There was a time when inserting an army into a film meant hiring and outfitting a large cast. CGI has made raising one no more costly than shooting any other scene, so our fantasy worlds have been filled with siege engines, legions, giant trolly things and whatnot for quite some time. Simple magic is no longer enough, and its existence in film has become tied to armies and epic saga, even in the fairy tales. Sure, we would like to update and recast these stories for modern times, but that hasn’t meant making them more psychologically challenging or complex. Instead that has meant Tolkienizing everything. Jack the Giant Slayer, Maleficent, Oz the Great and Powerful all have their pitched battle scenes. It’s not enough for Jack to get one giant mad at him any longer. We need thousands of giants wearing armor trying to take over the earth. I bring this up because I was very nervous after watching the trailer for Into the Woods, with its crumbling castle, that somehow, someone would think that in moving Sondheim’s musical modernization of Grimm to the screen, it would be a good idea to add a battery of trebuchets because they are cheap.
The setting for much of Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is late 1950’s early 1960s San Francisco. Bruno Delbonnel and supporting crew have done an excellent job capturing the city. I don’t think that period has been captured on film so splendidly since Vertigo. It is bright, incredibly hip, vibrant and cool at the same time and there are constant reminders that on a sunny day, there is probably no more gorgeous city on earth for a view of the world. I often found myself wondering where they found or created such pristine examples of 1950s storefronts and neighborhoods. I know a little of how the magic works, but I was impressed by the exterior vistas and the mid-century interiors of the movie. If Margaret and Walter Keane (Amy Adams and Christoph Walz) weren’t such a tense couple going through marital troubles, I probably would have wanted to move right in with them. Unfortunately, I seldom am willing to recommend a film based on technical production quality alone. I found the picture as a whole to be just so-so. There just isn’t enough of a story here to be interesting.
As a series, the Night at the Museum films have been mostly premise without much payoff for adults. However, I think the first one was among the best zany, live action kids films released by Hollywood in the past decade (that’s not saying much). The second one had lost its purpose and the final installment has suffered from that derailment. If we ignore the special effects, at its heart, Night at the Museum had been about a father an son overcoming divorce and a loss of respect. A bumbling father made good, so to speak. The parenting issues were dropped from the second installment, and that film simply became a special effects comedy at the Smithsonian instead of the American Museum of Natural History. The father and son were simply best friends. Secret of the Tomb attempts to bring the family drama back into the picture, but awkwardly in a way that makes the picture pure juvenile fantasy.
The Hobbit trilogy is finally over. There is not much I am going to write about this series that probably hasn’t been noted in other reviews. As a whole, the series hasn’t moved me. While I’m not the biggest fan of the book, I felt that the focus of the movies has been a bit off in ways that made each film less compelling than it could be. Tolkien wrote the Hobbit as a light children’s novel about the development of Bilbo’s heroism. That story has always seemed lost under extraneous subplots and characters from the Lord of the Rings which set up those films awkwardly, but do little to help tell the story that we’ve paid to see.
“Top Five” is Chris Rock’s third pass in the director’s chair and first attempt at a more serious movie. It is a comedy, but relatively low key one for Saturday Night Live alums. It tells intertwined stories, both of which are well-worn. One is a straightforward romantic comedy about man having second thoughts about a pending wedding after meeting a much better match. The second is of an actor, Dre Allen (Rock), whose star is starting to fade a little, who is trying to stretch his career in a new direction, framed as an interview with a reporter. That the reporter (Rosario Dawson) happens to be the new potential love interest for Dre makes for a rather choppy narrative, but nonetheless one with many comedic highlights.
It has always been difficult to locate the audience for Frederick Wiseman’s documentaries. They are institutional profiles that capture moments of activity. There isn’t a call to action or requests for engagement. Any emotional connection that the viewer walks away with are his or her own. There is structure and maybe a narrative without much in the way of a climax in his documentaries. In the case of National Gallery, that narrative isn’t immediately apparent. It is a movie for the patient who enjoy learning facts serendipitously.
I will admit that I have not read the Hunger Games novels, which have been taking up space on my Kindle for awhile. Mockingjay Part I is the first film where I thought that I probably should have read them before committing to watch the series. I did enjoy the first movie in the series. I thought the second one, last year’s Catching Fire, was too repetitive of the first and didn’t add much to the overall story line to be interesting. I was glad to finally be finished with the cycle of games and trips to the decadent Capital City. I was worried that the third installment would come up with another way to get Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) back in the arena. I have moved on from that, even though Katniss appears to be a stuck in the film, rehashing issues that I thought were already resolved in her love life and her role as a hero.
Set in the Nebraska Territory of the 1850s, Tommy Lee Jones’ The Homesman is about hardship on the plains and the difficulty of maintaining civilized relationships on the frontier. There are many movies about the time period of the post Civil War west – with cowboys, farmers and railroads. Pre-civil war, we are in the transition from pioneers and frontiersmen to the farmer settlers who probably would have been better off staying at home. The movie captures the challenges of farming this particular area of the Great Plains. Treeless and unlike anything the Europeans were familiar with, the Nebraska Territory was the heart of what was called the Great American Desert, not the Breadbasket that it known as today. The difficulty of this life takes a mental toll on the wives of three farmers, who need to be taken back east in the hopes that returning them to their families will restore their health.
Big Hero Six is Disney’s latest foray into the boys’ animation film market. If it can be compared to any recent release, it reminded me of How to Train Your Dragon. Like that movie, the adolescent hero of the story, Hiro (voiced by Ryan Potter), must overcome grief, parental loss and thrusts himself into adulthood quickly to save his city. The emotional weight of the story is carried by his feelings for his lost older brother, Tadashi (Daniel Henney), who dies in a fire trying to save his professor. Whether his memory will inspire Hiro to be one of the good guys, or his loss will turn him towards vengeance is the major conflict of the movie, which has far too few conflicts to sustain it for a full 90 minutes.
Set in the region of Upstate New York and New England, Tom Gilroy’s The Cold Lands tells the story of a sheltered teen-aged boy making a transition to new adult role models after the death of his mother. When the movie opens, Atticus (Silas Yelich) and his mother, Nicole, (Lilly Taylor) are living off the grid. She is home schooling him, but he is entering a stage where socialization with his peers is important to him. They aren’t survivalists, but are getting by without electricity and supplementing the income she earns as an office cleaner by recycling and beekeeping. It is an existence without many conveniences, but hardly a simple life. Beyond financial pressures, Nicole has diabetes and feels hassled by public health nurse who believes she as complications from the disease that may need additional treatment. She is managing to hide the pressure she faces from Atticus, while devoting her life to his education and cultivating his values.