Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Bridges at Toko-Ri



The Bridges at Toko-Ri is the best movie I've seen this summer.

Adapted from the novel by WWII Sailor James Michener, The Bridges of Toko-Ri tells the story of LT Harry Brubaker, a Reservist called to active duty to fly and flight in the Korean war. It's a serious film, one that grapples with the realities of family separation, mortal peril, and profound loyalty that are the weft and warp of naval aviation. The Navy cooperated in its production, granting access to USS ORISKANY and USS KEARSARGE, as well as extensive opportunities to film its mighty F9F-2 Panthers in flight. Its star, William Holden, had a personal link to the material: his late brother, a naval aviator, had given his life in the Pacific.

Pedigrees, however, don't guarantee a great film. The Bridges of Toko-Ri succeeds not because of its authenticity, but because it's a thrilling and gripping tale. It begins in the best possible way, with a helo bubba (played by Mickey Rooney) pulling a jet bubba (Holden) out of the water following an ejection. As a former Navy helo bubba, I could have spent the next ninety minutes watching Rooney rescue people. That's not the way the world works, however: the world cares about jet bubbas.

This particular jet bubba has a beautiful wife (Grace Kelly), two charming daughters, and every reason to get home alive. The Bridges at Toko-Ri is built around the early warning, planning, execution, and aftermath of a mission that puts that eventuality very much in doubt: an airstrike on a cluster of North Korean bridges deemed vital to the war effort. Because the film walks us through all the steps in the runup to and execution of this mission, we in the audience get time to bond with its characters both at sea and ashore. Because the film takes pains to achieve maximum authenticity in its depiction of life afloat and airborne, we get to live vicariously in another world at another time. Because the mission itself is so hazardous, and filmed so well, we get to spend the last half-hour of the film on the edges of our collective seats, rooting for Holden's character to make it back to Grace and the girls.

This is a great film. It's close enough to real life to stand in for historical footage (though the F9F-2 wasn't flown in the Korean War – the filmmakers had to work with what they had). Its characters are compelling enough to make us care about them. Its story is tight enough to keep us on the hook for two hours and reel us in at the climax. The Bridges at Toko-Ri belongs at the top of your queue.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Chef


Funny and kind, Chef is a feel-good movie that sent me home with a smile on my face.

In the film, John Favreau plays a workaholic chef. He's divorced. He doesn't spend enough time with his son. He works for a restaurateur who's a businessman first and an epicurean second. He's miserable. When he loses his job and must start anew with a dilapidated food truck, things seem about as bad as they can get.

And then he remembers how much he loves cooking good food for people who appreciate it. Oh, and he bonds with his son, finds happiness, and so forth (That last sentence isn't a spoiler unless you've never been to the movies before.).

Think of Chef as cinematic comfort food, the motion picture equivalent of a grilled-cheese sandwich. Now, a grilled-cheese sandwich can be Velveeta on Wonder Bread hot off the Foreman Grill, or it can be a carefully chosen mix of cheeses on fresh-baked bread and grilled -just so- on a hot skittle with hand-drawn butter. Chef is the latter. It's genuinely, laugh-out-loud funny not just in its acting, but in its composition and editing. It boasts characters of depth and heart, people you'd be happy to call your friends. It photographs food and the process of its preparation with delight. It's just a joy, and it's putting a smile on my face even now, as I write about it days later.


See Chef and be happy.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

RED 2; Oblivion

RED 2



I enjoyed RED, the movie about Dame Helen Mirren machine-gunning baddies while wearing a slinky white evening gown.

RED 2 is more of the same, but it suffers from its lack of novelty. There are new baddies and a new evening gown, but the entire film basically exists to showcase older actors shooting younger ones while tossing off one-liners that make us worry more for their mental health than their physical safety. It's still fun, but it's not much of a surprise this time around. You may want to give this one a pass.

===

Oblivion


Oblivion is a beautifully crafted, high-concept sci-fi action picture – the kind of thing I usually go for.

In the film, Tom Cruise plays a drone repairman in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. By night, he lives in a beautiful, modern outpost. By day, he braves the wilderness to find downed (alien-hunting) drones, fix them, and sic them on any Morlock-like aliens they should happen to find.

And away we go. As I said, I enjoy this kind of thing. And I enjoyed it well enough, but something about it seemed rote. Cruise ran away from an explosion. Cruise was forced to choose between improbably beautiful, age-inappropriate women. Cruise saved the world and earned a respectful head-nod from a reluctant ally. You know – the usual. The big concept was the metaphor for American drone wars in a part of the world that's basically a pre-industrial hellscape. And that was it.

I'm not saying that Oblivion was bad. Generally speaking, Tom Cruise doesn't make bad movies. It just seemed limp, uninspired. If you're in the mood for a Tom Cruise science fiction film, go see Edge of Tomorrow again. Now, that's a movie!

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Edge of Tomorrow


Funny and exciting, Edge of Tomorrow is a great time at the movies.

Here's the setup: it's basically Groundhog Day in the middle of an alien invasion, with Tom Cruise forced to live the same fate-of-humanity battle over and over again. While Groundhog Day saw Bill Murray's self-absorbed weatherman learn how to be a decent human being, Edge of Tomorrow sees Tom Cruise learning both Decency 101 and how to defeat the alien menace.

So, if you're the kind of moviegoer who saw Groundhog Day and thought, “This movie needs more 'splosions,” then Edge of Tomorrow is the movie for you. I have that thought during nearly every movie I see. I loved it.

What makes Edge of Tomorrow work? Front and center, there's Tom Cruise offering yet another performance to remind us that he's a much better actor than everyone seems to think. His protagonist begins the film as a smooth, self-centered coward, and Cruise sells that characterization while keeping us on his side. Much of the film's second act is comprised of Cruise's character getting killed in a variety of ways, and he sells that with a series of high-pitched yelps, screams, and “Oh, mans” that remind us more of Loony Tunes than Starship Troopers. By the time the third act rolls around and our hero has finally matured into, well, our hero, the film has so won us over that we really don't mind that it's rehashing Pacific Rim.

What else makes it work? First, Emily Blunt offers first-class supporting work as the Angel of Verdun, a war hero from an earlier battle who (because of sci-fi stuff) experienced the same time-loop there that our hero is experiencing here. She becomes his mentor and (age inappropriate) love interest, and the movie has fun with the idea that she's meeting him for the first time nearly every time he resurrects (in some of his cycles, Cruise skips meeting her and attends to other business instead). Second, Bill Paxton is perfection in a uniform as the sergeant major who turns up near the beginning of each new time loop. He's authoritative and commanding, yet somehow goofy enough to maintain the film's light, entertaining tone.

Director Doug Liman keeps the film moving briskly, hits the right character notes, and makes his world seem lived-in and authentic. Perhaps more importantly, he has a great sense of geography. Even during chaotic battle scenes, he gives the audience enough information to never lose track of who is doing what to whom, and where and why. The production values are top-notch, the monster designs excellent, and the whole thing a pleasure.

Bottom line: if you like big-budget sci-fi adventure with a sense of humor and lots of 'splosions, then Edge of Tomorrow is for you. As for me, I loved it. I can't wait to see it with my kids.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Ted


Ted is a hilarious 10-minute sketch crammed into an excruciating 106-minute movie.

Here's the sketch: a lonely boy wishes that his teddy bear would come to life and be his best friend forever. The wish comes true and the boy and his bear grow into two lazy, irresponsible, couch-bound weed monkeys. The bear says and does lots of vulgar stuff, which is funny coming from a teddy bear. That's about it.

This makes for an amusing first act. Mark Wahlberg is game for just about anything as the grown-up slacker, and the animators who created the bear do phenomenal work. The joke wears thin by the second act, however. By the third, we're checking our watches and wondering if we have any socks that need folding.

What's bad about it? First, Wahlberg is horribly miscast as the aforementioned couch-bound weed monkey. While he's a fine actor who's willing to work for a laugh, the fact is that he looks like a bodybuilder. I submit that it's impossible to be both a lazy, irresponsible, couch-bound weed monkey and a bodybuilder. Bodybuilding requires dedication, discipline, and a work ethic. Every time the movie showed me Wahlberg's character sprawled out on the couch, with a beer to one hand and a bong to the other, all I could think was, “Shenanigans. This guy looks like he spends his time drinking protein shakes and doing hammer curls. I'm just not buying it.”

And the love interest? I felt actively sorry for Mila Kunis in this picture. Not only was she trying to play a character wholly in love with an unlovable man, she looked so thin that I wanted to shout, “Hey, Wahlberg, how about sharing one of your protein shakes with this poor woman? She looks like she's about to collapse!”

The score is boring. The cinematography is boring. The direction is lackluster. While watching this film, I felt that I was making a conscious choice to fritter away my precious time on this earth. Yes, I laughed during the first act, and I think Ted's premise would make for a terrific “Funny or Die” short. But as a feature film? Ted is worse than bad: it's boring. I feel cheap just for taking the time to write about it.

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Godzilla (2014)

I'm going to preface this review with a little personal background. It'll help if you know where I'm coming from.

Some of my earliest and fondest memories include spending Friday nights with my sister, camped out in our family VW Van in the driveway. Our father would run out a portable tv on an extension cord, and my sister and I would eat popcorn and watch Creature Feature in our own little world. On many of those Friday evenings, the creature of the week was Godzilla, another monster from Toho Studios' stable, or some combination thereof.

When I had kids, I made a family tradition of hanging out on the couch on Friday nights and watching Japanese monster movies. There was something about those artifacts of the '60s and '70s, that combination of giant monsters and visible costume-zippers, that spoke to children. We had a video game for the original X-Box that was basically Mortal Kombat, but with giant Japanese monsters. I can't imagine how many times I've heard an offscreen announcer intone something like, “Space Godzilla versus Mecha Gigan! Monsters, fight!”

When I was a C-130 pilot, I used to travel to Tokyo quite often. I'd always stop by the same toy store near Ueno Park to pick up some Bandai Godzilla dolls. By the time I'd made my last trip, our 3 boys had a collection including nearly every Godzilla monster, as well as quite a few creatures from the Gamera films. These are not carefully preserved collector's items. These are battered and worn everyday toys, the stuff of the imaginations of the next generation of Ellermanns.

My point is that I didn't come to this movie as a casual consumer of summer fare. I came to this movie as a guy who has seen every single Godzilla movie, even the really bad ones. I came to this movie ready to see it as part of a long, long series of sequels, reboots, and reimaginings. I came to this movie ready to be entertained.

I got my money's worth.

The first two major players Godzilla presents are Sally Hawkins (Made in Dagenham, Happy-Go-Lucky) and Ken Watanabe (Letters from Iwo Jima). Next, we see Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad) and Juliette Binoche (Trois couleurs: Bleu). Later, we get Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) and David Strathairn (Temple Grandin). 'All right,' I thought. 'Even if this movie is terrible, a whole bunch of legitimately excellent actors are getting big, blockbuster paydays out of it. That's a win, right there.' Eventually, we learn that the hero is a Navy EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) lieutenant. 'Hey,' I thought, 'I have a buddy who wrote a book based on his timeas an EOD bubba. This is cool!' Basically, the movie got me onboard pretty early.

Having done that, Godzilla works hard to keep me, the fan, on board. Its secondary monsters (called MUTOs, a marginally more creative moniker than, say Mechagodzilla) leave trails similar to those of the larval giant-moth creatures of Mothra. Godzillla himself gets his first reveal at sea, thoughtlessly making naval vessels bob in the ocean like so many rubber duckies. At one point, our hero rescues a little Japanese boy who looks straight out of Godzilla vs. Megalon. Ken Watanabe gets to pretend he's Takashi Shimura and intone classic Godzilla movie lines like, “Man believes he controls nature, but he is stupid, proud, and wrong. Nature always restores balance.” Jet fighters fly ridiculously low to the ground, only to get swatted out of the sky (as opposed to shooting from a safe altitude and distance). Cities get leveled, flooded, and irradiated. A good time is had by all.

And Godzilla, man, this Godzilla is great. The film retains the classic roar. Godzy dispatches one of his enemies with a move cribbed directly from Godzilla: Final Wars. The reveal of his atomic fire breath is so awesome that it had my now - 14-yr-old son bouncing in his chair with delight. Perhaps best of all, this Godzilla takes a page from the later Showa era, when the King of Monsters served mainly as a defender of the natural order (and, by extension, humanity). I walked into Godzilla expecting a standard rehash of the original Gojira. I got something like that, but with a heaping helping of Invasion of the Astro Monster. What a pleasant surprise.

'All right,' you're thinking, 'this guy likes Godzilla movies. Godzilla is, obviously a Godzilla movie, so he likes it. But will I like it? Is it actually, y'know, good?'

Well, taken in the broader context of contemporary American popular film, Godzilla's just ok. It has a terrible score, wastes the talented Elizabeth Olsen in an underwritten part, and takes a mighty long time to get to the rompin' stompin' giant monster action. Taken in the context of the mostly-terrible (beloved, but terrible) films that preceded it, however, it's marvelous. It looks gorgeous, it respects its unique filmic tradition, and it sets up a world in which we can look forward to continued sequels. It's everything you could ask for from a Godzilla movie.

I (and my progeny) approve.

PS You may enjoy the Godzilla movie reviews I've written since starting this blog in 2006:


Godzilla 1998 (written by my then – 10-yr-old) 
Godzilla vs. Gigan (written by my then - 11-yr-old) 
Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (written by my then – 12-yr-old) 





Sunday, May 18, 2014

Frozen

We were roughly twenty minutes into Frozen, watching the brown-haired sister (voiced by Kristen Bell) sing a duet with her beau, when I realized my kids weren't showing me a movie. They were showing me a Broadway musical disguised as a movie. About ten minutes after that, while watching Idina Menzel's Ice Queen belt out a full-throated (and Oscar-winning) “Let it Go,” I realized they were showing me a particularly good Broadway musical disguised as a movie. They ate it right up, and so did I.

Here's what makes Frozen a particularly good Broadway musical disguised as a movie: the songs, the story, the sets and costuming, and the performances.

Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez wrote the songs. Between them, they boast 'The Book of Mormon,' 'Avenue Q,' 'The Wonder Pets,' 'Winnie The Pooh,' and 'In Transit.' Robert Lopez has an Emmy, a Grammy, an Oscar, and a Tony. These people know what they're doing, and what they're doing in Frozen is writing show tunes. These songs have great hooks, catchy choruses, and singability written all over them – just try listening to “Fixer Upper,” sung in the movie by a chorus of Scandinavian rock trolls, and not imagining a bunch of 12-year-olds in homemade costumes. I dare you. And if you happen to be one of the few people who still haven't heard Frozen's big anthem, “Let it Go,” well, get ready for an ear worm that'll play in a constant loop for days.

The story has a story of its own.  Re-pitched in the wake of Disney's successful The Little Mermaid, an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Ice Queen had been knocking around the Mouse House since 1943. The picture got a green light in 2011, and the story went through multiple iterations involving many people before it got to the version we see today. And that version? It's a near-perfect combination of family tension, romantic interest, villainy, and magic. Best of all, it does unexpected things with those elements. The family tension is about two sisters who love each other so much that it's simultaneously pushing them apart and pulling them together. The romantic interest zigs one way, then zags another, then zigs and zags a few more times, helping the audience mirror the conflicted feelings of the protagonist. The villainy, well, it's wonderful. There's Alan Tudyk (CDNW), voicing a character that's just a perfect weasel. And there's -well, you're going to have to see it for yourself. And the magic? It delights in that it plays more like something from an X-Men movie than a fairy tale. But those are just the elements. Frozen's unique charm springs from the way it lulls the audience with its first act simplicity, setting up all the pieces and archetypes for a pleasant if predicable story, then combines and recombines those pieces in unexpected ways while taking the story in fresh directions. I am used to watching children's movies for execution over story. Frozen offers both.

The sets and costuming are the result of a combination of extensive research, artistic sensibility, and technical brilliance. Animators visited Norway to get a sense of Scandinavian architecture, wilderness, and maritime culture. It's one thing to look at pictures of a fjord; it's quite another to see one for oneself. They traveled to Wyoming to understand how people move in deep snow in a variety of different styles of dress, from ball gowns to traditional Nordic furs. They visited a Canadian ice hotel to see how ice architecture really works. Then, they took all this and combined it with Ice Queen designs from the Disney archives, their own original artwork, and technical tools like Matterhorn, a snow-animation program written specifically for this film. The result? A beautiful, organic, seamless world that enriches its story, adds depth to its characters, and maintains the illusion of reality throughout the film's running time.

Of course, the whole thing breaks down if the performances don't resonate. In addition to the aforementioned Tudyk (CDNW), Idina Menzel provides a speaking voice for the Ice Queen that's both strong and vulnerable. Perhaps more importantly, Menzel (who boasts an impressive Broadway resume) has extraordinary singing pipes. The Frozen soundtrack provides a great example of this by including renditions of “Let it Go” performed by Menzel in the film and the pop singer Demi Lovato for a radio audience. Menzel blows Lovato clean off the record, bringing a clarity and technical proficiency that somehow reminds me of Nat King Cole.  And the rest of the cast? Well, not a single voice or inflection broke the movie's spell. We're talking about top-drawer stuff.

All of this adds up to a little more than a movie, and a little more than a really good Broadway musical disguised as a movie. It adds up to an extraordinary film, both entertaining and beautiful, that I'll be happy to watch again and again. Way to hit one out of the park, Disney.