Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit

I was interested in seeing this latest film by Nick Park, because I love the 3 short Wallace & Gromit films, and also liked Chicken Run. I had two questions in particular - how would the story hold out over the length of a feature film, and would the inevitably higher production values detract from the charm of the shorts.

It's interesting with animated or special-effects intensive films, especially if they are very innovative, that in the end they are still movies. And sometimes the effects can distract the viewer from enjoying the story, especially for a longer film. It happened with films like Final Fantasy, or perhaps Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. But it doesn't seem to interfere with films like Shrek, or The Matrix. So it's nice to see the claymation of Wallace & Gromit holding up well over the whole movie, as it did in Chicken Run. Although I thought that the characters of Victor Quartermaine and Lady Tottington looked rather bizarre.

But I did feel that the higher production values did not benefit the film. One of the things I really liked about the short films was their campiness, and the feeling that Nick Park was making the films in his basement or something. Also, the smaller casts in the short films help keep the focus on the stars, Wallace and Gromit. It felt like there were a ton of characters in this movie.

Still, I shouldn't be too critical. This is an enjoyable film and another testament to the genius of Nick Park.

Wednesday, June 7, 2006

First Blood

"They drew first blood." Ah, Rambo - the epitome of the testosterone-laden American action hero, in the tradition of Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Dam, and Stephen Seagall. Or is he? Before he became Rambo: American Super-Soldier, he was the Rambo of First Blood - Rambo the anti-hero.

The story is rather familiar now. Vietnam vet John Rambo has been finding it difficult to assimilate back into normal society. He still has flashbacks and emotional scars from the war, and seeks out the last member of his troop, only to find him recently dead from cancer caused by Agent Orange. Wandering into a small town, Rambo is harassed and mistrusted by the people he once fought to protect, and he finally snaps. The movie than morphs into a guerilla war between a single man and local, state, and national guard troops led by a bloodthirsty captain (Brian Dennehy). The first part of this occurs in the forest near the town and is the best part of the movie, as we see Rambo in full survival mode. It is all quite one-sided, of course, and ends with Rambo trashing the town. It's not exactly Shakespeare, but it is gritty, edgy, and well-made. And it deals with the alienation of the Vietnam veterans, which the country was still working through in 1982 when the movie was made. A country realizing that there are greater costs to war than simple body counts.

Isn't it funny, though, how as soon as a movie and a character become popular, it inevitably spawns several sequels. But now the two-dimensional character, who we both admire and despise, suddenly becomes this totally likable guy - the hero, our champion. It happened with Rambo in Rambo II and Rambo III (which admittedly I don't remember). It happened with the Terminator, where Arnold reappears and suddenly he's the good guy! And it happens alot in television - for example Beverly Hills 90210, Friends, etc. In the first year, each of the characters has some good things and bad things about them, some edginess that keeps us from totally liking them, but which also makes them very interesting as people. But by the 3rd or 4th season they're all so popular that they have to be watered down so as not to be offensive. Then the shows have to bring in secondary character to provide the conflicts. It's amazing how often this happens. Anything to keep the audiences coming, I guess.

Sunday, June 4, 2006


Like I would really say anything negative about a movie starring Alicia Silverstone as a hottie LA school girl? AS IF!!!!! Director Amy Heckerling seems to specialize in moderately successfull teen-targeted comedies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Look Who's Talking, and A Night at the Roxbury (producer). But I actually really liked this movie. It's a loose adaptation of the novel Emma, and I love it when they attempt stuff like that. The movie stays reasonably true to the plotlines of Emma, while modernizing the setting (and in the process totally skewering spoiled Beverly Hills teenagers). Well done! I thought it was interesting that the individual plot elements are shot very short. In fact the whole story feels contracted, but I guess this is in line with its MTV-watching demographic. Alicia Silverstone is very good in this movie. She is actually quite expressive - I'm surprised she has not gotten any real substantial roles. And no, Batgirl doesn't count. Do they really think the limit of her ability is acting alongside Brendan Frasier in the mostly forgettable Blast From the Past? What-ever!

Saturday, June 3, 2006

The Barefoot Contessa

The title sounds familiar, but I had never heard of this film by Joseph L. Mankiewicz (of All About Eve fame) and starring Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. Probably because it is not a very good movie. It's strange how you can have great stars and a reputable director, and still come up with an average movie. But there is nothing wrong with that - some things work and some things don't. The movie is a about a Spanish dancer Maria Vargas, who is 'discovered' in Madrid and goes on to be a top box-office star in Hollywood. Fame and admiration come easily to her, but in the end she is unable to find what her soul is missing - love. Different parts of her life are narrated by three of the men in her life, Humphrey Bogart her director, Edmund O'Brien (in an Oscar-winning role) as her producer, and Rossano Brazzi as her husband. And perhaps it is this vehicle that prevents us from really getting into the movie. Perhaps this jumping between different perspectives keeps us aware that we are outsiders to the story, rather than inside the story. I'm not sure. It's not a bad movie, just not a great one. And it's long - 140 minutes! Interestingly, this is the first movie I've seen starring Ava Gardner. She is radiant in this movie - with her pale complexion, dark hair, and 'unattainable' feel, she reminds me of Monica Bellucci.

Friday, June 2, 2006

Lost Horizon

James Hilton's classic, Lost Horizon, is an extremely thought-provoking novel. In surprisingly short fashion, it tells the story of four travellers - two English diplomats, Conway and Mallinson, an American capitalist Barnard, and an English missionary Miss Brinklow - as they are led stray to a Tibetan monastery, the legendary utopian society of Shangri-La. As he spins the tale, Hilton raises several profound questions. What is utopia, and for that matter, what is the wisdom that allows us to attain it?

I believe Hilton's conjecture is that utopia comes from taking all things in moderation, and that wisdom is obtained by a reduction, or perhaps I should say 're-scaling' of human passions so that even the subtle joys of life are satisfying. But I also believe he is saying that wisdom comes from a better understanding and appreciation of time. He makes a comment that the Americans and British are always rushing around trying to get things done, and I believe it is true that modern society prioritizes activity, with the end result of sacrificing happiness without a commensurate increase in productivity. But these points are debatable of course, and largely depend on who you are. There are many people who prefer a secure, calm life, and yet many who prefer the extremes of passion. Hilton shows this brilliantly in the contrast between the older Conway, who has already seen his share of things in the world, and the young, impatient Mallinson who still has the rest of his life ahead of him.

(Warning: there are some spoilers coming up, so stop reading if you intend to read the book!)

The question that really got me thinking however is this: why does Conway leave Shangri-La, when it seems he had found there exactly what he was looking for? I understand that Mallinson caused him to doubt that what he had seen and heard was actually real. And this doubt is certainly understandable, because the utopia of Shangri-La is a utopia of the mind, not of the body, so how can it be proven? But the question is, does it really matter if something is not real, if it satisfies something real in your heart? It is this question of accepting deception if the benefits outweigh reality that is the heart of movies like The Matrix, and Open Your Eyes (Vanilla Sky). It also occurs in religion, where you believe in something which you may never be able to really prove, but the belief makes you a better person. And also in unrequited love - if you love someone who does not love you back, is it still love?

But I think what really pushed Conway over the edge, so to speak, was when Mallinson convinced one of the monks to leave. I mean, if the place truly is utopia, why would anyone want to leave it? But I wonder if people also have a hard time accepting paradise. I believe there is a distrust or dissatisfaction with happiness that is innate to the human spirit - it may be one of our greatest strengths, but at the same time can be the cause of great sadness.