Sunday, December 28, 2014

If I Stay ★

    Structurally speaking, "If I Stay" is a mess of a picture. Its non-linear approach to the material is completely dysfunctional, and its expository flashbacks are ultimately hampered by the lack of an exhilarating climax, and by the nonexistence of a denouement, which in this film, is so direly warranted.

    Our young protagonist, Mia Hall, is involved in a severe vehicular accident, and, as a result, goes into a coma. (If you are first hearing about this synopsis, then I must tell you that it will not mar your experience.) We are told that it is up to her, whether she lives or dies, and we struggle to watch as this girl runs around a hospital (due to an outer body experience) and reminisces on a naive relationship with another adolescent.--this romance supersedes every other logical reason for her to live and irks me to the very core of my being.

    Obviously, this intention is spurred by the thought of the target audience, who flocks to the theater to see two youthful souls fall in love, in hopes that their reality will someday reflect that on-screen. (What young woman wouldn't want to be romanced by a lead singer and lose their virginity in a boat house?) Mia is a highly educated individual, who happens to be a very talented cellist, with an opportunity to attend one of the finest music programs in the country, the Juilliard school.

    The dramatic intensity of her fateful "decision" is an object of ridicule, and rightfully so. She has every reason to live, and none more so than the instinctual nature of every living mammal on Earth. (It is not only our nature to live, but to live in happiness.) Doubt is cast here and there, as our central character and her lover quibble over the most trivial of issues, which only results in a strain being placed on our young and talented actors. Character irony is forced, considering our principal male lives his life "in the moment," yet he must get a long term commitment from Mia, which leads to another complication. Without a plausible story, all inspiration is lost.

    This is not to mention the fact that Mia's persona can never fully reach a plane of conceivability. Find me a seventeen-year-old girl who listens to Yo-Yo Ma and Franz Schubert, and I will renounce my conviction. (It is quite likely that you will never find this individual, or someone who has even heard of these musicians.)

    "If I Stay" is a prime example of a well-crafted film, whose script never adds up. The cinematography is surprisingly impressive, and easily satisfies all three goals of cinematic composition. Depth is created quite eloquently through reflection, and foreground framing is utilized beautifully while capturing a young Mia through the window frame of a door, as she practices her cello. The most exquisite sequence, however, consists of Mia's Juilliard audition, as the camera vigorously encapsulates the passion of her hands and movement of her fingers.

    There is a scene that takes place late in the film, in which Mia has lost all hope and crumbles to the floor with an exclamation of, "I want this to be over!" This delivery is rather figurative, as I believe the actress holds the same attitude with regard to her performance. She is not alone, however, as I held the sentiment as well.

    *On a side note, it would seem as if the twenty-first century, along with all of the unnecessary technological "improvements," have found a home in cinema. Terms such as Google Alert and Skype, are utilized fruitlessly, and applications such as Instagram are now used to provide objects of remembrance and reflection. We have come so far in filmmaking, and yet, it is evident that these instruments will only set us back. As one humble man so graciously put it: "What can you do?"  


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Over the Top ★★

    If arm-wrestling was actually a sporting event and held on stages that bear a resemblance to that of "Who Wants To Be a Millionaire," then it would take a lot for me to be interested. Wrestling, and, if you included the only other public display in which half unclothed men hit each other--boxing--are in themselves an acquired taste. That's the issue with "Over the Top," (a phrase that also has a technical meaning in the art of slamming one man's arm down with your own) along with the fact that Sylvester Stallone, with numerous masterpieces on his résumé by this point in his career, gives us two reasons not to be involved with this film. They consist of:

    A bland script, which attempts to coax us into the theme that powered the likes of "Rocky," (being the struggle for human dignity) that fails miserably.

    An uninspired performance, which can best be summarized by the emotionless face of Stallone, as he reaches into the depths of his talents and conjures nothing but detachment.

    The rather rudimentary plot, which centers on our protagonist and his son, requires a sense of warmth and naturalness that Stallone cannot provide. Reaction shots obviously suffer from this lack of understanding, and emotional restraint seems to be furiously oppressive. (Most films do not exercise enough, while "Over the Top" does not even strive to produce a look of empathy or happiness on Stallone's face.) If there is even a hint of internal conflict that our character is dealing with, it never becomes believable.

    Stallone is Lincoln Hawk (an example of a very intriguing use of name typing), a man who drives big rigs and participates in underground arm-wrestling circuits at local trucker stops. Sounds like fun, right? Hawk's young son, Michael, who has just finished juvenile military school, is thrown into his company, as his mother (and Hawk's ex-wife) falls ill.

    This sets up for several instances of compassion that are lost in translation, and a championship arm-wrestling match, that not only serves as the climax, but as the sole happening that will allow Hawk to regain his dignity, and earn admiration from his son. They attempt to bond through actions, such as: Hawk teaching his son to drive an eighteen wheeler, and morning workouts that require the assistance of the front of the automobile; all of which are accompanied by a soundtrack that captures the soul of the 1980s music industry.

    The problem with this chief character is three-fold. Firstly, there is no emotional involvement, which never gives the audience a reason to care. Secondly, a poor performance only adds to the sentimental void. Lastly, and most importantly, the story makes little sense. Hawk never had a reason to leave his family in the first place, and when posed with this particular question, we don't receive any valid explanation, just a few low-toned mumblings, and broad assertions.  

    Although essentially a plot driven film at its core, there were a few images that remained with me after the viewing. Long range shots, featuring the backdrop of the southwestern United States, and the slow motion director's interpretative points of view, which captures three hundred pound men in moments of physical strain, while doused in sweat. (The ladder being quite unpleasant, and the former being the only aesthetically pleasing images in the picture.)

    There is an old adage that claims: One cannot just involve an audience with a sunset or any other image of attractiveness, but only people. For, it is the forefront human quality of the medium, and one that allows the spectator to relate to a figure on-screen. However, in this specific circumstance, it would seem this conviction is flawed. I'll take a picturesque landscape over an inexpressive product any day.  

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Santa Clause ★★★1/2

   "The Santa Clause" is a joyous picture that captures the indefinable magic of Christmas time, along with the humor of one of the world's most regarded comedians in Tim Allen. It pits a middle-class working father in a lovable quandary, brought about by a twist of fate, and sends him on a heartwarming journey that is sure to bring happiness to children and adults, alike.

    Certainly a risible concept at times, the idea of Santa Claus, and the underlining belief that surrounds his existence, is the lifeblood of this film, much like every other motion picture that attempts to express the intricacies of the holiday season. In a way, an individual's faith in Father Christmas is an exemplary real-life illustration of dramatic irony and how it functions.

    We are quite aware that Mr. Kringle does not exist, yet we play along so that our children and youth can revel in the joy of adolescent imagination. This identical blueprint is employed within the structure of this film, except, instead of the fact that Santa does not exist, he does, and we keep this close to our heart as other characters lash out in naivety. There is even a strong sense of sorrow stemming from this complication, as Scott Calvin, our protagonist and resident Saint Nick, is hard-pressed because of his secret identity.

    Tim Allen, whose made a career off of his brand of comedy (capitalized by the popularity of his sitcom, entitled "Home Improvement"), continues to express his inner material, as this becomes the perfect role for the personality actor. His everyday humor and sarcasm fuel the first half of the picture, along with his witticisms, in which he ultimately harasses the personality of his former wive's new beau. In spite of this, Allen must step out of his comfort zone, once the red suit becomes his finest attire.

    This is a critical aspect of the performance, and Allen excels in the transition. Much of his success can also be attributed to the fine work of one particular magician on set, that being the make-up artist, whose quality craftsmanship is reflected in the red cheeks and glorious white beard of the iconic persona at hand.

    As the hustle and bustle consume millions of individuals through this time of year, there are some films that strive to remind us of the magic, behind the myth, of our beloved Père No?l. Let's face it, without Santa Claus, the Christmas season would not be as enjoyable, even if his presence is only a minuscule portion as to why this time is so valuable.

    We have all believed in the allure at some point in our lives, and if you have not, then it is quite likely you will never read this review. "The Santa Clause" is a film that will help you to reminisce on those excitable Christmas Eves, when the thought of your favorite toy being under the tree, whether it be a Barbie doll or Oscar Meyer weenie whistle, warmed you to the soul. And what a feeling it was.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Wizard of Oz ★★★★

    There are some films that stand the test of time, simply because their imagination transcends it. The young at heart dedication that boldly dominates the opening of "The Wizard of Oz," is a genuine testament for that notion. Sure, you may find solace within the sublime, and rather aesthetically blissful, environment of Oz, even without the steady requirement of that faculty of the mind; however, it is just as likely that it will pass you by, much like adolescence fades into adulthood, without a quiver of warning.

    And that is what makes "The Wizard of Oz" so puissant. The artistic semblance of truth, the mainspring of any fantasy picture, never wavers in its aim to stifle the constraints of reality and indulge in the fabrications of creative power. A color palette of bright reds, seemingly fluorescent yellows, and rich greens, all convey the same message, and that is one of exaltation. Poppy fields of vibrant scarlet, the splendid ambiance of Emerald City and the Munchkin village, as well as the creation of such beasts, from talking apple trees to flying monkey henchmen, all give rise to the conviction that production design should never be undervalued.

    Of course, however, the euphoric feeling evoked by such designs would lose all validity, if not for the personas to match, and what a wonderful blend of disposition it is. A tin man whose only desire is to love, a scarecrow who pines for intellectual thought, and a lion whose fear of almost anything supersedes his ambition to become an illustrious display of courage.

    The character irony that fuels these individuals are quite amusing, yet it also reminded me of a Plato dialogue, in which the virtues in the discussion are actually possessed by Socrates, the central initiator of the analysis. It is clear that our beloved characters have the attributes they fancy, and that is what makes them so pleasurable and inspiring to watch.

    All of which brings us to Dorothy, a young girl whose position in the world, both temporally and geographically, inflames her aspiration to see lands of beauty and liveliness. A thought that is best illustrated by her iconic singing of "Over the Rainbow," and something, that in today's existence, would seem impractical, considering all of the technological devices that enshroud our youth.

    We can ascertain that Dorothy is naive, imaginative, and "young" at heart, all of which are reflected by the setting of Oz. Above all, it would seem that she is the epitome of guiltlessness, so imposed by the symbolism of the ruby slippers, whose presence lends significance to the structure of the film as a whole.

    The role of Dorothy, although simplistic in technique, cannot be understated. Judy Garland, a true symbol of early Hollywood glamor, succeeds in every aspect of her performance. With eyes as big as grapefruits and a heart of gold, Garland warms our heart with every note in which she sings, and every spoken line that would warrant empathy. Without her exuberance, the picture would be as dreary and unadorned as the bland imagery of Kansas, in which we are direly intending to escape.

    Although the cinematic composition is relatively adequate, there are some scenes that could have been enhanced by a subtle change in camera movement and positioning. If there was ever a shot that would justify the use of a panoramic, three hundred and sixty-degree rotation, it would be once that wearisome door is opened into a world of splendor. Instead, we are left with a sideline, and quite unflattering, ninety-degree panning, which could never capture the wonderment of the experience.

    Furthermore, a similar miscalculation can be attributed to the moment in which our lovable cast of characters stroll down the unnerving hall that leads to the societally proclaimed omniscient wizard. Our emotional distance would seem detached, which is unfortunate, considering the suspense that surrounds the circumstance at hand. A simple utilization of the indirect-subjective viewpoint would have succeeded immensely here, in limiting the emotional objectivity.

    It is certainly true that these criticisms would seem negligible, in a sense, but it is exceedingly important to compose each scene as if it were a stand-alone masterpiece. Needless to say, this would not seem relevant in today's film industry, but for the golden age of cinema, it is quite pertinent. In fact, there is a scene in which the objective point of view, along with the in-depth movement of Dorothy and friends, becomes most vindicated, and that is the final stretch to the Emerald City. A quintessential shot that captures the vitality of our story, and the potential of the motion picture industry at this time.

    "The Wizard of Oz" is a gem of a picture, and ultimately, startling evidence as to how far the film medium could reach. Although it certainly is not the first Technicolor film to be made (a subject that will produce several disparate "firsts"), it is undoubtedly the most splendid. The cinematic concern, which may have been fulfilled unintentionally, is arguably that of texture. An indescribable orgy of the senses. To be able to enjoy this experience after so many years, is truly a blessing. It is a bold reminder of how far we have come, in regard to the art of cinema, and how much we have lost. If only we could return to simpler times.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Penguins of Madagascar ★★★

    In what seems to be an irresistible business opportunity and a rather favored formula for most production companies, Dreamworks has taken a few of its most well-liked characters and inevitably given them a spin-off motion picture. "Penguins of Madagascar," is simply a ninety-minute extension of the children's animated television show of the same name. Does this guarantee success? Not hardly, however, "Penguins" does cash in on the indelicate humor that fuels most of its films, and most of which would never be heard in the confines of a Disney picture.

    As far as whether or not the jocularity present in this particular depiction of our beloved James Bond-esque protagonists is on par with that of the animated series, I would not know, although I suspect it is homogeneous in nature. The story line is mostly pedestrian, and consists mainly of a sole villain (in this instance a purple octopus), whose actions stem from the hatred for these flightless birds, and an inner ambition to rule the world.

    We are introduced to our stumpy heroes, through a brief origin tale, which plays on several aspects of real life. Camera crews document the young birds, as they make their march, and while one of the younglings, Skipper, boldly rejects nature in order to save a runaway egg. Naturally, two more penguins--Rico and Kowalski--follow along, and once the hatchling is rescued, the foursome becomes the renowned group every child has come to love.

    After being ushered into the present day, the penguins become the focus of a revenge inspired plot, which will test each individual's role on the team. Serving as foil, is a team of polar residing animals (aptly named the North Wind), who unlike the penguins, come equipped with high-tech gadgetry, and three-dimensional schematics that would make even the most sophisticated hero envious.

    This all leads to a mundane climax, in which one of the penguins must prove his worth to the group. (For those of you who love Private, this film shall prove more riveting to you than most.) After all, the targeted audience is indeed that of children, and to hope for an imaginative story would be nothing short of futile.

    Humor is obviously the staple of this franchise, and with that regard, "Penguins" delivers. Whether it be the presence of a cricket (whose chirping subtly implies an awkward moment, and who then proceeds to get up and walk out of the room), or the lack of the technological knowledge of the antagonist (as he attempts to deliver a video message), it would seem that the amusement is sufficient for obtaining a chuckle or two.

    What distinguishes these heroes is their carefree attitude, and their inept preparation for missions, which ultimately leads to situational comedy. If the virtue of courage can be attributed to any perilous circumstance, in which the participant has no expertise, then these mammals certainly fit the bill.

    As I was leaving the theater, it came to my attention that animated pictures seem to no longer be as recurrent as past years, both in quality and quantity. The Academy Awards for this category has become quite a predictable event, as Disney seems to always demolish the competition. I would expect this year to be no different. No matter the outcome, however, the yearning for something even remotely comparable to the golden age of animation seems unfeasible. I guess stagnancy has finally superseded innovation.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Lucas ★★★★

    The days of adolescence are a confusing time to say the least, but for the majority of us they are the greatest period in what seems to be a short, and at times, even desultory existence. Several art forms can successfully capture the spirit of this voyage (most notably the art of painting), but none more significant than film. For, as an exquisite painting can arouse some sentiment from its "still" framework, a motion picture can provide so much more. It will not only coax us into believing the events at hand, but it can create an emotional channel into the heart of our individual, personal experiences, which cannot be taken lightly.

    If there was ever a decade in cinema history where themes concerning the loss of innocence or the coming of age were prevalent, it would most certainly be the 1980s. Films such as "The Breakfast Club" and "Sweet Sixteen" divulged into certain teenage angst, most of which came in the form of differences between particular social groupings and the emotional state of young girls finding their way into womanhood. However, the picture in discussion, "Lucas," is infrequent in the fact that it follows the daily life of a sole male, as he attempts to survive not only the tension among social cliques, but constraints such as naive love and feelings of disdain.

    Lucas' personality is expressed through numerous characterization techniques, including the design of his look, dialogue, and external action. By way of these approaches, we know that he is geeky and rather homely in appearance, open minded and anti-materialistic--and above all--that he is a pariah. Even the captain of the football team (nicknamed Cappie) deems him a "great kid." So, why is he teased endlessly and viewed as if he was fresh off the holdings of an alien spacecraft? Well, I guess it is because he is dissimilar to the masses, although it is never implicitly stated, and that's the beauty of the high school.

    Reproducing the ambiance that this environment consists of is very difficult, yet pleasantly introduced in this instance. The utilization of rough film stock gives the picture a grainy texture as if cosmetic refinements were subdued in order to capture the moment in its natural state. Cinematic points of view are perfectly executed: from the subjective focus of Lucas' crush, Maggie, through a crowd of students at a pep rally, to the indirect-subjective panning of teenage girl, to teenage boy, in a chorus scene, as each individual glances at his or her "crush." (The latter being the quintessential capturing of sexual curiosity, at a time when it is new and mysterious.)

Image result for Lucas 1986 Haim film stills

    Additionally, the usage of natural lighting only adds to its authenticity, as the red glow of a local pizza joint becomes the reflection of a young couple's physical attraction, and while the low-key lighting, provided by a small tree, sets the mood for a confrontation between Lucas and the apple of his eye.

    Of all the methods present in the structure of "Lucas," however, the symbolism is undoubtedly the most subtle, and memorable. Of course, there is the first meeting between our protagonist and Maggie, as "Waltz of the Flowers," systematically blends with images of this young woman, as she goes through her tennis routine. The presence of the cicada, or locust if you will, and the emphasis placed on this fragile creature, also warrants some interpretation.

    Although the cicada has come to symbolize insouciance, in its most basic elucidation, this meaning is not relevant here. However one designates its significance is highly subjective, although it is my conviction that the cicada is a representation of Lucas, himself. His position in nature, his delicate physical attributes, and his inner appeal, all align with this eloquent contrast.

    Looking back, it is quite evident that the casting of Corey Haim, in the lead role, was nothing short of brilliant. Haim, an actor who lived through a turbulent career (and an even more turbulent personal life), contains the perfect amount of charm and awkwardness to pull off this performance. His mannerisms and rhythm of speech are truly a spectacle to behold. It would seem as if Haim were born to play this character, and that his best work would come before his face was plastered over the front page of every teeny magazine, this side of the Mississippi.   

    What makes this film unique, structurally speaking, is the irony of the seemingly static and dynamic characters. (The latter being affected deeply by the conflict.) Lucas is never really dependent on the outcome of his adolescent journey and never changes throughout the duration of the action. Yet, it is the surrounding characters, ones who would not normally be attributed to deep change (in regard to their demeanor or attitudes), who do find some guiding light from the resolution. "Lucas" is a picture that finds its way, much like the central character finds himself. It is unorthodox at times, but never relenting in tenderheartedness.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Big Hero 6 ★★★

Image result for Big Hero 6 film stills

    Although Disney has essentially become a shadow of its former self (if compared to their glorious golden age or even the elation brought to us by the renaissance years), its newest picture, "Big Hero 6," attempts to evoke that same sense of euphoria and excitementyou know, the kind that makes children rush to the nearest toy store and adults exude the exasperation aligned with taking their young child to see a PG rated film. Lovable characters, a compelling storyline, along with adolescent humor, are all elements needed to produce a quality animated film, and "Big Hero 6" surely delivers on these notes.

    However, as we find ourselves in the midst of an origin tale for the latest superhero group, there are several shortcomings that arise. Our so-called "villain" is nothing more than a flat and rather one-dimensional persona (granted most are), whose only motivating force for action is to align with the thematic intentions of the film, which I will chew over shortly. Yet, the most notable deficiency stems from the environment in which our heroes reside.

    If the seemingly futuristic city of San Fransokyo, a poor amalgam of the real life cities of San Francisco and Tokyo, as well as the name of our central protagonist, Hiro, is not satisfyingly enough indication as to the subculture in which Disney is blatantly trying to advertise, then I'm not sure what is. The allure of the Japanese "anime" subculture is one of spiked hair, large and charming facial features, and imaginative writing, all of which "Big Hero 6" possesses, and yet, it can never quite convince us of the atmosphere in which it aims to capitalize on.

    As if taking a page from the innards of a Spider-Man comic book, Hiro is a young boy (who I'm guessing is of American-Japanese ethnicity) whose parents were lost in a tragic accident and who is now under the care of the stereotypically unhinged and carefree aunt. Ironically, Hiro's intelligence supersedes the image he imposes, which is one of a small and immature teenager. (This is introduced to us via a comically inclined expository scene.)

    Naturally, there is loss, followed by comfort, and the deceitfulness of a malefactor who is ultimately not what they seem to be. This all leads to the creation of a team of heroes whose individual ineptness summarizes the quirkiness of their character. There's the obsessive compulsive and danger fearing male, the intelligent and eccentric blonde, the strong feminist type, and the long-haired hippie geek.

    And, of course, who could forget Baymax. Arguably the mainspring of the entire picture, Baymax is a plump, robotic health provider who seems to be as much trouble as his worth. Along with this physically obtrusive figure comes situational humor as he struggles to get through tight spaces and as his frail exterior warrants somewhat humorous repairs. In essence, the film is filled with jests that will only be enjoyed by youthful children and none of which made me crack a smile.

    It is quite clear where the concern of this film lies: in the realm of moral implication. The lesson of dealing with individual loss, and the raw emotions that accompany such events, is spelled out in obvious manners such as characters simply stating that "this is a revenge story" and other subtle ways, such as single shot motifs that warrant feelings of abandonment and remembrance. It is a very important instruction, no matter the age, and one in which Disney would imply that revenge is only hurtful to the situation.

    Nevertheless, it would seem as if this picture had been done before, and it most certainly has, just not in this particular style. The presence of Stan Lee in yet another on-screen cameo, albeit in animated form this time around, is a playful reminder of that fact. If anything, however, it is the ability to be able to relate to Hiro that should nominate success. In that regard, it succeeds substantially.

    "Frozen" and "Big Hero 6," the last two films bestowed upon us by Disney's animated studios, have ignited a firestorm of acclaim, and they are cherished by both audiences and critics alike. Have we all forgotten the heartwarming tales of "Bambi" and "Pinocchio?" Have we lost the admiration for pictures such as "Beauty and the Beast" and "The Lion King?" It is as if our lives are devoid of all contentment and anything Disney fabricates brings a joyous celebration. I'll reserve my childish glee, I think, until hand-drawn animation becomes something more than just a forgotten art.