Thursday, December 27, 2012

Les Miserables

Victor Hugo's Les Misérables has seen its fair share of adaptations. It's been a feature film over a dozen times, a miniseries, and of course the iconic 1980 stage musical - in addition to a radio production and a few foreign ripoffs. This year saw the musical adapted to the screen under the directorial care of Tom Hooper, who dominated the Oscars a couple of years back with The King's Speech. Opinions on this latest incarnation are likely to vary somewhat, as most already have their favorite version picked out.

The story chronicles the trials of the recently-freed convict Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) as he attempts to put a new life together for himself after nineteen years of imprisonment. After breaking his parole and assuming a new identity, Valjean finds himself hunted by the hawkish Inspector Javert (Russell Crowe). And while Valjean remains the centerpiece of the story, numerous other characters of varying consequence come and go during the film's two-and-a-half-hour-plus run time; such as Fantine (Anne Hathaway), who is forced into a life of prostitution and destitution after losing her job...her daughter Cosette (played by Amanda Seyfried as an adult and Isabelle Allen as a child)...and many others.

THE PROS

Les Misérables is a beautiful piece of cinema. There are occasional presentations of grand spectacle; whether the camera is swooping in past the wreckage of a ship being hauled into dock, descending upon the crowded streets of 19th-century France, or floating into the sky as Valjean tears his papers and casts them into the mountain winds. It's a delicate balance handled appropriately and with breathtaking display. But for the most part, intimate handheld camerawork guides the film. We follow each character around the various set pieces in a way that makes us feel as though we're right there with them. This also allows for a much more visceral and emotionally resonant presentation of the movie's poignant scenes and songs. During several numbers ("Valjean's Soliloquy" and "I Dreamed a Dream" are the first that come to mind) Hooper wisely captures most - if not all - of the performance in a single take. This allows for the scene and the song to gain emotional momentum, and by the time the characters themselves are struggling to sing through their tears we as an audience are struggling with our own tears. It's such a simple approach, but it works wonders for the emotional impact of this movie.

Performances are as satisfying as can be expected from a cast this iconic and renowned. Jackman is well cast as Valjean, as his singing voice is well developed and has already been proven in his previous Broadway excursions. Moreover he's physically imposing enough to convincingly articulate the raw power and strength associated with the character. Russell Crowe's Javert is stern and unflinching, and his voice is good (if not always great) enough to carry the weight of Javert's own personal demons. Anne Hathaway is pitch perfect and develops her character quickly and convincingly during her comparatively brief screen time. And her rendition of "I Dreamed a Dream" has finally overcome the memory of Susan Boyle's YouTube'd-to-death performance of the same. If Hathaway's delivery doesn't garner at least one or two stray tears, you might need to double check your pulse; it's ineffably beautiful. Another performer who scores major points is Eddie Redmayne, who plays the idealistic revolutionary Marius Pontmercy. I've never given much thought to Redmayne one way or another - but both his acting and especially his singing in Les Misérables are fantastic.

Which brings me to the music itself. The iconic music of this piece is already crystallized in many a fan's mind by the original London Cast recording, and with good reason. I'm certainly not about to argue with the merit of that recording. But personally, I prefer the music of this adaptation. The orchestration is a bit more diverse here, dipping into arrangements that are occasionally more delicate and understated. Hooper also broke tradition with this film in regards to the recording itself. Most film musicals pre-record the song and have the actor's lip-sync on camera, but Les Misérables had the cast record their songs live on set - so the takes you're watching are also the takes you're hearing. This adds an additional layer to the performances, as actors are free to nuance the presentation and let their voices occasionally break or falter as they struggle through the passions sung. It's a seemingly minor detail, but it gives the film an even more inescapable sincerity.

Les Misérables feels very much like a stage musical, and I found that to be a very good thing. There are shifts in the tone of the film that reflect a more organic feel towards the viewing experience. The comic relief provided by Monsieur and Madame Thénardier (Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, respectively) almost feels out of place at first because it contrasts so starkly the heavy-handed aesthetic employed up to that point. But as the film continues, all of the pieces coalesce in their proper place and the resulting feel is, as I said, more akin to viewing a stage production than a film.

THE CONS

I mentioned before that the run time is just over two and a half hours. In a musical, that can feel a great deal longer where an entire scene revolves around a single song and moment in the story. This isn't a con per se, but I recommend saving the soft drinks until later if you plan to enjoy Les Misérables to the fullest.

If you don't like musicals to begin with, Les Misérables isn't likely to be your exception. It's as sappy and tear-jerking as any musical I can think of and you could call it heavy-handed without being entirely wrong. I personally love all of these qualities, but if you don't there's little you'll find enjoyable about this film.

And while the following is not directed at the film proper, I've come to find out that (at the moment anyway) the soundtrack for this film is only available as a "Highlights From..." title and doesn't include some of the more iconic pieces such as "Who Am I," "Do You Hear the People Sing," and several others. I hope Universal Republic sees fit to release a full cast recording in the near future as I was completely taken by the orchestration and arrangement. And honestly, how can a highlights album leave out "Do You Hear the People Sing"?

THE VERDICT

It's already begun making the rounds for awards announcements, snagging Golden Globe nominations for Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Song, and Best Picture. That's little wonder as the movie has all the ear marks of an award-magnet: breathtaking spectacle, stellar performances, and beautiful music. I have to admit that I didn't expect to blown away on the scale that I was by the time the film had concluded, but I'm all the more glad that I was.

Les Misérables (the original musical) has often been described as a "global phenomenon" and "worldwide sensation." I think it's safe to say the film comes about as close as it possibly could to capturing what has given birth to that kind of verbiage. If you're a diehard fan of the musical, this film isn't going to supplant your existing fondness - but I'm certain that it will supplement it. Everything about this film's composition is so lovely to behold, so achingly beautiful and heartfelt, it's impossible to deny its accomplishment. As a film, as a musical, as a piece of art - Les Misérables is an absolute triumph.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Django Unchained

Quentin Tarantino is supposedly in his late 40s. But anyone familiar with his filmography can attest to the fact that he and his movies often evince much more youthful energy. Plastered all over every film he's made is an undeniable and undying love for cinema, and hundreds of references to a myriad of other works are usually embedded in each of his films. As a writer-director, Tarantino has only a handful of works to his name. And while some are more iconic than others, they are all unquestionably his.

As a huge fan of the man and his work, I've been eager to see Django Unchained for quite some time. The movie is a classic revenge movie, with a sufficiently troubling twist: slavery. Django (Jamie Foxx) is recruited by the bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) early on in the movie to aid the latter in finding a trio of outlaws known as the Brittle Brothers. Schultz does not know what they look like, but Django is intimately familiar with their features - as flashbacks reveal them to be the ones responsible for brutalizing him and his wife (Kerry Washington) and ultimately tearing them apart. The two soon become a professional bounty hunting duo and set out to reclaim Django's lost love. But of course this is a Quentin Tarantino film so there's going to be lots of language, lots of quirky dialogue, and lots of blood.

THE PROS

I had the pleasure of reading one of the early drafts of this screenplay some time back when it was posted online. My expectations were only elevated by this read-through, and while some revisions were made to the final product the meat of the story and the narrative was still completely in tact.

Tarantino has referred to Django Unchained in several interviews as a spaghetti western set in the American South, and that's a perfect description of this piece. All of the major genre factors are here: a deadly but accessible protagonist who usually has the perfect one-liner on standby, powerful pathos invoked by the depiction of innocent people being harmed, untamed wilderness captured beautifully on camera, and of course the music of Ennio Morricone. Hints of Quentin's love affair with spaghetti Westerns can be detected in some of his earlier works (most notably in Kill Bill: Vol 2), but in Django Unchained he's pulled out all the stops and is in full fanboy mode.

Performances all around are a real treat. Jamie Foxx develops Django from a bitter but mostly timid former slave into a full-fledged world-weary gunslinger. The transition doesn't take terribly long, but it's masterfully handled and by the time Django puts on his sunglasses (cool factor +100) he's completely believable as an iconic Western hero archetype. Christoph Waltz basically plays Dr. Schultz like he did the other Tarantino role that made him famous with American audiences; Nazi Colonel Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. But here he's one of the good guys, which makes him that much more entertaining to watch. He's charming and sophisticated, possessed of a wide vocabulary that often stumps his conversational partners, and of course thoroughly German. Leonardo DiCaprio plays plantation owner Calvin Candie, a character as morally decayed as his repulsively mottled teeth. And of course Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Candie's "head house nigger," is simultaneously compelling and frightening.

As you can imagine, any movie about slavery is going to have its fair share of bloody moments. But as I mentioned before, this is a Tarantino-directed movie about slavery so the bloodshed is taken to whole new level here. Many recent films have started replacing in-camera blood squibs with post production pre-rendered "bloodsplosions;" something that often works better depending on the context of the film (Sin City and 300 come to mind). In Django, however, it seems as though Tarantino was intentionally retaliating against that practice. The usual "pop" accompanied by a crimson mist to indicate a bullet wound is here replaced by a sizable burst of red fluid and a small treasure trove of "wet noises" for added effect. Django is easily Tarantino's bloodiest movie next to Kill Bill, but like that film all of the blood and gore is hyperbolic and stylized to emphasize its theatricality rather than its horror. Still, Django Unchained doesn't bother to rein itself in and as a revenge-film that's pretty ideal.

Django Unchained is also, as strange as it might seem, Tarantino's funniest film to date. There are enough laughs peppered throughout its run time that you could call it a comedy without being entirely heretical. It's obviously not a comedy, strictly speaking, but I laughed more often in Django Unchained than I have in many a movie billed exclusively as a comedy. And that goes for the audience in attendance with me.

THE CONS

The drawbacks to this film are largely subjective. If you're easily offended by coarse language and excessive violence, then Django Unchained is not for you. It's also almost 3 hours long; but for me this is a plus because I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and was glad to have so much of it to watch.

As a nitpick, I do have to mention two minor and very stereotypically "me" gripes. First, Tarantino's personal cameo in the film is as an Australian and his accent is pretty bad. It's never really explained why his character is Australian, so the part-British/part-Australian/part-stroke-patient grated on me a bit. Secondly, James Remar plays two characters in the film. I've got nothing against James Remar - he's a fantastic actor - but his first character dies early on and when his second character shows up his costume/makeup isn't strikingly different. It doesn't affect the story at all as neither character gets a great deal of screen time, but it just threw me off.

THE VERDICT

Django Unchained is exactly what I expected it to be: a bold and bloody revenge story accented by classic Tarantino-tropes. One of those tropes is, notably, the use of the word "nigger;" which has been the subject of some controversy. The word is used both as pejorative and as simply part of the parlance of the times depicted. It's an offensive word, undoubtedly. But in Django Unchained it has a place and it fits the film; it would be hypocritical to show slaves getting beaten and branded but then censor the verbiage used to demean them at the same time. I really do not like getting embroiled in race-related controversy, but I appreciate artists and writers who blast right past political correctness and just get to the point, however uncomfortable it may be. Up to this point in time, Dave Chappelle's work was the best example I could think of. But Django Unchained was, for me, a new kind of racial-barrier deconstruction. It was a real treat reveling in the revenge wrought upon slave owners in the film with an audience that was predominantly black.

That's where I think Django could be a watershed moment for racial strife in this country: bringing white and black people together to cheer on the demise of slave owners and racists for roughly 3 hours. Maybe I'm being far too generous with this movie (Spike Lee certainly would say so) regarding its capacity to effect change; time will tell. Either way, Django Unchained is arguably one of Tarantino's best; easily standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Pulp Fiction or Inglourious Basterds in terms of sheer craftsmanship and entertainment value.

There's plenty of offensive content in this movie - from the violence, to the traditional swearing, to the repeated use of the n-word. But I don't think there's anything racially offensive about this movie given the historical context. And if you're a fan of bloody revenge Westerns or of Tarantino in general, you can't afford to miss Django because (I'm sorry, I couldn't resist!) it's off the chain.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Redbox Report - December 19, 2012

It's been a couple of months since the last Redbox Report. So before 2012 draws to a complete close, let's get one more batch of reviews in, shall we?


ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER

Many of you may be rolling your eyes at this one already. Hollywood's recent appreciation for B-Grade cinema with a big budget twist is in pretty full swing, and the story of Abe Lincoln's double life as a vampire hunter is just the latest manifestation. Don't expect it to stop here either. Based on Seth Grahame-Smith's book of the same name, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter was a movie I was looking forward to seeing - expecting a guilty pleasure with lots of gratuitous violence and high wire cinematography. My expectations were more or less met in that department, but that wasn't quite enough to justify its existence. As I watched this movie, I was just overwhelmed by a complete lack of interest in its contents and spent most of its running time trying to figure out why. There's a measure of character development, the acting (while unmemorable) isn't terrible, the writing is far from the worst I've seen; there wasn't any one thing I could pin down as culprit for why this movie wasn't what it so visibly wanted to be. It had everything I expected and was looking for, and Rufus Sewell's turn as the main antagonist - the vampire Adam - was spot on perfect. But the film repeatedly falters and never flies. A handful of the action sequences were marvelously choreographed, and I'm a sucker for Zack Snyder-style ramping and slow-mo. But Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter lacks a definitive quality to its construction, which seemed strange considering the nature of its narrative. You might enjoy this one as a cheap thrill, but little else.

THE CAMPAIGN

Do you like Will Ferrell? People seem to have a pretty solid opinion about the man, one way or another. His brand of silly-yet-raunchy humor can grow tiresome, undoubtedly. But personally I've always been a fan of him and his films, and The Campaign is no exception. The story is simple: Cam Brady (Ferrell) and Marty Huggins (Zach Galiafanakis) are pitted against each other in a small town run for a Congressional position. Cam is the incumbent with the perfectly coiffed hair, while Marty is the idealistic underdog. It's hardly high drama, but it works on multiple levels largely due to the comedic chemistry between Galiafanakis and Ferrell. Anyone familiar with Galiafanakis's work (most specifically Live at the Purple Onion) will recognize Marty Huggins as, for all intents and purposes, "Seth Galiafanakis"; Zach's fictional twin brother and comedic alter ego. There are a number of parallels to be drawn from the film to modern politics as well. Some of these are not the least bit subtle, like Dan Aykroyd and John Lithgow as the Motch brothers; a thinly veiled jab at the Koch brothers. Other similarities are slightly more obscure, but the general lampooning of American politics and the influence of corporate funding are woven throughout. Having come out just in time for the 2012 presidential election, The Campaign certainly seemed to be striving for direct correlation. But post-election, the film is still quite funny and had me laughing out loud several times. Not every stab at comedy in this film lands on the funny bone (some of the bathroom humor is both superfluous and uninspired), but all-in-all The Campaign is a pretty solid comedy with some pretty solid commentary and some pretty solid casting.

HOPE SPRINGS

Remember the days when watching certain movies with your parents became an exercise in embarrassment? I can recall vividly watching Braveheart as a youngster and having my parents give me "the glance" that indicated the shutters were to be drawn over my eyes during the main love scene. Regardless of which film it might have been, there were some films you just didn't want to watch with your parents because it got awkward. This is one of those films, but not for any of the reasons above. It's also not really one of those films, I'm just trying to be funny... *crickets chirping*
Hope Springs is the story of Arnold and Kay Soames (Tommy Lee Jones and Meryl Streep, respectively) who, despite - or perhaps because of - decades of marriage, have grown estranged from one another. They haven't slept in the same bed for years, and their empty-nest routine is painfully drab. In an attempt to reignite the flames of their affection, Kay books them a series of appointments with a marriage counselor (Steve Carell) in spite of the protestations of her husband. Located in Hope Springs, a sleepy Maine township, the counseling requires them to make a vacation out of the experience. The film then follows them through the week as they tackle numerous interpersonal issues, the most prominent of which is their sexual hangups. That might sound a bit explicit, and the film is riddled with innuendo and sexual content of one kind or another - though (thankfully) no nudity. But Hope Springs scores on how brilliantly the subject matter is treated. We as an audience might side more with one spouse than the other, but the film is meticulous in charting why they're equally responsible for the marital stagnation. Performances all around are marvelous, as can be expected from a cast as acclaimed and beloved as this. Hope Springs is a fantastic feel-good movie, and one I whole-heartedly recommend. Just be mindful that if you watch this movie in the company of parents roughly the age of the main characters, consider avoiding eye contact.

MEN IN BLACK 3

It's a rare thing to find a three-quel worthy of its predecessors. It's rare enough to find even a sequel that does that. And to that point, Men in Black 2 was hardly worth watching in the first place. So I'll freely admit that I was downright shocked by how much better Men in Black 3 was than both of the movies that came before it. The original was undoubtedly iconic and laid all the necessary framework, but MIB3 capitalized on all the franchise's strengths beautifully. Taking place after the roller coasters of the first two films, MIB3 opens on Agents K and J (Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, respectively) in a bit of a rut - at least as far as K is concerned. J can tell K has a bur under his saddle - more than usual - but before he can get any answers K uses a time-traveling device to abscond, It's a Wonderful Life-style, leaving behind a world in which he passed away decades earlier. In search of answers, J travels back in time to meet the younger K (played by Josh Brolin) and find out what's going on. The rest of the movie plays out in typical MIB fashion, with a wacky and often macabre sense of humor to guide the principle action. As a time travel movie, MIB3 works quite well. Engaging a little suspension of disbelief of course, I found myself trying to find loopholes in its logic but was pleasantly surprised when none really came to mind. The movie is intriguingly cast, with all the returning members inhabiting roles they clearly enjoy. New cast members include Jemaine Clement as Boris the Animal, an interstellar criminal mastermind. Jemaine's true strength is comedy, so as a diabolical villain he tries to strike a balance between scary and goofy and it doesn't always work. On the plus side, Josh Brolin has always reminded me of a young Tommy Lee Jones so it would have been enough alone to have him cast in that role. But he completely embraces the character and does a pitch-perfect impression of Jones, to the point where I closed my eyes once or twice and couldn't tell the difference between their two voices. The visual effects are also fantastic, as plenty of CGI and in-camera makeup effects flesh out the world of MIB3. If you enjoyed either of the previous movies, you'll likely be adding this to your favorites list. And without any previous knowledge of the series, MIB3 is readily accessible to newcomers as well.

RUBY SPARKS

Love is a tricky thing. Being in a healthy romantic relationship with another person hinges on choice; we want people to be with us because they want to, not because they have to. But I'd be willing to bet we've all quietly thought to ourselves that it would be nice to be able to just make someone else magically think or feel a certain way; it certainly seems much easier and less risky. These themes are embedded in the Pygmalion legend, but explored in intimate detail via Ruby Sparks - a film that takes a few cues from the aforementioned myth. Calvin Wier-Fields (Paul Dano) is a once-successful writer in a bit of a slump. He's already achieved critical acclaim long before the film begins, but we open on him trying to piece together his next big work. A dream serves to ignite his creative spark, and before he knows it he's writing his next bestseller. But by some miracle, Calvin unwittingly manages to manifest the titular character from his book; a red-headed girl named Ruby Sparks. The film follows Calvin and his relationship to Ruby without flashy special effects or the kind of cinematic cliches you might expect from a movie like this. The real meat of the story is distributed through Calvin's obvious emotional deficiencies, and how he uses Ruby to self-medicate. While Ruby's existence is taken literally by the characters in the film, there's more than a measure of symbolism she brings to the story simply by being the girl that Calvin made up. Zoe Kazan (who plays Ruby) wrote the intriguingly nuanced script, and directing duties were handled by husband-and-wife team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris; whose other feature film credit is Little Miss Sunshine. Ruby Sparks feels very similar to that film, and not just due to the presence of Paul Dano and DeVotchka's Nick Urata - who provided the score. There's a bittersweet feeling to the whole affair that tenderly, while honestly, reflects the bittersweet qualities of our own lives. I felt a very strong connection to Calvin as a character, and as a result was emotionally invested in this movie throughout. Ruby Sparks is more or less a romantic comedy, but plenty of emotionally dense moments and even rather dark scenes give the film a unique balance. Ruby Sparks is the kind of movie you think you probably have figured out from the get-go, and for all its intelligence it's fairly predictable. But even without any plot-twists, Ruby Sparks might surprise you on more than a few levels.


SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD

The year 2012 has been the target of apocalyptic predictions for some time now, thanks to misinterpretation and just plain rumor-milling regarding Mayan culture and history. Plenty of films have dealt with the topic of the world's impending doom, but recent years have seen a surge in their number. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World stars Steve Carrell as Dodge Petersen. With an asteroid heading for Earth, the world is slowly devolving into disarray, but Dodge's life hasn't gone off the rails just yet. It isn't long before the chaos and anarchy of the city proves too dangerous, forcing him and his neighbor Penny (Keira Knightley) to flee. They engage in a last minute (pun intended) road trip to deal with the hangups and regrets that have followed them throughout their lives, and predictably form a romantic attachment. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World looks and feels like a comedy...most of the time. Steve Carrell's involvement implies a comedic vibe, and there are a handful of funny moments throughout. But several rather jarring shifts in tone give the movie a bit of an uneven feel. Knightley is charming and plays her character with an engaging, rather than annoying, free-spiritedness. She's almost a manic-pixie-dream-girl, but she stops just shy of that trope and the movie definitely benefits for it. Where the movie is strong is in its sincerity, as you can readily relate to the character's foibles. And it succeeds in getting you to ask yourself what you might do in a similar situation; where your priorities are and if there are any regrets you don't want to leave this life with. But in attempting to merge a bittersweet sense of comedy with some real soul-searching, Seeking... doesn't quite find what it was looking for. There's a realism to the movie in how society devolves (riots in the streets, people committing suicide, at one point a spontaneous orgy that the main character narrowly manage to evade) that clashes with its more tender and heartwarming moments. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World isn't terrible, but it badly needed some script revisions. Either going with a purely comedic tone or an intense one, or finding a way to weave the two together a bit more comfortably, would have done wonders for a film which doesn't evince nearly as strong a sense of identity as it could have. Still, Carrell and Knightley have some wonderful onscreen chemistry and - if nothing else - the movie is worth seeing for them alone.


YOUR SISTER'S SISTER 

I like how comedy has evolved in the past decade or so. Thanks in part to the work of people like Judd Apatow and Mark Duplass, comedies of late are often a bit more bittersweet and honest than before. There's less staging, oftentimes dialogue is improvised, and on the whole these movies feel a lot more true-to-life. Such is the case with Your Sister's Sister, a movie about a guy named Jack (Mark Duplass) who is spiraling a bit in his personal life a year after the death of his brother. His best friend Iris (Emily Blunt) recommends he take a break from everything and visit her family's isolated lakeside cabin for a few days to clear his head. Upon arriving by bicycle in the dead of night, Jack discovers that Iris' sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) is staying at the cabin - nursing her own emotional wounds after a breakup. The two decide to share a drink and after sufficient inebration sets in, they end up sleeping together. This is further complicated when Iris shows up at the cabin without warning the next day, setting the three up to each confront their relationships with the other. My description of the plot really doesn't do this film any justice, because reading back over it I'm not entirely sure I would see it on my own recommendation. Moreover the sequence of events sounds like the story of a screwball comedy replete with slide-whistle sound effects and jokes in poor taste. But Your Sister's Sister is nothing like that, thanks to the superlative performances from the three leads. It's a slow-going and fairly understated movie, largely character driven and without any flash or flare. But somewhere amidst the improvised dialogue, the handheld camerawork, and the predictable but pleasant acoustic/indie music soundtrack, Your Sister's Sister manages to emerge a moving and engaging film that had me at times laughing, and just as often misting up. The movie navigates through a number of interpersonal difficulties without flinching, and you'll likely shift in your chair once or twice at the recollection of your own familiarity with the relationships depicted. But Your Sister's Sister is ultimately a very uplifting film and one that truly surprised me with its depth and resonance.


Monday, December 17, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

If any film needed no introduction, it's likely this one. Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is one of the major movie milestones of my generation. I was at the perfect age where my interest in fantasy and film were really starting to develop so I was able to enjoy those movies on multiple levels and haven't stopped enjoying them as I've grown up. It's been almost a full decade since The Return of the King conquered the box office and the Oscars, and after much deliberation and nearly immeasurable amounts of hype, The Hobbit is finally a cinematic reality.

I've been among the millions eagerly anticipating its release, having read the book some time ago and recalling it with fondness. And with that in mind, I knew that The Hobbit trilogy would have quite a tall order to fill in bridging the gap between the titular book and the much grander epic trilogy that came after. The critics haven't been as enamored of An Unexpected Journey as they were with The Lord of the Rings trilogy - but I'll address that a little further in my review.

THE PROS

There's a lot to be said about this film, and I'm tempted to just gush. But in the interest of efficiency we'll do this by the numbers.

First up on the list is casting, in particularly how Peter Jackson has once again fit actors to roles brilliantly. Martin Freeman makes a fantastic Bilbo Baggins, and without just doing an impression of Ian Holm. He's a bit on the timid side, but not annoyingly fragile - and his transformation as a character from apprehensive hobbit to unlikely adventurer is subtle and convincing. Richard Armitage plays Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves and the hero figure of the troupe. Each of the dwarves possess unique characteristics and qualities that makes them easier to identify and understand, which is no small trick for a host of 13 warriors. All of the returning cast - Ian McKellen as Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, etc. - reprise their roles wonderfully. And it's a treat to see some of these characters before Sauron's rise in the later trilogy steals some of their fervor.


Visually, An Unexpected Journey is as stunning and impressive as any of the Lord of the Rings trilogy; perhaps even more so. The familiar set pieces (Bag End, Rivendell, etc.) are all presented in new ways, at different angles and with emphasis on other aspects of their architecture. This works wonders in keeping the film looking fresh and new rather than simply new scenes filmed in old sets. While the scope of the story is somewhat smaller here, the grandeur of moments like the Stone Giants slugging it out or Smaug's attack on Erebor are all wondrous to behold. And Gollum looks as fantastic as ever. In extreme closeups his skin looked so realistic I wondered if a few shots had been done in camera with makeup; to say nothing of Andy Serkis' superlative performance.

Howard Shore triumphantly returns to score this prequel trilogy, and the result is spot-on perfect. His music is familiar yet fresh; capturing the well established themes from the original trilogy with new orchestration while adding a host of new and intriguing Middle-earth melodies.

The biggest accomplishment of An Unexpected Journey, though, is in its narrative. The Hobbit as a book is problematic on a number of levels when considering a screen adaptation. There are basically 15 "main" characters, there are no female characters to speak of, silly songs abound on every page, a handful of conflicts are resolved in a very anticlimactic fashion; it's a children's story, lacking the emotional depth and intensity of the Lord of the Rings. Jackson has managed to preserve much of the existing narrative from the book while fleshing out a number of details and exploring peripheral lore courtesy of Tolkien's lesser known works. The resulting film is markedly different from The Lord of the Rings, but as the starting point of the bridge between the two works it's exactly what I was hoping for. Say what you will about milking a cash cow with another Tolkien trilogy, but I don't see any other way to really do justice to the man's work.

THE CONS

I personally loved this movie and really didn't find too much to take fault with. When first introduced it sounds like some of the dwarves don't really know what accent they're supposed to be using, but it's only a few lines of dialogue.

The movie is almost 3 hours long. Such a run time is fantastic news to me, but I've heard more than a fair share of people decrying its lack of brevity so perhaps you'll find this a deterrent.

An Unexpected Journey is a little slow in getting started, and there are a few scenes in the first 30 minutes or so that could have benefited from a re-edit. But once the principle action of the film gets underway, I personally lost all track of time and was swept up in the narrative.

THE VERDICT

The Hobbit is a children's book; The Lord of the Rings is not. Consequently, there are a number of things that will be tonally and thematically different by their very nature. Having read several reviews, I feel that much of the negative criticism leveled against this movie comes from people who were expecting a repeat of The Lord of the Rings and/or hadn't read any of Tolkien's work. So I don't think An Unexpected Journey is getting the credit it deserves. My suspicion is that as the next two films are released, critics and audiences will begin to see a progression throughout that trilogy that will serve to lead into The Lord of the Rings rather than simply recapture their experience.

For me, An Unexpected Journey succeeds on multiple levels and was quite literally exactly what I was expecting. Some of the film's sillier moments and sight gags felt right at home, as this movie is significantly less menacing than the trilogy that preceded it. For example, goblins and trolls speak in English accents and don't appear quite as feral or animalistic as a result. That's not to say the movie is without its fair share of frights, but it is a shade more light-hearted.

In spite of this, the film is still absolutely thrilling and while the action scenes and sword fights are a bit sparse - they're well choreographed, well shot, and downright exciting once they get going. My faith in Peter Jackson's ability to adapt this trilogy has never been stronger, and I can't wait to go back and see how it looks in 48fps.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Lincoln

I'll be the first to admit that Abraham Lincoln is the "right answer" when the question of "Who was the greatest President?" makes its way into a given conversation; akin to the Sunday school answer of "Jesus!" to every question posed. Even amongst the iconic names like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, it seems like quite a challenge to find a man who weathered a more difficult time in the history of our nation with such grace and dignity. He's become a legend, and rightly so.

Many a miniseries, radio drama, and film has attempted to depict Lincoln dramatically. And earlier this year saw his tongue-in-cheek incarnation in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. But it should come as no surprise that the latest depiction of Honest Abe may be the greatest, as Steven Spielberg's Lincoln released last week to critical acclaim. The film focuses on the final months of the Civil War - and by extension, Lincoln's life - and the political intrigue surrounding the passing of the 13th Amendment. With an ensemble cast and a host of Oscar-winning Spielberg regulars (John Williams, Janusz Kaminski, Michael Kahn, etc.), Lincoln has all the ear-marks of an early Oscar contender.

THE PROS

Even if you haven't seen the movie, you've likely heard the praise or expected great things from the trailer. If you take one thing away from this review, it's that all the hype is well deserved.

Lincoln is not a war movie really by any stretch. At the film's opening there is a scene depicting the brutal chaos of battle that lasts for just under a minute, and there is another brief scene at a hospital that depicts a wheelbarrow of amputated limbs being carted away. But aside from those two moments, the film is devoid of blood or gore and all of the conflict depicted is either interpersonal or political.

As a character-driven film, much of my praise is directed at the character-driven aspects; namely the acting. It should come as no surprise that Daniel Day-Lewis has once again crafted a performance for which he will almost assuredly win Best Actor. I was immediately thrilled when the first trailers for the film came out and I heard Day-Lewis's take on Lincoln's voice. While Lincoln's legend has endowed his memory with a commanding and booming voice, eyewitness (earwitness?) accounts from the era indicate his voice was rather high-pitched and somewhat nasal. So I was excited to see that even such a seemingly insignificant detail was already being incorporated into the authenticity of the film before it was even released. But the voice is only one piece to the puzzle that makes up Day-Lewis' magnificent performance. The way he gestures with his hands, his rather awkward gait, his odd but endearing sense of humor; all of these are rendered so wonderfully that Mr. Day-Lewis once again completely disappears into his role. He is Abraham Lincoln, and the film is naturally all the stronger for it.

But right alongside Day-Lewis' powerhouse performance is a treasure trove of equally engrossing performances. Sally Field balances tender heartache with subtle histrionics as the unstable Mary Todd Lincoln. David Strathairn's turn as Secretary of State William Seward is appropriately tense, while Tommy Lee Jones as Thaddeus Stevens is cunning but convicting. With a cast as recognizable as they are talented, I'm tempted to go name-by-name in praise of each performance. But suffice it to say that everyone - from Lee Pace to Jared Harris to Jackie Earle Hayley to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and everyone in between - perform marvelously under Spielberg's expert directorial care.

Which brings me to the next point of interest: the directing. It's often hard to take note of a director's "performance" in the absence of personal touches or flairs for flash. But Spielberg does an outstanding job putting this film together. The pacing is methodical but even and engaging. Each shot is framed with textbook precision, and the color palette employed gives Lincoln a mildly weathered look. There's no evidence of a mass bleach-bypass or anything, but each frame of the movie feels as though it has been gently aged for effect.

And John Williams is at it again. His score for Lincoln isn't quite as iconic or grandiose as the work that's made him a living legend. But between piano melodies that evoke Gospel hymns of the time period and tragically triumphant brass in the main theme, the score stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

THE CONS

The movie is two and a half hours long, and while I personally didn't find that to be a deterrent I'm sure there are those who would be less than pleased with such a run-time regarding material that's comparatively bland next to an action heavy movie like Gettysburg or Glory.

THE VERDICT

Lincoln is, as I hinted at before, likely to be up for several nominations at the next Academy Awards ceremony. And I wouldn't be surprised to see it take away the Best Picture Oscar either, though there's still plenty of time between now and then for other films to join the running.

From what I can gather, the film takes little historical license with its topic and more or less conveys things as they happened authentically. But the most important detail that appears to be rendered with complete historical accuracy - so far as we can tell - is the person of Lincoln himself. Some of the best moments in the movie are those in which Lincoln showcases what secured him the Presidency in the first place: his personable nature and undeniable sincerity. The movie is downright funny in several places as Lincoln shares a humorous tale or tells a joke with the purpose of drawing a parallel or illustrating a point. And it's in those moments, though I'm aware that I'm only watching a performance, that I feel as though I'm getting to know Abraham Lincoln a little better. It's this feeling that ultimately makes Lincoln a triumph. It's an intimately personal film that doesn't really go out of its way to praise the memory of our 16th President, because the case for his acclaim is readily self-evident in his words and actions.

While it only focuses on a very brief moment in Lincoln's life, I'm of the opinion that this movie may be the quintessential portrait of the man. There's a palpable depth to the entire film no matter which part you inspect, and this depth reflects the gravity of the historical events depicted.

Lincoln is a superlative achievement, and one that dutifully honors the man it depicts. In short, Steven Spielberg has done it again, ladies and gentlemen.

The Room - Live at Inwood Theater! (November 16-18, 2012)

DO YOU UNDERSTAND LIFE!?!? DO YOU!?!?

There are times I think I do. Then I sit down to watch Tommy Wiseau's seminal masterpiece, The Room, and I think to myself: "Maybe I don't understand life."

Some of you might feel a little bit lost right now; a bit confused as to what's going on and just who that dead-eyed fellow is leering at you in the black and white poster immediately to the right of this text.

"Lemme 'splain....no, there is too much. Lemme sum up."
 
The year 2003 saw the release of The Room; a film widely regarded as one of the worst ever made. If you've never seen it, you might find that statement a bit of a leap. Maybe you suspect critics of employing some good ol' fashioned hyperbole in their assessment of this film. Maybe it's bad, but not that bad, right?

Wrong.

Here's the basic hierarchy of cinema:

1) Good movies.
2) Bad movies.
3) So-bad-they're-good movies
4) So-bad-they're-just-plain-terrible movies
5) The Room

If you've spent any time on the internet, you've likely seen the clips and memes mined from this train-wreck of a movie. "OH HAI!" and "You're TEARing me aPART liSA!" etc. These are some of the highlights from The Room, but they in no way convey just how deliciously awful this movie is from start to finish. It's so bad that it might be one of the funniest things you'll ever watch, to say nothing of the host of basic movie-making gaffes practically spilling out of each scene. And consequently, The Room has gained a cult following with midnight showings around the country throughout the year.

It was just such a midnight showing in Dallas at the Inwood Theater that called me away from my dwellings in San Antonio this past weekend. Teaming up with my aforementioned cinephile companion and fellow The Room fanatic Andy Huber, we set off to catch a peek inside the madness of these midnight showings.

We arrived quite early thanks to the 85mph speed limit on Texas 130 - the new toll road around Austin and settled into the makeshift line that was beginning to form at the Inwood Theater. The building was a fantastic vignette; a theater from a bygone era converted into a modern day movie-house still retaining much of its retro feel.

Roundabouts 10:30, we spied a taxi pulling up to the theater. We peered around our fellow patrons and the door obscuring our view to suss out whether or not the passengers were in fact Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero, who plays Mark in The Room. Much to our delight, the guests of honor had arrived and exactly as we expected...which is to say that Greg "Sestosterone" Sestero was dressed in a casual-yet-comfortable jeans-n-jacket ensemble while his counterpart sported the usual combination of rock star heroin addict we've come to expect. And Mr. Wiseau is never to be parted from his sunglasses; no, not even when the sun has long since set. My suspicion is that this has to do with radiation from the destruction of his home planet, but more on my theories about Tommy's status as alien being later on.

PHOTO CREDIT: Whoever took this picture of some guys I know.
Both Tommy and Greg immediately set about tossing around a football, a move whose significance fans of The Room will appreciate. Tommy would indicate which member of the attendees crowded around the lobby he intended to throw the football to by pointing and wiggling his finger as if it were a worm trying desperately to escape from the alien to which it had been sewn. He would then toss the football to the lucky patron, who would more often than not catch it and then pass it back to him. This proceeded for about 15 to 20 minutes before the stars settled behind a little merch table for some autograph signing and picture taking.

Just before this, Tommy did a quick once-over of the crowd, shaking hands briefly. I managed to grasp his appendage for a brief moment, and I'm confident that what I felt was the synthetic skin from his "human-suit" that's meant to help him look like one of us Earthlings. This also accounts for the ways his eyes appear to be falling out of his head; I'm guessing he just hasn't had a chance to repair some of the slippage from the suit in several years. Maybe he came from the wrong side of the tracks on that planet and couldn't afford one of the nicer skin suits, like the one Christopher Walken wears. I'm just spitballing here.

Before too long, it was time to make our way into the theater, which we all did with eager steps. On my way in I managed to snag a high-five from Sestero, whose somewhat catatonic gaze betrayed the dismay he's apparently been carrying with him ever since The Room stole what chance he might have had as a Hollywood leading man.

Once in the theater, our eyes were met with the following sight:


 Yes indeed, ladies and gentlemen. Auditorium 1 in The Landmark Inwood Theater features only couch, loveseat, and beanbag seating. And, to add sprinkles to the icing on the cake, each couch had a matching ottoman. Thus, settling into our seats involved kicking back and relaxing in a luxury I don't fully have even in my own home. Why every theater in the entire world doesn't have this feature, I'll never know, but they should all take a cue from John Hammond.

"Hold on to your butts."

After the loyal patrons had found their respective seats (and in a few cases, snagged a 5-minute nap) Tommy and Greg arrived to do a brief Q&A before the show. There were several questions posed to the duo, all of which were surprisingly pertinent. Greg and Tommy answered in turn, and in ways consistent with their demeanor. I can confirm that Tommy is entrenched in his claims that The Room has been unjustly vilified. When asked by an audience member what defines bad acting, Tommy's answer amounted to him saying that everyone acts all the time anyway, and there's no such thing as bad acting. Greg's response to the same question was "I think you all know what bad acting looks like." Such was the tone of the Q&A; Tommy exhibiting a relentless commitment to The Room, and Greg being vaguely self-deprecating about the entire experience.

"I'll never love again."

One audience member asked for Tommy and Greg to sing "Happy Birthday" to a friend of theirs, whose name they were told was Dusty. The young lady Dusty ascended the stage and after Tommy failed to get her name right ("Justine?..Justy?...Justry...well, whatever.") commenced with an aborted version of the Happy Birthday song which was rendered thus:

"Happy Birthday to you, Happy Birthday to you...dear Justine...HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Ok, that's all."

Again, my suspicion is that Tommy just hasn't spent enough time with our species to learn all our strange customs, so it's the thought that counts.

Having sufficiently connected with his audience, Tommy sprinted out of the theater with Greg in tow to the roar of applause. Finally the lights dimmed, and The Room began. Under normal circumstances, talking in a movie theater is more or less an execution order as far as I'm concerned. But with a midnight screening of The Room, the idea is to - in the words of Tommy himself - "laugh, cry, express yourself...just please don't hurt each other." So the majority of the film was spent yelling all the iconic lines at the screen as they happen. Shouting "You're tearing me apart, Lisa!" with a room full of like-minded enthusiasts was a joy in and of itself. But it's the makeshift audience protocol that makes attending a midnight showing of The Room an absolute must for any fan.

To begin with, each time one of the pictures with stock photos of silverware appears, handfuls of plastic spoons are hurled at the screen. Don't worry about bringing your own, usually one or two trusty attendees will arrive with a bucket or two in tow and you'll have more than enough projectiles to collect as they rain down on and around you and your loved ones.

Next, each time characters begin to make out, the entire audience makes a loud gulping sound in time with each smooch; as if the entire room was swallowing the face of their significant other.

But by far my favorite audience tradition is "counting." This manifests itself in a few ways, as there are numerous opportunities. But the most hilarious one is during the initial love scene between Tommy and Juliette. As if seeing Tommy's human-suit skin clinging to him vigorously isn't hilarious enough, the entire audience began counting each thrust of his hips during the already-awkward lovemaking occurring onscreen. It might sound just weird, as opposed to funny. But believe me; listening to an audience shout "5!...6!....7!...etc." at full force during that scene is among the funniest things that I've ever personally witnessed. And those are only a few of the ridiculous and hilarious things the audience does to participate in the Tinseltown Travesty that is The Room.

The Room is hilariously bad enough on its own; you only need to see Tommy Wiseau crotch-punch a red dress once to know what I'm talking about.

"That's the idea!"

But add a sold out auditorium cheering him on as he does it - each spasmodic thrust of his hips into the vermilion cloth accompanied by "BAM!", "YEAH!" "TAKE IT!" - and you've got a movie-going experience quite unlike any other. I don't recommend seeing The Room at a midnight screening as your first foray into its tortuous narrative. But I whole-heartedly recommend you see this movie and then add a midnight showing to your bucket list. Ignore the sage words of Tommy Wiseau's admonition to Denny: "Don't plan too much, Denny. It might not come out right..."

Trust me, a midnight showing of The Room will definitely come out right.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Skyfall

Bond is back, baby! We all know the catchphrases, and by now we're intimately familiar with the iconic musical theme. No one is a total stranger to the illustrious 007; whether or not you've seen any of the Bond movies or spent untold hours playing GoldenEye with your friends during the tail end of the 20th century. James Bond is a cultural mainstay that has gone through numerous revisions and iterations yet still maintains the allure that has characterized the franchise since Dr. No first graced silver screens in 1962.

Skyfall, the latest installment in the Bond franchise, marks the 50th anniversary of Bond's arrival. And in short, it's a marvelous landmark in the series. Unlike the transition from Casino Royale to Quantum of Solace, Skyfall opens without any messy attachments to the title that came before and starts more or less on a blank slate. Expositional dialogue is key throughout the opening half hour or so as we're oriented to the web of events that will serve as the primary plot for the film. Taking a nod from You Only Live Twice, the movie opens on what appears to be the death of James Bond. But circumstances pull him back into the high-speed world of espionage and expensive evening-wear.

THE PROS

There is a lot to sink your teeth into with Skyfall. To begin with, the film is roughly two and a half hours long, so it's definitely one of the lengthier Bond titles in existence. This is very much by design, as the film sets a very slow but methodical pace. Essentially, the whole film is a slow reveal, taking its time to explain itself to the audience while guiding them along its story. We don't even meet the main villain (Javier Bardem) in the flesh until the movie is almost halfway over. It's not boring in the slightest, and the movie opens on another brilliantly thrilling chase scene. But action vignettes aside, Skyfall takes its time unfolding its narrative.

The movie acts as a bit of a set-up film for the Bond films of yore, and by the time all is said and done we've been introduced to several staples of the original films including Gareth Mallory (Ralph Feinnes), Q (Ben Wishaw), and even the infamous Miss Moneypenny.

One of Skyfall's real treats, though, is Javier Bardem as Raoul Silva - the primary antagonist. As I mentioned before, we don't meet Silva until much of the film's principle action is already underway. But his presence is teased throughout as his brilliance in the field of cyberterrorism manifests itself to Bond and those around him in destructive ways. Bardem's performance is so brilliant; he's the kind of sophisticated but undeniably unhinged character that almost elicits a laugh as you watch him make bemused expressions or proposition Bond with a wonton playfulness. He also hides a gruesome physical deformity that we don't get to see until even later in the film. But when he do, it's another brilliant visual cue about the nature of his character: beneath his composure and apparent grace lurks a dangerous menace.

The climactic battle sequence at the end of the film is utterly thrilling. Taking brief refuge at a homestead from his past, Bond makes a last stand against his foes on the Scottish moor; booby-trapping the estate with numerous fatal traps. But when the tell-tale sound of an assault helicopter enters the scene, we realize that this showdown is about to get even more explosive. The whole thing is just great action movie stuff, and a brilliant payoff to the whole film's methodical build.

THE CONS

There's precious little I can think of for this section in regards to Skyfall. I wanted to see more of Silva; he's an incredibly engrossing villain. But his late arrival to the film still fit well into the overall pacing, so I can't call that too big of a complaint.

THE VERDICT

Skyfall is, without a doubt, one of the best Bond films of recent memory. Daniel Craig has solidified his reputation as a bankable Bond and is one of the better actors to have worn the mantle, in my estimation. I don't know if it would be fair to say he rivals Sean Connery just yet, but another Bond film of this magnitude will move him into that bracket.

This doesn't belong in any objective praise of the film, but Skyfall is hands down my favorite title for a Bond film - perhaps of any film. It's just such a profoundly alluring word that calls to mind a kind of epic tragedy; there's a mysterious poetry to those seven letters. And Skyfall, the film, does a marvelous job of weaving the kind of mystery and allure I began to glean from the title when I saw the first trailer.

All the great Bond staples are here, and in spades. There's a visually striking opening credits sequence accompanied by Adele's theme song for the film, numerous chases, a treasure trove of expensive suits and costume pieces, explosions and gun fights, one or two steamy encounters, and just enough camp to keep the whole thing on target. Skyfall is a marvelous return to form for the Bond franchise and sets itself apart as one of the best Bond films since, perhaps, the beginning of the whole franchise.

Wreck-It Ralph

Vidya games, ladies and gentlemen! Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying their staying power in popular culture. And in an era of innumerable Medal of Duty: Call of Honor-type games, there's an emerging nostalgia and appreciation taking root for the 8-bit titles of yore. Simple graphics and basic gameplay haven't deterred gamers from forsaking the photorealistic worlds of many modern games, if even for a little, to dabble in the simple joys of platforming, side-scrolling video games.

It's seems that nostalgia has gone on to manifest itself on the silver screen; Wreck-It Ralph has emerged among the best animated films of this year. Following the titular character, the movie chronicles the identity crisis of Ralph (John C. Reilly) as he begins to question whether or not he wants to be "the bad guy." In an attempt to change his life, he ventures out of his own game in search of something that will endear him to the other characters in his world. In so doing, he unwittingly sets off a chain of events that will teach him and those around him what it means to be yourself.

Sheesh...when I put it like that it sounds so bland. But trust me when I say that Wreck-It Ralph is anything but bland.

THE PROS

Since Pixar came onto the scene, simultaneously revolutionizing animation and setting the bar unimaginably high for other studios, it seems that most animated features have been delegated one of two groups: Pixar movies and non-Pixar movies. Plenty of non-Pixar animated features have been wonderful; Bolt and Madagascar are the first that come to mind. But there's always been a sense that they're just not quite on par with Pixar's brilliance. That still largely remains the same, but there's a growing case against that categorization, as more and more non-Pixar animated features come closer to living up to the standards set by the previously mentioned. Wreck-It Ralph is the latest title in that case; and it's a great movie.

Its greatest strength is undoubtedly its characters and how they're realized. John C. Reilly's voice seems so perfectly matched to his character you almost forget he's the man behind the mic. As much can be said of Jack McBrayer, who voices Fix-It Felix, Jr. - the protagonist and player character of the game which serves as home to them both. Sarah Silverman voices Vanellope von Schweetz, a 9-year old in a racing game called Sugar Rush. While her voice was still recognizable, she subtly alters some of her projection and pronunciation for effect and it works beautifully. I'm not a huge Sarah Silverman fan, but this movie definitely endeared me to her more than I expected. And finally, Jane Lynch voices the battle-hardened Sergeant Calhoun, one of the lead characters in Hero's Duty - another fictional game in the world of the movie. Each character has a marvelous set of unique qualities that brought them to life in the script, and each actor behind them further fleshes out the features that make them a joy to watch. Jack McBrayer's cartoonish optimism almost marks Fix-It Felix as a kind of caricature of Kenneth Parcel, his 30 Rock character. Jane Lynch delivers each of her lines with an effected gravity and world-weariness, occasionally dishing out a ridiculous simile for effect: "A selfish man is like a mangy dog...chasing a cautionary tail..."

The animators behind Wreck-It Ralph have done more than just create characters that are fun to look at, each character very much fits into the game from which they come. For example, in the "real world" of the game, 8-bit characters still appear in the cartoony CGI that characterizes much of the film, but they move differently. For example, the tenants of the building that it's Ralph's job to wreck all move and emote the way they would if they were still rendered with 8-bit graphics: bouncing up and down in a jerking-type motion. It's almost as if they've been animated with stop-motion techniques, rather than in the "smooth" 24 frames per second way characters from other games do.

It would seem like an obvious thing to say that Wreck-It Ralph is a love-letter to video games, but there are so many references and meta-references to gaming I'm sure I didn't catch 'em all. Characters from numerous iconic titles like Mario, Sonic, Q-Bert, Street Fighter, and dozens more all make cameos throughout the film and each one is more entertaining than the last. But the movie doesn't hinge on an understanding or appreciation for video games to enjoy; the meat of the story is carried out in fictional video games that are broadly relatable to a myriad of titles.

And while not directed at Wreck-It Ralph proper, the movie opens with a short animated feature - much in the way Pixar presents their films - called Paperman. It's an absolutely lovely little piece that combines sketch animation with CGI; essentially the subjects look sketched but move in a more three-dimensional environment. But apart from looking visually stunning it's a heart-warming and humorous tale that acts a great little appetizer before Wreck-It Ralph.

THE CONS

Thankfully, nothing really comes to mind for this section. Unless you have a particularly distaste for animated features, there's not much to dislike here. Little ones might find the perilous climactic battle scene to be a bit on the scary side, but not horrifyingly so.


THE VERDICT

Wreck-It Ralph might be the best non-Pixar animated movie I've seen; it's at the very least on par with Bolt, Shrek, or the original Madagascar. Everything about the movie is satisfying: it's well written, the characters are unique and well-developed, there's an engaging story underpinning the whole affair. It's just a top notch film from every angle.

Equally as important, the movie is genuinely funny and uses a variety of comedic devices. Video game and pop culture references abound, but where they aren't accessible to non-gamers there's still plenty of generic funny to go around. There are a few sillier moments with slapstick, but even they are executed in a hysterical way.

There's so much here to like, and even more to love. Wreck-It Ralph is 100% Grade A fine film making, animated or otherwise. And as with any great animated movie, there's something for everyone. Kids will undoubtedly gobble up its wackiness and unabashed commitment to fun, and adults will find more than a measure of jokes geared to go over the kids' heads. If Disney Animation Studios keeps producing this kind of quality film-making, Pixar might wanna watch their back.