Archive for July, 2005

March of the Penguins

Monday, July 25th, 2005

2005marchMovie review by Greg Carlson

“March of the Penguins,” a grand nature documentary one might expect to find on the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, or PBS, makes itself right at home on the big screen, due in large measure to its breathtaking, powerful images. Directed by Luc Jacquet, and originally titled “The Emperor’s March,” the movie is premised solely on the mating and reproductive cycle of emperor penguins in Antarctica. While the story strains a little too vigorously to humanize the fascinating creatures, the Herculean struggle of the birds to survive in the harshest conditions imaginable typically results in reactions ranging from wonderment to admiration.

The American version of the film, which is a few minutes shorter than the original French language edition, features a new score by Alex Wurman as well as new narration by read by Morgan Freeman. Fans of Gallic culture will want to seek out the earlier cut, as it uses actors Romane Bohringer and Charles Berling as the voices of two “romantically involved” penguins. Strange as that sounds, the technique diverges significantly from the calming, sober, and reassuring presence of Freeman. Freeman, as usual, is impeccable, but on occasion Jordan Roberts’ writing goes over the top in ascribing human emotion to the intriguing subjects of the film.

For the most part, Jacquet merely needs to witness the penguins’ fascinating rituals in order to provide the film with its central narrative. Waddling some seventy miles of glacial ice in single file in order to find a mate, the penguins immediately earn our attention and respect for their seemingly stubborn determination. It is difficult not to locate parallels between the penguins and ourselves, no matter how great the stretch. By the time the birds have produced eggs, which must be constantly protected from the bitter cold, most audience members will be caught up in the drama.

The cooperation of penguin mates in order to protect their offspring is another principal element of “March of the Penguins.” Once the females lay eggs, the parent birds perform a complicated ballet in which the delicate package is transferred from atop the feet of the mother to the feet of the father, who will warm the shell until it is ready to hatch. We are informed that the females have lost a third of their total weight in the process of producing the egg, and must return to open water in order to avoid starvation.

While the mothers are miles away filling their bellies in order to feed their progeny (a section of the movie that includes a series of jaw-dropping underwater shots of the aquatic birds effortlessly gliding after their prey), the chicks begin hatching, and the site of baby penguins proves difficult to beat in the cute department. Jacquet goes overboard with endless shots of the tiny comics learning to balance on the smooth ice, and no opportunity to musically punctuate the hilarious antics is wasted. Sophisticated viewers and ornithologists might take issue with the director’s liberal construction of continuity out of disjointed footage, but when the credits roll, and the filmmakers are shown braving the impossible, sub-zero conditions, one tends to cut them some slack.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/25/05.

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Monday, July 18th, 2005

2005charlieMovie review by Greg Carlson

According to popular lore, author Roald Dahl didn’t care much for Mel Stuart’s 1971 film version of his most famous story, so one begins to wonder what he might make of director Tim Burton’s spin on “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” had he lived to see it. A solid cult has developed around Gene Wilder’s eccentric portrayal of confectioner extraordinaire Willy Wonka, but if any current performer can rival Wilder’s blend of self-involved whimsy and bleak disdain for spoiled children, it is Johnny Depp, who clearly takes great pleasure in stretching almost all of his screen characterizations to their outer limits. As Wonka, Depp is a wonder to behold, turning “Charlie” into one of this disappointing summer’s few must-see movies.

In its original literary incarnation as well as its status as a perennial television and home video staple for several generations, the basic story is so well known it needs little recounting: decent, thoughtful, but near-destitute Charlie Bucket joins four other children for a tour of Wonka’s factory upon finding a golden ticket tucked in a chocolate bar. Charlie exhibits none of the character flaws (gluttony, ambition, greed, and petulance) embodied by his colorful companions, who are taken out Agatha Christie-style for their sins. Burton’s update, penned by his “Big Fish” collaborator John August, adds a new backstory involving Wonka’s strict dentist father.

Burton has always been in his element when depicting large-scale set pieces of exhilarating caliber, and “Charlie” provides the perfect opportunity for the filmmaker to outdo himself. Along with production designer Alex McDowell, Burton envisions a spectacular series of environments, which should satiate even the most demanding audience members. From the chocolate waterfall to the nut-sorting chamber populated by trained squirrels, the movie’s rainbow-hued imagery is quirky, intelligently assembled, and unique enough to stand apart from the earlier rendering. The same can be said for the Oompa-Loompas, all played by Deep Roy.

Roy’s various Oompa-Loompa guises offer a delightful complement to the action, and one marvels at the sheer amount of time and work the actor must have spent in the rehearsing and photographing of the amusing dance sequences. The new “Charlie” ditches the tunes from the original film in favor of Danny Elfman compositions using Dahl’s rhymes as lyrics, and each of the numbers incorporates a different pop music genre to make its point. Purists might blanch at Burton’s willingness to contemporize elements of the story (for example, Mike Teavee, not merely content to watch the boob tube, is a video game maniac obsessed with a first-person shooter). For the most part, however, the updates do not get in the way of the central story, and the new film displays an almost surprising amount of emotion when it counts.

Burton appears to be having a great deal of fun, and his enthusiasm is often transferred to the audience. Adults will enjoy the series of allusions to Kubrick, Hitchcock, Busby Berkeley, and other great filmmakers. The exterior of Wonka’s factory resembles something out of Lang’s “Metropolis,” and the Bucket dwelling, with its severe angles and gravity-defying construction, seems like it was plucked from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.” The cast, which includes Freddie Highmore, David Kelly, Helena Bonham Carter, Noah Taylor, and Christopher Lee, is expertly assembled, and even bit players with few or no lines have memorable faces. Burton and Depp will continue their successful collaboration with “Corpse Bride” this September. Given their strong track record together, fans will no doubt crave even more in the future.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/18/05.

Fantastic Four

Monday, July 11th, 2005

2004fantastic4Movie review by Greg Carlson

Given the end result, 20th Century Fox might have saved plenty of time and energy had it merely dusted off the ill-fated 1994 version of “Fantastic Four” and slipped that into theatres this week. Widely bootlegged, Oley Sassone’s low-budget disaster has kept FF fans’ hopes alive for a decade that a lavish, major studio treatment of the legendary Marvel Comics superhero team would erase the memory of a colossally inept misfire. No such luck. Tim Story’s splashy version, crammed with special effects, flops hard. The new “Fantastic Four” has the texture and vibe of a corny television series, and considering the backgrounds of its actors, it will play much better on the small screen than the large one.

Tinkering with the mythology that hardcore fans cherish as sacred text, the Mark Frost and Michael France script sends the quartet of future champions into space along with soon-to-be nemesis Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon), who has agreed to finance the mission in exchange for a wicked cut of the potential spoils. Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd), Sue Storm (Jessica Alba), Johnny Storm (Chris Evans), and Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) abort the odyssey following a cosmic tempest that blasts the space station with radiation. Upon their return to terra firma, the gang discovers that they have been blessed – or cursed – with superhuman powers.

At one end of the spectrum is the flashy Johnny, whose ability to combust into flames (and eventually fly) triggers his understanding that shouting “Flame On!” will, contrary to expectations, serve as a magnet to gorgeous young women. At the other end is Ben, whose appearance takes on the external properties of a collection of orange rocks. In one jaw-dropping demonstration of the film’s foolishness, Ben’s fiancée rejects him by placing her engagement ring on the ground immediately following an unprecedented act of heroism and self-sacrifice on his part. Apparently to some people looks really matter.

Johnny’s sister Sue turns invisible – especially when her emotions get the better of her. Reed discovers he can stretch his body like rubber, which comes in handy when he needs to reach a roll of toilet paper across the hall. Story spends so much time explaining the origins of the group members, nothing of interest is left over for the development of the narrative. Victor, whose vanity leads him to don an iron mask as Dr. Doom, is so underplayed by McMahon (in a performance that often calls to mind Kevin Spacey), the dull villain feels like an afterthought.

Arguably the only thing the movie has going for it is the devil-may-care attitude of Evans’ Human Torch. Endowed with a head full of air and insouciance to spare, Johnny provides just the tiniest bit of relief from the dreadful, thudding mechanics that lurch and sputter to keep the film moving. Story might like to think that the movie has its tongue planted in cheek, but the audience spends more time laughing at the film than with it. Alba, who has become every fanboy’s dream girl following her gyrations in “Sin City,” has yet to prove she can really carry a movie, and the dialogue in “Fantastic Four” doesn’t do her any favors. Chiklis struggles mightily against the layers of prosthetics that only serve to bury him, and Gruffudd is thoroughly forgettable as Richards. There is little doubt that the filmmakers were betting on “Fantastic Four” as a franchise, but here is hoping that we don’t see the Baxter Building for at least another ten years.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/11/05.

Howl’s Moving Castle

Monday, July 4th, 2005

2005howlsmovingMovie review by Greg Carlson

Loosely based on a popular novel by Diana Wynne Jones, “Howl’s Moving Castle” is the latest Hayao Miyazaki feature to manage a wide theatrical release in America. Not since Walt Disney’s golden age has a particular style of storytelling been so indelibly identified with a unique and beloved animation auteur. Rightly or wrongly (according to many of his fans), Miyazaki invites regular comparison to Disney, and the parallel is apt, considering the simultaneous awe and frustration aroused by both masters. “Howl’s Moving Castle” certainly ranks with Miyazaki’s finest films, and despite the often crude dubbing from Japanese to English, the movie should be enjoyed on the big screen.

Taking place in a fantasy realm that evokes aspects of Great Britain as well as other Western European locales, “Howl’s Moving Castle” presents a war-torn kingdom crippled by punishing air raids. Miyazaki’s well-known pacifism might be the movie’s most consistent theme, and the spectacle of gigantic ships raining down bombs hauntingly recalls WW II-era newsreels. Despite the hostilities, a teenage milliner named Sophie (voiced by Emily Mortimer and Jean Simmons) runs afoul of a seemingly wicked witch (Lauren Bacall), who transforms the beautiful youngster into a stooped nonagenarian. Initially seeking an end to her curse, Sophie becomes the housekeeper of Howl (Christian Bale), a vain, brooding wizard.

Howl dwells inside an incredible invention. Perched atop a set of mechanical legs that resemble the feet of a chicken, Howl’s castle is a triumph of design. Equally inviting and foreboding, the castle seems cobbled together out of scrap pieces of metal, glass, and wood. Inside, the dimensions often suggest a homespun domesticity, just as the exterior can bring to mind a cloudbank fashioned of steel and rivets. The cherry on this keep’s sundae is a color-coded dial that allows its operator the magical ability to open the door and suddenly arrive in any number of different locations.

Once Sophie takes up residence inside the ambulatory manse, her aging-curse takes a backseat to several other stories, not all of them particularly satisfying. Miyazaki’s films often bobble the ball when it comes to narrative coherence, and younger viewers (along with plenty of older ones) will have a difficult time sorting out exactly what is supposed to be important. Miyazaki’s vision, however, is so stunning, it is easy to forgive the inconsistencies that confuse the primary events as they unfold. It is a shame that more is not done with Sophie’s dilemma, considering the depth of potential commentary on the positives and negatives of growing old.

Miyazaki die-hards and purists will elect to purchase the DVD with the original Japanese soundtrack, and it is little wonder given some of the awkward voiceovers in the American version. While Bacall and Simmons are almost always right on the money, Christian Bale occasionally overdoes it (adopting tones not unlike his weird, robotic Batman voice). The biggest deficit is Billy Crystal as Calcifer, a fire demon who serves as a sort of pilot and furnace in the moving castle. Crystal shows off more than is necessary, and his spin on the character lacks a great deal of Miyazaki’s usually delicate touch. To be fair, Miyazaki did not direct the voice acting in the English language version of “Howl’s Moving Castle.” The filmmaker’s visuals, so wondrous and so fabulous, have no trouble stealing the show.

This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 7/4/05.