's a good thing. Rufus Sewell is definitely a good thing. He always makes a wonderful villain, but here he's especially good. Best of the bunch though, is certainly Giamatti, the only truly involving character, with his perfect subtleties, and the second best eye-roll ever.

Edward Norton looks the part, and performs some impressive illusions.

Much further than this, I cannot go, for fear of exposing too much of the plot that you should just watch for yourself. This pic is rated PG-13 for some sexuality and violence, and besides one scene which I always easily skip through, it's a pretty clean, if dark and mellow movie. Visually, it's very unique, using sepia tints and vignetting to create a pleasing old-fashioned feel, and early 1900's costumes, buildings, and scenery are all very pretty to look at. And the story... mysterious, magical, and... well...

I will leave off with this: highly recommended.

-- 3.5/5 stars
Review number five for this!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Wreck-it Ralph

Wreck-it Ralph
Being the "bad guy" has never been so popular. You can hardly go wrong as a baddie -- if you're a totally evil psychopath, people love to hate you, and love to see you defeated. If you're misunderstood, or have a sympathetic back-story, people fall in love with you, and wish you over to the good side. Everyone knows who their favorite villain is. Very often they get more attention than the hero. Sometimes they are the hero.

Too bad Ralph (John C. Reilly) doesn't know that. Of course for him, "bad guy" is just his job description. He works inside the video game Fix-it Felix Jr. dutifully wrecking a building so that title character Felix (Jack McBrayer) can fix it again. The other characters in the game, however, don't see it like that. To them, he is the bad guy his job says he is, and that's how they treat him. Ralph is tired of being the bad guy, and wants to fit in with the rest of the characters of his game. Thinking they'll accept him if he had a medal (something Felix is rewarded with at the end of every game) he leaves his game in search of one.

"Ralph raises the roof at a party" or, "Ralph crashes a party." I can't decide...

Such is the premise for this Disney animation, and it holds up well as the plot unfolds. It's a classic plot, so while you might find it a bit familiar, it's tried and true. Safe, but I didn't mind that. The mere fact that it's a movie about video game characters was unique enough for me. But being classic/typical Disney as it is, I can see how its safety (high-quality as it is) could easily land Wreck-it Ralph squarely into that category of movies for some viewers. "'It's great', but it eventually fades from memory." Of course, by the time this movie begins to fade, the sequel will be coming out... oh... smart move there. Anyway, I want to remember it. It made me laugh. In fact, Wreck-it Ralph wins the medal for being the very first movie to make me laugh during a potty humor sequence. Granted, I didn't exactly laugh at the actual potty humor, but still...

The point is, the humor was good, and when it wasn't making me laugh, it was still keeping me amused. And when I wasn't amused I was interested by turning plot points; never ground-breaking, but still thoughtful. And when I wasn't interested in thoughtful plot development, I was being moved by some top-notch character development... for an animated flick at any rate. Ralph's character arc was satisfying, and his relationship with Vanellope - (Sarah Silverman) of the racing game Sugar Rush - was sweet. Pun... unintended, but appropriate.

"Why are your hands so freakishly big?" "I don't know, why are you so freakishly annoying?"

Actors are usually what draws me to a particular movie, but for this movie that wasn't the case, there wasn't anyone I was especially interested in seeing, er, hearing. So when I praise the cast, I do it without bias... Though, after I decided I wanted to see this, I discovered that Alan Tudyk was in it, (playing King Candy) and got pretty excited. Ironically, I then forgot he was in it until after I watched the thing. Still, with my not remembering, he had my favorite line; after someone notes that he must like pink: "Salmon! Sal-- that's obviously salmon."... So, not much bias. With help from a clever and truly funny script, the actors delivered - on more than just punch lines too, though the punch-lines were the best. I also particularly liked Jane Lynch as Sergeant Calhoun, a tough girl from a serious sci-fi shoot-em-up game; she belts out snarky one-liners in her usual style with every breath. And it's epic.

"This is it, ladies! The kitten whispers and tickle fights end now!"

I must mention the animation, because it was pretty wonderful. With the varying arcade characters, the style of animation changed as well, according to the quality and style of the game that character is from - definitely one of my favorite of the tons of little details in the movie. But shiny bells and whistles aside, at game over, Wreck-it Ralph has what it needs; the hallmark message and feel of classic Disney animation, a little bit of retro, a little originality, and a memorable, funny script. All these elements put together, it actually lived up to its potential and turned out to be what it was meant to be; a good movie. And that is not bad. Not bad at all.

-- 3.5/5 stars.

And I must add one more thing; a Owl City/Wreck-it Ralph music video! "When Can I See You Again?" The song plays during the movie credits. It's also very catchy.