Death Takes a Great Critic

The test of the greatness of a critic is in two things: firstly, do you feel as if you understand the art better for their insight, and, second, have they explained their love or hate of the thing in such a way that you have a good idea whether you’ll enjoy it. Roger Ebert wasn’t a critic that I always agreed with (his review of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang managed to point out all the bits that I loved about the movie while explaining how those things left him cold) but who gave me a greater understanding of the movies and of the artistry of the medium.

His political and social offerings weren’t particularly welcome from my corner, but I always believed that he had a right to voice those opinions and use his podium how he saw fit. He carved out his own space in every medium that he chose from television and newspapers to books and social media; most admirably, he did it honestly, bluntly, and on his own terms.

He critical eye will be missed.

Read the obituary.

The Muppets: 10 Point Review (With Preamble)

I was a huge Muppets fan when I was a kid. I mean, except for Miss Piggy; she was just a Muppety bitch. I would happily laugh my way through Pigs in Space, anything the Swedish Chef wanted to cook up, Beaker’s essential beakerness, and Animal’s drumming. Awesome stuff.

Point being: you’d have a hard time finding someone who wanted this year’s The Muppets to be a success.

It wasn’t.

To the ten-point

  1. There are a few funny moments, but, boy, are they well-spaced through the movie.
  2. The voices are wildly uneven. Fozzy and Miss Piggy, especially, seem to be wrong. It’s a somewhat forgivable sin, all things considered, but it is distracting at times.
  3. Worse than the voices, by far, is the bad timing. Making people laugh is an amazingly hard job; delivery and timing are often more important than the jokes. The pacing is rough throughout.
  4. That shouldn’t be used to let the writers off the hook, though. It simply doesn’t have that special spark of something that made the show so popular for so long. It just doesn’t connect.
  5. I did enjoy the chicken’s take on CeeLo’s “Forget (ahem) You”…
  6. …And the wide range of cameos.
  7. I’m going to ignore the “evil oilman” plot not just because it was obvious, but because it was stupid. The re-introduction of the Muppets deserved something better than a lame clichè.
  8. The whole thing lacked energy. Even Jack Black, typically a walking, talking advertisement against the dangers of speed, looked uninterested.
  9. Not enough Statler and Waldorf.
  10. Fans of the show deserved better. So disappointing.

Don’t bother.

Rental Review: The Grey

I rented The Grey with low expectations. In fact, the only reasons I watched it were that Liam Neeson is almost always worth watching and I thought it might be a nice background diversion while I did other things. And low expectations are nice precisely because they leave room for you to appreciate a thing on its own merits instead of in comparison to unrealistic expectations. It was undoubtedly a better movie than I expected.

Before continuing, I have to acknowledge the negatives: the animatronics are distractingly bad at times, the acting is uneven, and, yes, the portrayal of wolves is nothing like the reality of our fine, furry brethren. Wolves don’t actually go around hunting folks and aren’t particularly vindictive.

But that doesn’t matter a bit. The wolves are merely a framing device that brings together the various aspects of its movie. At its core, The Grey is a Jack London-esque survival story that also encompasses elements of horror (the wolves being, essentially, ghosts) with a thread of philosophical questioning that runs throughout. It is simply told, but it is most certainly not a simple movie.

That isn’t to say that this is some Zen koan; there is tension, blood, and violence happily occupying that bit of the viewer’s mind, but there is a depth and sadness to it that probably wouldn’t have worked so well without Neeson’s expressive face and talent. The beginning of the film, an introduction to Neeson’s roughneck character working in wildest Alaska, we see a character steeped in an unexplained, brutal sadness.

When Neeson’s character, Ottway, is left stranded with a group of other roughnecks. Ottway, who had been ready to let go of life, is transformed into a man struggling to live. And the movie plays this so well: with rising tension shot through with moments of silence and visions of the absolute, desolate beauty of Alaska. And through it all, we are invited to consider man’s urge to survive, the presence (or absence) of God in our lives, and what it means to face death– both our own and that of those that we love. Indeed, it’s in those quieter moments that the movie finds its real power.

It is undermined a bit with its basic horror movie structures wherein characters are lost in a serial, and predictable, way. This is unfortunate because the movie does provide some edge-of-the-seat moments and tense action. Even worse, some of those deaths are surprisingly affecting. While a couple of the characters are killed off in standard, gruesome ways, some of them are given more dignity and meaning in their passing. Watching these characters– characters that the director strives to treat like real individuals instead of the kinds of cardboard cutouts that inhabit secondary roles in similar movies– struggle so hard for life only to succumb to a brutal world is breathtaking. Heartbreaking, in fact, but also instructional.

This is a movie doesn’t treat its characters with kindness. It is pitiless and struggle doesn’t guaranty any kind of happy result. In fact, it would be easy to read it as a repudiation of the idea of God; in a world with this kind of unfeeling and cruel, where could God possibly fit? At one point in the movie, when Ottway is screaming for a sign or a glimpse of God, his cries aren’t met with rainbows or signs from heaven.

I concede my biases as a Christian and it isn’t an explicitly religious movie, but I would consider that an overly easy reading of the film. There are hints and glimpses of God throughout, but the God presented isn’t one that rescues the roughnecks from all their mortal woes. He does, though, bring grace and peace.

The Grey is a gorgeously shot moviewith a surprisingly thoughtful side. It isn’t what I expected and, in most ways, it is better. Its ending might not suit all comers and folks expecting straight up action or horror will be disappointed. While it is let down here and there by an imperfect script and bad acting in some of the supporting roles, while it falls into a trap of predictability in some of its plotting, and while some of the wolf effects are inexcusably bad, there is a worthwhile core and a grasp at something meaningful that disarmed me.

Bottom Line: It’s a movie that wants very much to be more than just a genre exercise, and it fulfills that goal. There is something worthwhile here, but I’m left believing that the market for a horror-survival movie with regular philosophical meanderings is relatively small. Anyone who fits that demographic should find value. Folks looking for unrelenting gore and action are bound to be disappointed.

Brave: A Review

I’ve been a fan of Pixar since before they began making feature films. The shorts Luxo Jr. and Tin Toy, in particular, were groundbreaking. Though they both look dated now in terms of the technology, they both managed to completely change my expectations of what animated films should be. While Disney soldiered on with more traditional forms of animation (and made some wonderful films like Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, and the underappreciated Hunchback of Notre Dame), Pixar was busy inventing the future of the art.

The obvious bit was the animation. Toy Story brought their vision of 3D animation to the masses; it was beautiful. But the real beauty wasn’t just the animation, it was the writing, the story, and the heart that managed to capture adults as surely as it did children. They turned big profits, earned critical acclaim, and took home awards by the armful. All of it well-deserved, as far as I’m concerned.

There are few more stirring moments in film over the last decade than the opening of Up. Although the “Jessie’s Song” sequence from 1999′s Toy Story 2 would give it a run for its money.  The beauty of Wall-E wasn’t just in its spectacular opening sequence, but in its wonderfully rendered love story about a couple of robots. For that matter, Ellen Degeneres is hilarious as an absent-minded fish in the touching and utterly hilarious Finding Nemo.

The point is not to give a Pixar’s Top 10 Moments list. Nor is it to suggest that they haven’t had some misfires (for me, Monsters Inc. and Cars were largely uninvolving and Cars 2 was a complete wreck). The point is that Pixar has a habit of telling great stories told with an artistic flair and they absolutely changed the face of animated entertainment.

Does Brave live up to the Pixar reputation for excellence? Absolutely.

While Brave isn’t the absolute best of Pixar’s films, that is merely an issue of having set the bar so ridiculously high.

Brave’s story is perhaps more straighforward than most of their best movies. It won’t shock you with originality, then, but what is familiar is still told with a fresh vigor that is infectious. Princess Merida and Queen Elinor have the same kind of parent-child tug of war seen in Finding Nemo, grounded both in the growth and maturation of the young character and the parents’ final understanding of their childrens’ need for self-determination and growth. As I said, somewhat standard stuff, but it’s the twists, turns, and characters that carry us through the films.

In Brave, the filmmakers resisted the temptation to give us the entire plot and all the good bits in their trailers. The audience, then, actually gets to experience the movie without too much in the way of existing expectation. I would love it if other movies followed suit.

And don’t forget the animation. Pixar continues to put out the absolute highest quality animation in the industry and Brave manages to bump the bar up a few extra notches. The texture of fabrics looks more real than anything I’ve ever seen before and Princess Merida’s hair may look violently, unnaturally red, but each of the strands looks real and every bounce and shake moves as it would in the real world. The bark of trees, the toothy texture of the earth, the delicate blades of grass, and flowing water are all such amazing analogs to their real-world counterparts that it is easy to get lost in the rendered world.

Now, the Celtic world of Brave is entirely window dressing. Just the tiniest bit of flavor without the baggage of striving for authenticity. If that matters to you, you’ll find yourself disappointed; for the majority of people, it won’t even register. What will register is that the story is a fun and touching ride, the characters are people you hope will find their way, and the final act brings the kind of emotional swell that Pixar delivers better than anyone this side of Spielberg at his tear-jerking best.

I would suggest that Up is the more artistically fulfilling and that both Wall-E and Ratatouille are better realized, but Brave certainly earns a position with movies like the Toy Story films, Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. That’s pretty good company and worlds better than most of what is being shown in theaters this year.

Bottom line: if you’re a Pixar fan, you’re probably going to love this movie. If you find Pixar films either too simple or too emotionally manipulative, avoid at all costs. This isn’t the one that’s going to change your mind.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows Two Sentence Fragments Review

 

Bigger explosions, more action, less story, and less fun.

Damn.