Midnight in Paris(6/18/2011)

In the five years that I’ve been writing reviews, five Woody Allen movies have been released and this is the fourth I’ve reviewed (never got around to You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger).  That he’s kept up this prolific output is amazing, he is to film what “Law & Order” is to television; a long running institution that consistently pumps out new episodes that are all the same yet all different in worthwhile ways.  Like “Law & Order,” Woody Allen’s filmography would see its cast members change and would see styles and issues change with their eras, but would consistently chug along.  Also like “Law & Order” Woody Allen would long remain an institution that was closely linked with New York City, at least until very recently.  Right around the time “Law & Order” began spinning off into new locations Woody Allen suddenly became very interested in making movies about Americans abroad, specifically Americans finding themselves in romantic European cities.  One of Allen’s very best recent films, Vicky Christina Barcelona, dealt with this topic in relation to the titular Spanish city but the topic is brought to the next level with his latest film Midnight in Paris.

The American abroad in this film is Gil Pender (Owen Wilson), a successful Hollywood screenwriter who aspires to become a respected novelist.  Gil has come to Paris along with his fiancé Inez (Rachel McAdams) while her father (Kurt Fuller) negotiates a business deal there.  Gil has long been enthralled by Paris, or at least a romantic vision of what Paris was like during the 1920s when it was the stomping ground for artists and writers from all over the world.  This romantic vision of the city makes him think it would be a great place to finish his novel (which is itself about nostalgia), but everyone around him thinks he’s being silly.  His future father-in-law, dislikes France for its political affiliations while his fiancé is constantly trying to bring him down to earth, telling him to stop taking walks around Paris because he’d “just get lost.”  Indeed, Gil does get lost one night, but he’s saved at the stroke of midnight when an old car pulls up to give him a ride.  To his surprise, the car literally transports him back to the era he’d been pining over, allowing him to meet all of his literary heroes.

The scenes in the 1920s have an aura of magical realism to them, they aren’t technically fantasy sequences (it is established that Gil’s actions in the past quite literally affect the future), they still feel like a manifestation of his subconscious.  Gil meets and converses with various historical figures like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, and is more or less accepted by all of them.  In doing so he finds that many of them were mere mortals who were often just as unsure of themselves as Gil is in his modern life.  For instance, in one scene Gil approaches a young Luis Buñuel and describes to him the plot of his 1962 surrealist film The Exterminating Angel, only to have Buñuel stare at him in confusion and say “I don’t get it.”  What’s more, he finds that all of them are just as filled with nostalgia in the 1920s as Gil was in 2011.  They all wish that they could visit Paris during the “belle époque” of the 1890s, and just don’t appreciate just how important their own lives are.  Is this a particularly deep message?  Not really, in fact Gil even refers to it as a “minor” revelation when all is said and done, but it’s conveyed in a witty way and I appreciated it.

The scenes in the 20s also allow for a number of fun cameo appearances by historical figures, some of them portrayed by celebrities.  These portrayals range from humblingly realistic (such as Tom Hiddleston’ F. Scott Fitzgerald or Kathy Bates’ Gertrude Stein) to farcical (like Adrien Brody’s Salvador Dalí).  The one portrayal of a historical figure that I really wasn’t fond of was Corey Stoll’s Ernest Hemingway, which seemed to dip pretty far into caricature and is loaded with strange speeches like “that’s what war does to men… there’s nothing fine and noble about dying in the mud unless you die gracefully… then it’s not only noble but brave” which certainly sounds like something that he’d write but which I doubt would ever be spontaneously be said in a conversation.  Of course this speechifying on the character’s part does work as comedy because it sort of freaks out Gil, but I would have thought that Hemingway would fit particularly well in the film’s overall depiction of humanized geniuses given his eventual demise at his own hand.

While the scenes in the 1920s are all good fun, I found the scenes in modern Paris to be a bit more problematic.  In particular I was annoyed at how much Allen chooses to  depict the city of Paris through rose colored glasses.  Almost every shot of the city makes it look like a “magical” place filled with landmarks.  At times the film feels like it was funded by the Parisian board of tourism, in fact I’d be shocked if it wasn’t.  It seems like a lost opportunity in that Allen could have juxtaposed Gil’s romantic view of the city with the reality of Paris as an often crime-ridden (by European standards) city that can be prone to race-riots.  Woody Allen has often been plenty gushy about his home turf of New York, but even when he filmed it in black and white and set it to Irving Berlin music he still acknowledged (often in comedic ways) that the city has shortcomings.

It also probably shouldn’t be overlooked that this does function just fine as a witty dialogue based comedy.  The film’s primary plot involves a love triangle between Gil, his fiancé, and a woman from the 1920s named Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  This is pretty typical of Allen’s work and has a lot of his usual comedic insights into relationships.  Owen Wilson works pretty well as a Woody Allen surrogate, he’s certainly better in the role than Larry David was in 2009’s Whatever Works, but he never quite takes hold of Allen’s rhythms as well as actors like John Cusack have in the past.  The movie can be pretty funny at times in the way you’d expect one of Allen’s movies to be, it won’t make you bust your gut laughing but it does elicit sporadic laughter.

When Midnight in Paris debuted at the Cannes Film Festival it was received with incredible warmth.  People called it a return to form for Woody Allen, and I’m not going to go that far.  First of all, I think that 2008’s Vicky Christina Barcelona was Allen’s true return to form and a vastly superior film to this in general.  This is a film I’d equate more to a Mighty Aphrodite or a Sweet and Lowdown than I would with one of Allen’s true classics, but those are good entertaining movies, certainly good company to be in.

*** out of Four

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DVD Catch-Up: 13 Assassins(7/14/2011)

Takashi Miike is one of the biggest names in world cinema but not necessarily among the Harvey Weinstien crowd.  Miike has only been working for a little over twenty years, but he already has 86 director credits to his name.  In this sense Miike is kind of like the Lil Wayne of Japanese cinema; rather than filtering the wheat from the chaff he opts to release a huge quantity of material and allow his audience to find the moments of brilliance within the many stacks of mediocrity.  Of course, most of Miike’s films never cross the Pacific but the ones that do have gained a lot of notoriety for their extremely graphic violence.  In fact Miike is sort of a poster child for the cottage industry of Asian imports beloved by those looking for more and more transgressive content.  His film Audition was a clear influence on the Saw and Hostel franchises, and his 2001 film Ichi the Killer gained notoriety for the distributor’s decision to hand out barf bags at the premiere.  As “extreme” as Miike’s films can get, he is capable of making more “legitimate” films that aren’t strictly intent on grossing people out.  His latest film 13 Assassins is one such example and was distributed much more widely because of it.

As the film opens we’re treated to dense title cards filled with names, dates, and titles.  Shortly thereafter we hear dialogue which is similarly filled with historical allusions, and a sense of panic went over me.  What had I gotten myself into?  How am I going to keep this all straight?  But as it turns out, this is actually an extremely simple story based on a simple premise: the nobleman is evil and must be killed.  That nobleman is Lord Naritsugu (Gorô Inagaki), a sadistic bastard who’s next in line to become a powerful shogun, an office he could use to rain terror across Japan.  Deciding that this is unacceptable, an aging samurai named Shinzaemon Shimada decides to take it upon himself to bring down Naritsugu, believing that this will be his last chance to die a noble death in the age of peace that he’s living in.  As such, he assembles a group of thirteen co-consperitors and plans to take down Naritsugu while he’s taking a trip from Edo to his heavily fortified homeland.

The setup of “group of ronin samurai on a mission” of course evokes Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai, but comparisons to that are best left at a minimum.  This is much more action oriented than that film, whose combat scenes were gritty and realistically awkward.  This film is closer to something like Shogun Assassin: the action is bloody and highly choreographed.  Most of the fighting is contained in the film’s finale, an epic battle scene in which the assassins literally fight off hundreds of Naritsugu’s guards.  The bodycount in this scene is almost videogame-esque in its one-sidedness with individual good guys slicing down massive numbers of enemies.  There’s a lot of bloodshed to be found here, but it is worth knowing that this film is merely extremely violent rather than outright gruesome and borderline sadistic in the way that some of Miike’s other films have been.  This finale is awesome and fans of action and/or martial arts should not miss it.

As for the rest of the film… it’s good, but it certainly isn’t what you’d call great drama.  If there’s anything I’d complain about, it’s that we don’t really get to know any of the assassins except for Shinzaemon, his nephew Shinrokurō, and a hunter they pick up along the road named Koyata.  Everyone else involved in the conspiracy don’t stand out and serve little purpose other than to be cannon-fodder.  I guess this is to be expected; it took Kurosawa almost four hours just to turn seven warriors into distinct characters, and this has 127 minutes to introduce almost twice as many.  I know that the Japanese version of the film was something like fourteen minutes longer but I don’t really see that being enough time to solve the problem, and frankly I did appreciate the fact pace that the film’s current running time allowed.

Does that mean that the film is completely shallow entertainment?  No, there are some legitimately interesting themes of honor and duty, and the characters that are examined can be fairly interesting.  But the focus here is clearly on the action and the technical filmmaking, and on that level it delivers better than a lot of Hollywood films and the weird touches that Miike brings in on the film’s fringes also set it apart from your average Asian martial arts epic. The film is recommended for lovers of samurai films and lovers of… well, I guess not much else.  But samurais are awesome, so simply appealing to lovers of samurai films should be good enough.

***1/2 out of Four

Finding Pixar- A Skeptic’s Journey: Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo

This is the fifth part of an eleven part series in which I chronologically explore the films of the Pixar Animation studio for the first time in my life while also exploring the studio’s history and what it was that kept me disinterested in it all these years.

In the years after the release of Monster’s Inc, Pixar would reach out to a lot of different demographics in what seems to have been a five year plan to take over the world, one unexpected demographic that they seemed to reach with the film Finding Nemo was rappers.  Seriously, the movie seems to have been name-checked by MCs as diverse as the super-mainstream Drake (“In your city faded off the brown: Nino… Swimming in the money, come and find me: Nemo”), the cult gangsta Pusha T (“It’s like I’m throwing rocks at the pen begging for the RICO… Searching for the fishscale like I’m tryna find Nemo”), and the conscious veteran Common (“My daughter found Nemo, I found the new primo / Yeah you know how we do, we do it for the people”).  What is it about this movie that can unite all these diverse voices (aside from the fact that a lot of things rhyme with the word “Nemo”)?  Probably just that it was insanely popular across a wide swath of America.  The film grossed 867 million dollars worldwide, surpassing The Lion King as the highest grossing animated film both domestically and overseas (the domestic record would be taken away by Dreamworks’ Shrek 2 the next year, and the overseas record would eventually be topped by Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs of all things.  Pixar would eventually reclaim both records with Toy Story 3).  The film would also live up to the studio’s usual critical standards and would also claim them their first Oscar in the still new animated feature category.

Looking at all of that, it seems like most of the country was enraptured by the film, and while I never got close to seeing it, this is where I started to at least be conscious of the fact that there was a difference between Pixar’s animated movies and everyone else’s.  I had known that there was a level of critical acclaim for some of Pixar’s earlier films like Toy Story 2, but I guess I was reading more reviews by 2003 and I was finally grasping just how much critics were riding this studios’ dick.  This was also the first time that I saw with my own eyes just how many people other than children, parents, and critics were going to these things.  I was semi-shocked when I heard some of my high school peers talking about the film enthusiastically and could only assume that they went to see it on some kind of stoned lark.  In my defense, I wasn’t ignoring this stuff just so I could watch crap like The One anymore.  I was becoming a pretty serious film buff at this point; I was seeing edgy fare like City of God in theaters while diving into the back catalogs of the old masters like Ingmar Bergman when I was at home.  At the time this stuff seemed like more of a juvenile waste of time than ever to me.

Of course it isn’t a coincidence that this movie was the one that broke in such a big way; this was a film that was specifically made so that Pixar wouldn’t come in second to a farting ogre again.  Returning to the Hip-hop line of thought from my introduction, I’m going to cite Jay-Z’s 2001 album “The Blueprint” as the rap album I’d most readily compare Finding Nemo to.  That’s not to say that the film has much of anything to do with Hov’s rhymes or Kanye’s beats, but I think both works share a similar wavelength in that they’re works by artists who considered themselves to be leaders of the pack but who still had everything to prove after they were dissed by their peers.  Like “The Blueprint,” this is a work that pushes away any minor goals and aims to be an anthemic crowd-pleasing blockbuster; watching it you can practically picture John Lasseter standing on a table chanting “P-X-R, we runnin’ this ‘toon shit / A. Stanton, we runnin’ this ‘toon shit / Lee Unkrich, we runnin’ this ‘toon shit / Watch out, we run L.A.”  Of course making a Dynasty-building blockbuster isn’t always the best route to an artistic triumph; any true Jigga fan will tell probably tell you that as great as “The Blueprint” is, it’s Hov’s rawer debut album “Reasonable Doubt” is that is his true masterpiece, and similarly Finding Nemo is usually not the film that most Pixar fans hold up as the studio’s greatest triumph (though there certainly are some that will, don’t get me wrong).

The movie certainly opens quite strong with a dramatic prologue in which Nemo and his fiancé plan a future for their eggs before being attacked by a barracuda which kills the mother and all the family’s eggs except for one which Marlin will raise as a single father.  All of it seems a little incongruous in a movie that will later go to great lengths to deny the predator/prey relationship between many ocean creatures by introducing nonsense like  vegetarian sharks and pelicans who form friendships with fish rather than focusing in on trying to eat them.  Still it works at establishing the relationship between Marlin and Nemo, a relationship that’s made all the better by a great voice performance by Albert Brooks, who makes Marlin into a likable and dignified character desperate to do the right thing.  Pixar also probably made the right choice in getting an actual child (Alexander Gould, who would go on to play Shane Botwin on the Showtime series “Weeds”) to voice Nemo, which goes a long way toward making him feel like a child instead of a miniature Marlin.  The believability of this relationship grounds the film really well no matter what silliness surrounds it, and I’m going to bet that it’s this central relationship that made the film so popular with family audiences.

It should probably be noted that it is a little hard for me to judge some of the film’s visuals compared to other Pixar films because this is the only film by the studio that has yet to be released on Blu-Ray (the medium I’ve been using up to this point).  While conventional DVD isn’t unwatchable to me at this point like other home video formats of yore, it definitely affected the look of the film and made the whole thing look a lot less crisp.  There are definitely elements of the movie that look really good like the occasional views of the ocean surface, but the underwater shots of the coral reef and its inhabitants were kind of disappointing to me.  This seems like the perfect playground for animation but it all still seems dated, and kind of disconnected.  Other elements like the human characters don’t look bad, but aren’t much of an improvement over what we’ve seen before from the studio. I’m not sure when these movies are finally going to hit that point where they start to look like modern animation but it isn’t here yet.

If anything I expected Finding Nemo to be a major public refutation of the Dreamworks brand of animation, but the film I ended up seeing seemed a lot more pandering and Dreamworks-like than any of Pixar’s previous films.  The movie is filled with wacky personalities and one-liners.  The ocean is populated by weird adult in-jokes like a family of turtles that speak like So-Cal surfers and sharks which have somehow found a way to survive on a vegetarian diet.  We’re also greeted to silly lines like “They’re going to the drop off… why don’t we [just] fry them up and serve them with chips,” as if a fish is going to know about fish and chips and live to tell the tale.  What’s really offensive about this stuff isn’t just that it’s silly so much as that it is completely unfunny.  While the Toy Story movies and to a greater extent Monster’s Inc. were amusing and did make me chuckle at times, I watched this movie stone-faced, I didn’t find it funny at all.

All of that pales in comparison to just how annoying the character of Dory, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, is in this movie.  This character’s cartoonish memory problem and constant naiveté really grated on me, and I really wanted Marlin to just ditch her and move on with his quest.  What really irritated me about Dory was that every time I was getting into Marlin’s story and wanting him to succeed he would be hindered by Dory’s comic relief, though paradoxically I was just as if not more annoyed whenever she somehow managed to help Marlin’s quest through some kind of wacky accident.  In short, she’s the most annoying Pixar character since Flick from A Bug’s Life, and that wasn’t the only similarity I saw between these two films.  The various sea creatures that lived in the dentist’s fish tank with Nemo reminded me a lot of the circus bugs from that film and both films had similar talking animal motifs at their centers.

To Finding Nemo’s credit, it has a lot fewer plot-holes than some of the other Pixar films that I’ve seen.  I could bring up certain qualms about its ending, which hinges upon an entire ocean being enthralled by what really isn’t all that spectacular a story, and I could point out how stupid it is that Nemo can somehow escape from the dentist office by being flushed down a toilet.  But these aren’t really holes so much as they are just dumb ideas.  That’s probably in part due to the film’s simple episodic structure, but it is an accomplishment just the same given how easily I could tear apart elements of some of the other films I’ve watched for this project.  I would also be remiss if I failed to give a tip of the hat to composer Thomas Newman, who was brought in to replace Randy Newman (no relation) as the film’s composer.  No offence to Randy Newman, who is a fine songwriter, but these movies have been outgrowing him and Thomas Newman adds a lot to the proceedings here.

Looking back at Finding Nemo I think I’m going to have to retract that comparison between Nemo and “The Blueprint.”  The comparison still works in regard to the impact that both works had on the careers of their respective creators, but as artistic accomplishments I don’t think they’re on anywhere near the same level.   Finding Nemo is closer to an album like “Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life,” which saw Jay-Z going a little too far in order to pander to mainstream audiences with embarrassments like the “Annie” sampling title track.  That album seemed like a pretty big deal when it came out, but looking back it really wasn’t one of Hov’s most memorable efforts.  Nemo similarly isn’t going to be seen by me as either one of the studio’s best or worst.  The film does indeed have some good qualities at its core but I can’t help but see it as one step forward and two steps back.

The Short Program: Knick Knack

Finding Nemo marked the last time that Pixar would recycle a pre-Toy Story short as the pre-show entertainment for one of their feature films.  To the best of my knowledge this was simply because they ran out of product in their archive, I don’t think they made any shorts between 1989 and 1997 that saw the light of day.  Knick Knack seems to use largely the same aesthetic and technology as Tin Toy; both are set in a bright room with a hard wood floor and both of them have similar looking character models.  They’re also both about living inanimate objects, though in this case the living things are vacation souvenirs rather than toys.   The film follows a model snowman as he tries to escape the snowglobe he lives in order to be reunited with all the glamorous souvenirs from Hawaii and Miami and other pleasant places.  The short also brings us the very first melding of Pixar and celebrity voice talent, as the background music is provided by the 80s a cappella star Bobby McFerrin.

The short is most notorious because it now exists in two versions: the 1989 version and the version which appeared in front of Finding Nemo (which is, incidentally the only version that Pixar has officially released since).  The key difference between the two: tits.  The Miami souvenir in the original version of the short featured a woman in a bikini with a huge set of knockers, and a mermaid seen at the end was close to being topless, with only a pair of sea stars coving up her nipples.  In the new version the women’s chests are reduced to Olive Oyl levels of flatness and both are given much less revealing swim gear.  This completely changes the tone of the short; in the original the snowman is clearly driven by lust and he’s clearly trying to escape from his cage so he can make passionate love to (or at least feel up the chest of) his fellow knick knack, in the new version he’s trying to escape just, well, just because.

Of course the original short probably wasn’t intended to be seen by anyone beyond a small group of animators and the new version was meant to be attached to one of the biggest family movies of all time, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a bowdlerization on the level of Han shooting first and guns being replaced by walkie talkies.   I feel like George Lucas or Steven Spielberg would have received a lot more flack for doing something like this.  It’s too bad, because this is actually one of the better of their early shorts.  It has some pretty good “Wile E. Coyote”-esque humor and it’s generally a bit more fully realized than a lot of the other ones.  It certainly doesn’t reach the levels of effectiveness that Luxo, Jr. did, but it probably is their best one since that up to this point (chronologically).