31 May 2009


You'll have to forgive me for this review. It will probably devolve into a string of superlatives. I would love to be able to provide a thoughtful, balanced, and grounded analysis, but I'm not sure it's possible, at least after only one viewing. But at the same time, I won't apologize for my response, since Up provided me with one of the most profoundly emotional experiences I've had at the movies in a long time.

I don't want to go into much detail, because you should see it all for yourself. You probably already know a little about the plot, and that's fine. It's a unique story, part old-fashioned adventure serial, part fairy tale. But what makes it so compelling is its central character, the elderly but spry Carl Fredericksen, voiced by Ed Asner.

The movie is artistically brilliant as well. If it's one thing that the animators at Pixar know it's cinematography. One shot in particular sticks in my mind. I won't give the context but it happens at sunset, as we see Carl and his floating house silhouetted against a backdrop of purple, orange, and red. It's a breathtaking sight.

I'm not sure what else to write about. It's incredibly enjoyable, not just for children. If you don't feel something while watching it, you're a rock. There's something so elemental about animation, especially in the hands of Pixar. The characters' performances can cut through to us in a way that live action performances can't. We don't have any preconceived ideas about the actors; we've never seen these people before. The emotions are distilled down to their pure essences, and they're very effective. At least they were for me.

Best Pictures: The Great Ziegfeld, 1936

Right from the opening titles, you know to expect big things from The Great Ziegfeld, a biopic chronicling the life and times of one of America's greatest showmen. The concept of the showmen is a curious one, and almost obsolete. But in this film you see it fully realized in the life of Ziegfeld and the lavish musical numbers mimicking those Ziegfeld actually did.

And its the musical numbers that provide the biggest thrill of the film, and they occupy most of the middle section of the film. After an hour of traditional biography material, detailing Ziegfeld's romantic entanglements and development from glorified ringmaster to true impresario, we get several huge production numbers that truly befit Ziegfeld's reputation. One particularly lavish number features a large circular stairway (pictured above) which the camera climbs, incorporating Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to great effect. It's the highlight of the film, and for good reason.

However, these numbers also cause problems for the film's structure. They are the film's centerpiece, but everything around them dulls in comparison. The work is the meat of Ziegfeld's life. His offstage dalliances are far less interesting, though William Powell makes good use of what he is given. I suppose we, in the twenty-first century, are just very used to seeing tales of men going through numerous women that we're jaded. Part of the problem, though, is that the film sanitizes and lessens these flings so as to soften the scandals.

Still, we are given a lavish biopic with a good cast to boot. Myrna Loy, though given second billing, has very little to do in her role of Ziegfeld's second wife Billie Burke. Luise Ranier is the real standout in her role of Anna Held, though her scenes are allowed to go on far too long. She's humorous, but we grow tired of her by the time we are meant to pity her. We also get some good turns from members of Ziegfeld's troupe playing themselves, namely Ray Bolger and Fanny Brice. All in all, it's a pretty standard biopic with some fabulous highlights, and for those we have Ziegfeld himself to thank.

17 May 2009

Best Pictures: Mutiny on the Bounty, 1935

Directed by Frank Lloyd, Mutiny is a surprisingly compelling film that is remarkable for its tonal shifts. The first thirty minutes imply a jaunty nautical melodrama that later showcases cruelty unexpected in a film from this period. One minute a drunken peglegged surgeon is being hoisted aboard the ship to laughter and applause. The next minute Captain Bligh (Charles Laughton) arrives only to have a corpse beaten with a cat of nine tails in front of his crew.

For most of the film, we see an ideological conflict in the form of Bligh and his first mate Fletcher Christian (Clark Gable), who wants more humane treatment for the men. One of the best features of this film is when that conflict is muddied by the harsh actions of Christian during the mutiny, leading to the climax of the film when a departing Bligh delivers a powerful condemnation to the mutineers. The moment presents us with a villain who is heroic and a heroic rebel with no real plan and debatable leadership qualities.

Unfortunately, the climax comes about 45 minutes before the end of the film. Once Bligh and Christian are separated, the main conflict is gone. Christian wanders about Tahiti with the other mutineers, bedding a native girl who gives him a daughter. Indeed, between Bligh's cruelty and Christian's dalliances, we get a picture of sovereignty and imperialism run amok. Of course, the natives in the film are more than happy to accommodate their invaders, and the native women go weak at the knees whenever a shirtless white man walks by.

The film is well constructed, with some notable editing techniques reminiscent of that other great film less than a decade prior that also dealt with mutiny on a ship. There's also some good performances, with an interesting picture of British and American acting techniques at work in the film's central conflict. Laughton, in technical terms, acts circles around Gable, but there's no matching Gable's charisma and heroic qualities. Even when his character becomes less than noble, Gable makes Christian very enjoyable to watch.

15 May 2009

Angels and Demons

Back when The Da Vinci Code came out, I decided to read the book to see what all the fuss was about. Historical lunacies aside, one thing shocked me: how badly written the book was. It was cheap and simple, and I was a little surprised (though not much) that the world could be caught up in such a mediocre piece of work. The movie wasn't much better, as most critics noted, and frankly, quite dull.

For the first hour and a half of Angels and Demons, that problem is fixed. It's not the most intelligently written plot, but it maintains a level of suspense that works. Like last time, there are still moments where Hanks's Professor Langdon rambles on about history that is interesting but inappropriately placed when the lives of popes-to-be are on the line. But despite this, I was still entertained.

Then came the last 30-45 minutes. I won't divulge any details, because it is genuinely surprising. But not in a good way. The last act presents twist after twist that would make M. Night Shyamalan proud, ranging from the improbable to the ridiculous to the unnecessary twist for the sake of being a twist.

The movie had me pondering the fate of Ewan McGregor. After Moulin Rouge came out, I was really impressed with him and wanted to see more. After the Star Wars prequels, I chalked it up to Lucas's bad writing. But Angels is just one in a long string of performances that haven't impressed me, and I'm wondering if he's just not trying or if he's just not that good. Time will tell.

14 May 2009


Utter confusion never felt so amazing.

Star Trek and Disappearing Worlds Strikes Again

I have returned, dear readers. So as usually happens, school caught up with me and I was unable to post for a couple of months there, but never fear. This summer I plan on being spectacularly productive on the moviegoing front and so I'll be back in full force. More on what that force entails a little later.

Bur first let me get the obsession du jour out of the way first. If you haven't had the chance to see Star Trek yet then go. You really can't ask for more fun at a summer movie. And I'd say it's not just a good summer movie, but a good movie period. I was more throughly entertained by its opening than I have been by any Star Trek movie I've seen in the past. And I've seen them all. But I never really liked Star Trek, mostly because I found it dull and too wrapped up in its own mythology to get down to the root of things. When watching this movie I finally felt like I was able to enjoy Star Trek, for whatever its worth, for what it was meant to be. Finally, all of the Trekiness didn't get in the way, if that makes any sense.

Many others have written mostly the same (except for Ebert's uncharacteristically nitpicky review, which, frankly, missed the point). The cast is spot on, the futuristic effects finally look, well, like something from the future, and if there was a dull moment I didn't see it. I could go on, but just take my word for it. Go see it and enjoy yourself. I promise you will.

As for my own future:

Coming to a blog near you (this one here, right here, Disappearing Worlds) this summer!

A look back at my last two months of movie watching, both at home and in theatres!

Fellini: I'm going to go back and watch all the Fellini films I own to do at least one in depth study this summer on a director. I've been wanting, for a while, to go back and do this with a number of directors and Fellini seemed like a good place to start, especially after I watched the trailer for Nine: (http://www.apple.com/trailers/weinstein/nine/).
My study will consist of: The White Sheik, I Vitelloni, La Strada, Nights of Cabiria, La Dolce Vita, 8 1/2, Juliet of the Spirits, Satyricon, Roma, and Amarcord.

I will finally finish watching all of the best picture winners (except for the notoriously unavailable Cavalcade)!

Reviews of all the movies I see this summer!

I think those are some pretty good goals. We'll see if I keep them. First up: a look back at two months of home viewing (give or take a few).