Thursday, April 24, 2014

Current Reels: Mr. Peabody & Sherman brings wit but lacks bite

"Now don't touch that, Sherman..." Image courtesy of DreamWorks.

Back when I was a wee pup in oversized glasses not unlike Sherman's, I used to relish the time when the Rocky & Bullwinkle Show would come on the Saturday morning cartoons. It was quick-paced and sardonic, filled with political commentary of the time that generally went over my head, except for the Cold War villains embodied in Boris and Natasha. My favorite short was Mr. Peabody & Sherman, about a particularly precocious time-traveling dog who “owned” a little boy.

In the late 90s and early 2000s, Hollywood tried valiantly to bring Rocky & Bullwinkle and their accompanying sketches to the big screen - with limited success, to say the least. (Let’s not talk about Dudley Do-Right, except to say Brendan Frasier definitely put emphasis on the “Dud.”) In the course of making the material more accessible to current kiddies, the knife-sharp wit and sarcasm of the original show got lost on the cutting room floor.

This happens to some extent in the DreamWorks reboot. Mr. Peabody remains his impassive, unruffled self, but in the process of making him more universally kid-friendly, he does lose some of his acerbic wit. Ty Burrell gives Mr. Peabody a warmer, less nasally tone than the original, which smooths off a few of the rough edges that those of us who remember the original show came to know and love. But director Rob Minkoff (The Lion King, The Forbidden Kingdom) manages to succeed in retaining some of the original caustic quality of the show while bringing Mr. Peabody into the 21st century. Peabody's no pushover, and still gets his jabs in where it counts, particularly when dealing with obnoxious human parents. His early 1960s-style home and decor, straight from the original source, takes on an appealing hipster retro look for today’s audiences. Sherman is also given more dimension as he struggles to make his way in the world having a dog for a father.
Original Mr. Peabody & Sherman, with the Wayback Machine.

The only true weak link in the film is the character of Penny, who plays the female protagonist that ruthlessly picks on Sherman, only to decide that he is actually cool when she finds out that Mr. Peabody owns a time machine called the “Wayback” (best name for a time machine ever - sorry Tardis). That’s where her character development stops. We never grow to love her in the way that the filmmakers clearly want us to, remaining pretty much a pain in the tuckis most of the way through.
As the plot winds up and Penny’s ditzy parents are properly disposed of so we can all get to the fun stuff,  the trio of Mr. Peabody, Sherman, and Penny bounce and careen their way through time, successfully rendering the lightning-quick pace of the original show. They are greeted by a variety of  historical characters voiced by an all-star cast, including Patrick Warburton, his booming barritone a perfect match for the thuggish but well-meaning Agamemnon, and a welcome surprise of the inimitable Mel Brooks as Albert Einstein.

One aspect where the film truly shines is how its nuggets of wisdom are subtly brought forth, rather than spoon fed to us, which is so often the case. The one “a-ha” moment for me is when Sherman takes one of Leonardo da Vinci’s flying crafts and sails it through the air with Penny in tow, and is doing just fine until Mr. Peabody says “Sherman, you can’t fly a plane!”whereupon he loses his nerve and goes crashing into a forest.

It wasn't all it could be, but then spinning a 10-minute segment of a larger show into a feature length film is never an easy task, and it succeeds better than most. If it does well enough for a sequel, however, I certainly hope they give more opportunities for Peabody's bite to be worse than his bark.

Toby sez: A successful reboot of dated source material and a good romp for kids, but leaves adult viewers wanting more.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Happy Belated Birthday, Blog!

I realized that as of March 17 of this year, this blog has remained insatiable (despite a few hiccups here and there) for the last four years! If you'd like to see how far we've come, read my VERY first review of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland here.

Toby and I thank you for your continued readership and support, whether you've been reading for all four years or have just stopped in today. Four more years! :D

Toby and I, looking on towards the thrilling future of things to critique!

Current Reels: The A.I. relationships in Her show us what it means to be human

Better bonding through A.I. - Amy Adams and Joaquin Phoenix.

A friend and fan of my blog Will Siss, who runs his own successful blog at Beer Snob critiquing craft beer (and really, what goes together better than a good movie and some good brews) suggested that I do a comparison with Her and Lars and the Real Girl, which was my movie pick this past Valentine’s Day.

While they are very different films, the heart of both is how successful relationships, no matter how unconventional, help take us out of our solitude and make us evolve into better people. It also tears open the envelope that we tuck all of our secret attractions into – those hidden desires and wants that we can’t talk about in polite company, but are real and vital to us all the same. I firmly believe in the notion The Princess Bride taught me – we are as real as the feelings we feel. 

The film takes place in disturbingly not-too-distant future Los Angeles, centering on the quiet life of Theodore (played by Joaquin Phoenix dressed in his best hipster suits), a writer who composes "personal, handwritten" letters on his work computer for people that don’t have the time or the talent to do so. (Think Cyrano for the digital era.) Indeed, the writing makes Her tick, and why I am pleased it won the Oscar for best original screenplay. Director and writer Spike Jonze seems to have found a happy middle ground between his more pedestrian works such as Jackass and the ultra-meta muddle that was Where the Wild Things Are. For instance, there is a delightful trash-talking A.I. alien that Theodore encounters in a video game he's playing that grounds the film nicely with his pointed reality checks.

A man, the sea, & the love of his life. Photos courtesy of Annapurna Pictures.
There's a lot that Lars and Theodore have in common - Lars is painfully shy and can’t get a girlfriend, so he buys a doll off the Internet. Theodore can’t admit that his marriage has collapsed and refuses to sign the divorce papers, so he develops a romantic relationship with his operating system, Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson, who continues to be sexy even in voice only.) They take something nonthreatening, something outside themselves, and use it as a security blanket, but in both instances, that step inevitably leads them to rolling out of their comfort zone and facing the hard truth that while romantic relationships are wonderful, they are also a lot of hard work. Amy Adams does backup in a small but important role as Amy, Theodore's human friend who has formed a less intense but still valuable relationship with her OS as well. 

Her demands patience; the story's spool unwinds with slow deliberation that made me realize how fast-paced and action-packed most films nowadays are. It is a slow walk through the park of someone's private life - surprisingly sensual, unexpectedly complex, incredibly deep. I found myself at one point going a bit pink in the dark theatre during a particularly impassioned sequence, even when there was absolutely nothing explicit being shown on the screen. The futuristic atmosphere is enhanced by part of Her being filmed in Shanghai, a great center of otherworldliness. I can recall a very specific evening in that city in 2011, wandering around the half-deconstructed behemoths from the 2010 World Expo underneath arches of fluorescent light, near a sculpture of giant stainless steel dancing bears. Doesn’t get more surreal than that.

The result of Her is a truly unconventional love story that addresses our innate problem with change, and it is a problem because EVERYTHING changes - even operating systems. Technology evolves, people evolve, and life takes couples down different roads and isn’t always kind in making those roads converge in convenient ways. "The past is just a story we tell ourselves," says Samantha at one point. It is appropriate the line is hers, because as an OS, that statement is literally true. But it is true for us as well. Lars and Theodore show us the only "real" we have is what is happening right now, and we need to appreciate each moment that comes to us, and be open to the possibilities ahead.

Toby sez: Sexy, sweet, and thought-provoking. Tried my patience at times, but the good writing and ultimate message won me over. But did anyone think to get lonely Theodore a cat? 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Audiobook Spotlight: Born Standing Up makes listeners sit down and think

One Wild and Crazy Guy: Image courtesy of Audible, Inc.
Here's the honest truth - I never really thought much of Steve Martin until about five years ago when I picked up his novel, Shopgirl. To me, he was just the goofball in feel-good comedies like Father of the Bride and that "wild and crazy guy" hanging out with Dan Aykroyd in the beloved bygone golden years of Saturday Night Live.

I was so floored by the delicate beauty that is present within the writing, effectively cloaking the core strength of the main character, Mirabelle, until the time is right. It shows the kind of despairing beauty that is Los Angeles, and the oft-seen but seldom discussed phenomenon of the significantly older man/younger woman relationship that blooms in the desert of loneliness and is so often doomed to fail by the harsh rays of reality.

 I kept flipping back to the cover and thinking, wow, STEVE MARTIN wrote this? And that was when I began to see Martin, whose humor as a child/teen I never quite got, as someone very different than the image I had formed in my head of the prematurely white-haired buffoon. 

In Born Standing Up, Martin takes his wry humor and turns it in on himself without being self-indulgent. Listening to the author relate his own words, cracking his own jokes, creates the sense that the story is being told just for you. Punctuated by banjo solos composed by Martin himself, the story of his evolution into the actor/musician he is today is a strange brew of concise and expansive, honest and circumspect. This is no "Steve Martin unplugged", no tearful confessions, no rants of the pressures of being a star. Indeed, at just a touch over four hours, it is a quick read/listen, and yet no less satisfying for the journey it takes you on.

There's a part of the book where Martin confesses that he's never been very good at acknowledging his fame with others; people expect him to be the off-beat, wacky guy that they see when he's off the stage or screen, when in reality, he is rather reserved. This made me recall a great story Rich, my dear friend from college, told me about spotting Martin in a quiet wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City a few years ago. He was wearing a black ball cap low over his face. Rich politely approached him, and said, "Excuse me. Are you Steve Martin?" Whereupon with a certain amount of dread, Martin turned his eyes to him and said warily, "Yeeesss..." To which Rich said, with the kind of affable charm that I can so easily envision thanks to our 10+ years of friendship, "Okay, cool. Have a great day!" and left him alone.

While I doubt that I will ever have an opportunity to meet Martin, or that he would even be pleased to make my acquaintance, I cannot help but admire the astonishingly wonderful writing that comes out of this contemplative, banjo-strumming fellow - the man he is when he puts "The Jerk" and "The Wild and Crazy Guy" on the shelf.

Thanks Steve, for finding a way to show us the thoughtful guy behind the funny face.

Listen to an audio sample here. 

Toby Sez: Author's voice and banjo riffs add depth and charm to this concise and honest tale of one man's road towards comedic success.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

First impressions of Her; Critic comments on the Oscars via Twitter tonight!

Ellen lookin' sharp and rockin' the iconic gold little guy
 Hey guys! If you don't already follow me via Twitter, go click on that handy little Follow button below. I'll be Tweeting my impressions of the Oscars tonight.

Also, my brief synopsis/impression of the movie Her was favorited by the movie's official Twitter page! That kind of thing never gets old. Keep an eye out for the forthcoming full review treatment.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Everyday We are Hustlin': American Hustle Shows the Beauty in Survival

The con is on: Ensemble of American Hustle. Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures.
The art of survival is a story that never ends. 

These are the last words of American Hustle, and they echoed in my head long after I left the theatre. As an avowed word nerd, I was impressed that the whole plot of a film could be summed up so succinctly and with such elegance.

It should be noted that  director David Owen Russell also directed 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook, which I LOVED. I also love movies made and based in the 70s – that era of American history holds a certain draw for me, so the bar was set pretty high right from the get-go. 

What strikes me about Russell’s directing style is his knack for showing life as it is happening. He winds up the plot and lets the actors take it away. He chooses his actors carefully and gives them the creative space to make their characters come to life, to slip into their respective skins, which is the point of American Hustle – how people create images, caricatures of themselves in order to survive.  The actors are being actors of the characters they are acting. (Try saying that five times fast).

Christian Bale as head con man Irving Rosenfeld gives the performance of a lifetime. Almost unrecognizable with a paunch and a comb over, he drives the plot and owns the storyline with all the languorous reluctance of a king who doesn’t want the throne he's placed on. Amy Adams as his business partner and lover Sydney Prosser acts as his perfect foil, a hard-charging, fiery beauty masked under wide blue eyes and a sweet smile who eschews conventional society as easily as she does her bra. 

Stirring the pot is the ever-versatile Jennifer Lawrence as Irving’s unstable wife Rosalyn, and Bradley Cooper as Richie DiMaso, an unhinged FBI agent who finds an opportunity to force Irving and Sydney to use their dubious talents to uncover a crime ring in New Jersey. This also includes deceiving the mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito, who is played with understated panache by Jeremy Renner. What quickly escalates is a power play of wills, and the stakes become increasingly higher as the con gets underway. There's also an excellent cameo of one of my favorite actors (I won't say who, don't want to ruin the surprise) and a very welcome appearance of Jack Huston as a mobster, whom I'm well acquainted with as Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire.

Pounding in the background behind all of this is an excellent selection of 70s hits, including “Delilah” by Tom Jones and “Long Black Road” by Electric Light Orchestra. Throw in a score composed by Danny Elfman and you’ve got a pretty bangin’ soundtrack. However, there are times when I wished Russell had opted to turn down the booming tunes and turn up the dialogue. Watching Rosalyn with her ever-present crazy updo furiously cleaning her house while singing along to “Live and Let Die” struck me as vaguely ridiculous, and didn’t add that much to the film overall. 

It is the inspired ordinary moments amid the glitz and glamour that make the film worth a second view - love blossoming in the mundane as clothes on dry cleaning racks swirl around, the simple joy of walking down the street hand in hand. Camera angles dip and whirl to create their own statements. In one memorable moment we view Richie's frantic movements through the flashing lights of a disco club so they appear stilted and slow. This deftly shows rather than tells the paradox of heightened passion and slow motion effectively trapping Richie in his own mental anguish of wanting to move forward but never getting ahead. 

All of this leaves the audience wondering  - what does it take to survive? And is it possible to make an art out of doing so? 

If American Hustle gives any indication, than the answer is yes. 

Toby sez: Solid storytelling, acting, and execution that leaves one coming back for more. 

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug - Length Hampers this Tale's Flight of Fancy

Bilbo and Thoren a bit concerned: pictures courtesy of New Line Cinemas.
In J.R.R. Tolkien’s own words, The Hobbit films are starting to “feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” The latest installment, The Desolation of Smaug, has a sense of the franchise eeking itself out to feed the fan frenzy that ate up the epic majesty of the original Lord of the Rings films. The problem is obvious – LOTR is an actual trilogy, while The Hobbit is not. And it is becoming painfully clear that Peter Jackson is pulling every elfin rabbit out of his hat to make this light-hearted prequel into a similar sweeping epic. 

While this installment has enjoyable moments,there are sequences that seem long and stilted, most particularly the final battle with the dragon, Smaug. While Benedict Cumberbatch is effectively menacing as the voice of Smaug, the scene overall takes an eternity. Apparently basic laws of physics do not apply to dwarfs, as evidenced by dwarf King Thorin taking a ride down a river of molten hot metal on an iron shield, and surviving without even a burn mark on his hands. In the same category of bad logic, the dwarves surmise the dragon’s firey breath would be hot enough to stoke the furnaces of the old smithy and melt the iron in the vats, so if they just piss off Smaug enough, he’ll light the fires for them. Then they can pour the molten metal on top of him.The dwarves and Bilbo proceed to hide behind iron pillars while the fiery blast goes right past them. Nary a singed beard amongst them – forget the fact they’ve just established that Smaug’s breath is hot enough to MELT the very pillars they are hiding behind. Then there's the trip down the river in barrels while being chased by orcs, which is worthy of its own ride at Universal Studios. Fun, but again - far too lengthy.  
Legolas' pop Theranduil looking appropriately bishounen.

All is not lost, however. Ian McKellen, whom we see far too briefly, does his usual incredible turn as Gandalf the Grey, and Martin Freeman is perfectly cast as Bilbo, who is the bravest and the most logical of all the characters that he surrounds himself with. The first glimpse of Sauron is impressive, as his silhouette forms from the iris of the great, pulsating eye, and Orlando Bloom gives a welcome return as Legolas, although his bright blue eyes look too fake to be effective. One added character not from the book is an elven warrioress, Tauriel, played by the evocatively named Evangeline Lilly, who forms a charming bond with Kili, one of the Thoren’s dwarf company. Her storyline was one of the more brilliant departures from Tolkien’s original storyline, setting up a foreshadowing of an alliance between elves and dwarfs that will come to solidify itself in the relationship between Gimli and Legolas in The Fellowship of the Ring.I was also delighted to see a cameo by the talented British actor Stephen Fry as the pompous and overstuffed Master of Laketown, who with great panache poo-poos the naysayers in regards to the danger of Smaug and embraces Thorin’s plan to reclaim the dwarve’s long-lost riches with barely restrained moustache-twirling opportunism. 

But all the brilliant performances and casting a great film does not make, and while I try to view each film I see with a fresh eye, The Desolation of Smaug falls far short of even its predecessor, and even its more poignant moments lose their sheen when held up against the original Academy Award-winning trilogy.

 Toby sez: A fun ride, but too long by half. 


Parting shot: Dwarves in barrels!