Noah

Noah posterEveryone seems to have an opinion about Noah. Some say it’s a fresh and creative, yet appropriate, adaptation of the celebrated story.  Others say it borders on blasphemy. Having seen the film, I can say that one thing it is definitely not is blasphemous.

Which is good, I suppose. But just because a movie isn’t blasphemous doesn’t mean that it’s good. The sad thing is, this movie showed so much potential. You can tell that Director Darren Aronofsky and writer Ari Handel studied their Bibles while writing the script. There is an abundance of creative interpretations, such as rock monsters as the Nephalim and ice age animals boarding the ark, beautiful images, such as stars visible in the daytime sky (which may have been a reality in the pre-flood atmosphere), and some truly touching subplots. The best of these is the one in which Noah’s family rescues a girl named Ila from a massacre and raises her as their own. Years later, Ila (Emma Watson) and Shem (Douglas Booth), Noah’s eldest son, are in love. However, due to a sword wound, Ila can’t have children.  As the ark is being built, she wrestles with her inability to repopulate the earth at this crucial time, and wonders why she has a place on the ark. There is a beautiful scene in which Noah (Russell Crow) comforts her, and the crowning moment comes when Noah’s grandfather, Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins) “blesses” her and takes away her sterility, after which she runs into Shem’s arms.

Film Bible Blockbusters

“You’re dressed strangely. Are you one of the watchers?”

There are a few problems early on. For instance, Noah gets the idea that the purpose of the ark is to save the animals because “they still live as they did in the garden,” despite the fact that animals routinely tear each other limb from limb. The movie pushes the idea that Noah and his family are vegetarians, and that that is part of their righteousness, yet Noah thinks nothing of hacking down human beings at several points in the movie. It’s very unlikely that the real Noah was a vegetarian, given that God told him to bring extra animals onto the ark for food, (Gen. 7:2) and that Abel had been sacrificing animals to God nine generations earlier. (Gen. 4:4, 5) But that’s okay. I can forgive some Ferngully-esque nonsense for an otherwise good movie.

Most of the way through, I was enjoying this movie, problems notwithstanding. My hopes reached their highest about midway, when Noah ventures into a camp where Tubal-Cain, the villain, is building an army, hoping to find wives for Ham (Logan Lerman) and Japheth (Leo Carroll). There he sees the extent of human depravity, witnessing infanticide, cannibalism, rape, child slavery, and *gasp!* meat-eating.  Aronofsky and Handel had opened the movie with a visual retelling of man’s fall into sin, and were even brave enough to use the word “sin” as the explanation of what’s wrong with our world. I was impressed. Now I saw this graphic depiction of sin’s effects (It’s amazing this movie didn’t get an R rating). Noah is watching a man commit a sin, and suddenly, the man’s face becomes his own. This is immediately followed by a vision of the snake in the garden. “Wow,” I thought. “Are they really going to go there? Are they really going to point to the Gospel with this movie?”

Noah snakes

Indiana Jones would not have lasted on the ark. Those aren’t tree trunks.

After all, the flood narrative is one of the four pivotal stories in the Bible, the first being the story of how man disobeyed God and brought suffering into a perfect world. The second is the flood story, in which God destroyed all of humanity except one righteous family in order to start the world over. And it worked, for awhile. But as we saw in the above scene, sin is inborn in every human being, and it soon resurfaced. This lead to the third pivotal story, in which God selected a nation, Israel, for himself, and gave them the Law, instructing them on how to live like righteous people. And it worked, for awhile. But the Law is powerless to bring life or renewal; it can only bring death. Sinful Man cannot keep it. Thus, there was a need for the fourth pivotal story, the Gospel. Because we could not keep the law, it was necessary for God to become a man two thousand years ago, and to live a perfect life, keeping the Law for us, pay the penalty we could not pay, dying a death more horrible that you or I can really imagine, and conquer death, rising from the grave. It is by this that “a multitude no one can count” (Rev. 7:9, 10) will be restored to their pre-fall glory, and that there will be a new heaven and a new earth.

But that’s all pretty heavy for a Hollywood movie.

Noah returns to his family, still working on the ark, and callously reports “There will be no wives!” and orders his family to get back to work. Noah tells Naameh, his wife (Jennifer Connelly) that evil is present in all of them, sympathetic and unsympathetic characters alike. As proof of this, he asks her “is there anything you would not do for your sons, good or bad? We would both choose to kill for our sons.” Of course, Noah has previously thought little of killing men for less than his sons, so I’m not sure why it’s such a shocking revelation to him now. We eventually learn that Noah has concluded humanity must be snuffed out so that the animals will be left in peace, but we’ll get to that later.

Methusela

Anthony Hopkins does well as tender patriarch Methusela, but there’s still something creepy about hearing Hannibal Lecter’s voice say to children “come closer.”

Ham, who looks to be about 14, cannot except this and runs toward the camp to find himself a wife. He eventually stumbles into a ditch full of bodies, where he finds a girl about his age named Na’el (Madison Davenport), who is terrified of him and swings a rock at him to drive him off. Given Ham’s age, and the urgency of the situation, I half expected to see him physically overpower her, then drag her by her hair back to the ark. However, we are treated to a couple of surprisingly moving scenes, in which Ham feeds Na’el and comforts her in the ditch, as she refuses to leave her dead family. Only when the rain begins to fall does he insist she come with him. The two of them run through the woods to the ark, not far ahead of Tubal-Cain’s advancing army. Na’el becomes caught in a leg trap set for an animal. Ham can’t pry it open, but he refuses to leave her. Until Noah shows up. Our hero pries the two screaming children apart and drags Ham away. We then get a cringe-inducing shot of Na’el reaching after them, before she is trampled to death by the army.

Watching this movie is a bit like watching The Passion of the Christ, or a Michael Bay movie, in that you get the sense that you are being punished for something, but you don’t know what. It’s like every moment is calculated to stick a knife in you and twist it, and the bombardment of violence, misery and heartbreak begins to feel like clubs hitting your head from all directions, and you want to shout “Make it stop! Whatever I did, I’m sorry!”

Noah and Ham reach the ark, and there is a pretty awesome battle scene between Tubal-Cain’s army and the rock giants, after which, the world gets swamped and Noah’s family hunkers in the ark. This is the point where the movie plunges irretrievably downhill. Noah, still believing Ila to be sterile, explains to everyone that they will be the last people to live on the earth; there will be no reproduction. That way humans will not “ruin the garden” again. A few days later, Ila becomes pregnant. For some reason, she, Shem and Naameh are stupid enough not only to tell Noah, but tell him immediately, when he’s obviously working through some issues. Noah throws a tantrum, pleads with God (it’s unclear if he gets a response) and finally announces that if Ila’s baby is a girl (who could mature into a mother), she will be cut down at the moment of her birth. The last act of this film is absolute agony to sit through, as it follows nine months of screaming and yelling about this in the confines of the ark. I will say one thing for this movie, the cast does a fantastic job with what they have to work with. You have to wonder what they must have been thinking, belting out the lines of such a contrived and sadistic script. There are no words to describe how bad it all is. I spent the last act asking “Why, Aronofsky, why this?” First, there’s no support for it in Scripture. God expressly told Noah to build the ark to insure that earth would be repopulated with men as well as animals, and after the flood, explicitly gave men permission to eat animals (if he hadn’t already). (Gen. 9:1-3)

s-NOAHS-ARK-large300

Darren Aronofsky is coming! All who wish to avoid embarrassment, into the ark!

Second, even if you ignore Scripture, it makes no sense. Why would Noah leap so quickly to such an extreme conclusion? There’s nothing in the film to suggest God has told him man must die out. And even if he does kill Ila’s baby, what’s to stop Ila and Shem from running away after the flood and having more babies? They’ve got the whole globe to choose from. And if Naameh wants her other sons to have children badly enough (and she clearly does), she may well copulate with them herself. Don’t look at me like that, it’s been done. Desperate times call for creepy measures. To accomplish his ends, Noah would have to kill everybody.

Third, it’s not as if this movie doesn’t shove enough horror and suffering in our faces (as it must). There is another side to the flood story. And it was taking shape in the first act. Noah’s relationship with his sons. Methusela’s tenderness with his great-grandchildren. Naameh’s adoptive care of Ila. Amid the wickedness of the world, this movie started with a beautiful depiction of familial and adoptive love. And that was exactly what God was trying to save when he told Noah to build the ark. (Gen. 7:1) God knew better than Noah that Man was inherently sinful. (Gen. 8:21) He was still giving Man a chance to start over.

But the touching story from the first act is out the window now. Ila gives birth to twin baby girls. Naameh comments that “He (God) sent us what we needed.” So … Ham and Japheth are supposed to marry their nieces? And very young nieces at that? I know I said desperate times, creepy measures, but why do we need this in the story? Considering the fact that Noah was 600 years old at the time of the flood (Gen. 7:6), (Shem was 98) his sons were most likely grown men, with grown women already at their sides. Why, Aronofsky, why? This leads up to what is supposed to be the climactic moment, when Noah has his dagger raised over Ila’s twin daughters, and — big surprise – he can’t bring himself to do it. The ark runs aground, the waters go down, and they start to rebuild. There is a scene where, for no clear reason, Ham packs up and walks away from the rest, implicitly never to return — so what was even the point of the twin baby girls?

But what about that bold and visceral depiction of the sinfulness of man? Noah is, after all, correct that evil is just as present in him and in his family as in Tubal-Cain, and that killing 99% of humanity will not end sin. Is this film going to at least hint at the coming of Christ? Noah and Ila sit on a beach. Ila says “The choice (of whether to kill her children) was put in your hands for a reason. He showed you the wickedness of Man and knew you would not look away. But as you looked, you also saw goodness.” So, no such luck on the Gospel. We went through all that agony just to hear one more canned Hollywood speech about faith in … goodness, I guess. Whatever that is. We then see Noah giving his blessing to his wife, two sons, daughter in law and two granddaughters, telling them to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, and we’re right back in creepy town, but at least the movie’s over.

I could have forgiven a movie that didn’t accurately depict the events in Scripture. I could have forgiven a movie that watered down the message in Scripture. I could have forgiven a movie that was just another piece of mindless Hollywood tripe. Hell, even a blasphemous movie would have been less painful to sit through than this. The worst part is, this was on track to be one of the greatest movies ever made. The talent was there. The creativity was there. The visuals were there. The source matter was certainly there. A full-budget rendering of the flood story was long overdue, and I was looking forward to a thorough exploration of the pre-flood world, and some awesome 2012-esque world destruction scenes. Instead of that, I had to sit through the manufactured misery of the most dysfunctional family on earth (literally). While Noah isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen, it may be the biggest disappointment of my film-watching life.

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The 5 Most Overrated Movies of All Time

Since you’re on this site, you probably enjoy discussing movies. And like me, you’ve probably been frustrated by seeing a movie you couldn’t stand, only to find out everyone else loves it. Of course, since I’m taking down overrated movies here, you probably also love at least some of the movies in this article. So it’s important to remember that even a great movie is simply that — a movie. I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me, as long as you consider my thoughts and enjoy the read, and perhaps leave a response. But if I can release a few people from their servitude to one of these movies, my work will not be in vain.

Without further ado, the most overrated movies of all time:

Glory poster#5 Glory (1989 Dir. Edward Zwick)

Okay, before I get a contract out on my life, I’m not saying Glory  is a bad  movie. I’m just saying it doesn’t deserve its five Oscar nominations, slough of other awards or the endless adulation it’s received. I know in our political and cultural climate, hardly anyone dares criticize such a movie, so for the first time ever, let’s take an honest look at Glory.

Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is commissioned to lead the first Regiment of black soldiers in the U.S. Army. The sequences of training the regiment are far more Hollywood than history. For instance, there is a scene in which soldier Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) is caught deserting, and is to be flogged before the regiment. We are supposed to be shocked when Drill Sergant Mulcahy (John Finn) yanks Trip’s shirt down to reveal years’ worth of whip scares. Shaw actually starts crying when he sees this. Trip then stares unflinchingly at Shaw while he is flogged, as Shaw whimpers like a little girl.

This brings us to my indictment of Glory, and of those who praise it. It’s less about its quality than about the fact that people seem to think the film is making some kind of bold statement about the country’s history. But if a film wants to make a bold statement about history, it needs to get history right. Modern audiences are moved by the scene above. But Shaw would not have been. The thing people forget is that we are looking at the U.S. Army of the 1860s. White men in the army where routinely flogged for deserting, falling asleep on duty, or having an unkempt uniform. They were also accustomed to sleeping on the ground, eating maggoty bread and (get this) being shot. Shaw most likely had scars on his own back, and had certainly been grazed by a bullet at the Battle of Winchester.

The movie tries to deal with a lot of arguments and issues that would find no place in a military environment, especially if you want to tell a story of honor and glory. We hear a lot of infantile whining about military discipline, not only by new recruits, but by white officers we’re supposed to sympathize with. Then there’s the scene where Shaw informs the regiment that the Confederate Congress has issued a proclamation that any negro captured while fighting for the North will be executed. After he delivers the shocking news that if they go to war they might die, we’re supposed to be inspired when they are all still there the next day.

To be fair, Glory  certainly has some things going for it. It’s interesting and refreshing to see a full cast of black actors playing very different characters fighting together. Both black and white bring passion to their roles and there are some really powerful moments, especially the campfire the night before the climactic battle. Also, as race movies go, this one is a lot deeper than most. But for every great moment there’s another one that’s ruined by awkward acting or cheap cinematography, including, sadly, the crowning moment of an otherwise good climax.

The climax is the 54th’s doomed assault on Ft. Wagner on July 18, 1863. We see Shaw and Trip fatally shot at the foot of the fort’s walls. The remaining major characters, and a lot of extras, then storm the fort. The crescendo comes when Sgt. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), Thomas Searl and Jupiter Sharts run up onto a ledge before they are killed by cannon fire. It’s all supposed to happen in a moment, because they died fighting. However, the camera focuses on them for well over a second, as they stand there awkwardly, posing for the camera. You can almost see Freeman thinking “Aw, yeah, I’m gonna get another great close up!” while you can see Elwes looking for Zwick, thinking “Do I tilt my gun up a little? Down a little?” And finally, even though we saw Washington shot through the chest at the bottom of the hill, we then see him running up behind everyone, craning his neck as if to say “I want to be in the picture, too!” Not only that, but the camera actually cuts away from this awkward pose to the cannons, and then back to the awkward pose for another second or so, before our heroes disappear in cannon smoke, making it truly laughable.

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

For better or worse, Glory  has had a huge impact on movies since. The black Union soldier has become to civil war movies what the explosion is to Michael Bay movies, even though, in reality, there were black men fighting for the South before there were black men fighting for the North (yeah, that’s right) and the role played by black Union soldiers in the war was actually very small. Glory  is a solid movie over all, and I own a copy that I enjoy watching from time to time. But come on. Five Oscars? Really?

Society’s rating (according to Rotten Tomatoes):

My rating:

 

Cars poster#4 Cars (2006 Dir. John Lasseter)

There isn’t much that can be said about this one, except that if it hadn’t been riding the coattails of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, it wouldn’t have had nearly the success that it did. As Doug Walker put it, it seems more like a satire of a Pixar film than an actual Pixar film. Cars spawned an endless flood of toys, lunchboxes and kiddie toilet seats, as well as a handful of sequels, all to the tune of $10 billion in the first five years after it came out. And does anyone even remember what it was about? Don’t feel bad, I had to look it up myself.

The first reason this movie doesn’t work is the world it tries to create. Consider A Bug’s Life, which is similar in that it has an entirely non-human cast, in this case ants and other bugs. This works well, because bugs actually have their own existence, independent of humans, so it’s interesting to hear a story about what hopes, fears and conflicts bugs might have in their own world. Cars‘ world is populated with anthropomorphic machines, with no trace of human existence. But if there are no humans, where did all these machines come from? Did a submarine crawl out of the sea millions of years ago and magically grow wheels? Or was there some divine mechanic that took a side panel from the first daddy car and made the first mommy car, and told them to bump uglies and fill the earth? And if so, from whence did the babies come, mommy’s tail pipe? See the problem here?

Anthropomorphic vehicles have worked better in other movies, usually as a foil to a more serious plot, or as wisecracking sidekicks, such as the taxi in Roger Rabbit. It can be interesting to see a show where sentient vehicles interact with their owners, e.g. Nightrider, or interact with each other, talking about the jobs they do for  their owners. But machines exist only to serve a purpose. With no humans in Cars, the writers have to stretch their characters into emotional and organic roles that don’t make sense. For instance, near the beginning, Lightning McQueen is pursued by a police car. The police car’s motor back fires a few times. McQueen exclaims “he’s shooting at me! Why is he shooting at me?” A better question would be “how is he shooting at me?”

But let’s say we get past all this, and generously grant the film its ill-conceived premise, and just judge it by its own standards. It’s still not a a good movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s just a handful of overused cliches with nothing original. We start out with a self-absorbed, ambitious protagonist, McQueen, that we know is going to learn a lesson in the end. We then learn that he doesn’t have any friends. Through a misadventure, he finds himself a fish out of water in a small, forgotten town out of the interstate limelight. Some of the characters of this town are Rockwellian stereotypes, such as Doc, who is both the town judge and the town doctor. The rest are more recent stereotypes, like a hippie, a big city lawyer and a fairly racist Hispanic stereotype.

cars sugar

This movie is sugary enough to give a man diabetes.

We hear a lot of rhetoric about how small town poverty is better than big city wealth, which is always amusing coming from Hollywood producers. McQueen, who has learned the value of hard work during his trial, ultimately gets everything he wanted in the beginning anyway, but turns down millions of dollars to be “happy.” The story pushes the familiar idea that friendship and family are better than worldly success, but never believes in its own message enough to sell it. Significantly, none of the characters in this movie have any meaningful family connections. How could they, after all?

Even if Cars isn’t good, it is kind of cute, and I suppose that’s what sold so many products. If you like this movie, it doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. It just means you’re easily entertained.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Avengers poster#3 The Avengers (2012 Dir. Joss Whedon)

The success of The Avengers is a powerful testament to the superiority of aggressive marketing over quality product. For some reason, American moviegoers made this film the highest-grossing film of 2012, probably the second most embarrassing choice by the American public in that year.

There is a video game series called Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The story of the game is an afterthought as an excuse to cram every single Marvel character in to the same game and have them go around beating up polygons. I’ve never found it that interesting, but it works okay as a game. The problem with Avengers is that it’s exactly the same thing, except we, the audience, don’t get to play.

Anytime you cram several superheroes into the same story you’re playing with fire. You’re mixing mythologies and there’s usually not enough time to develop all of them and create enough suspension of belief. For instance, why in the name of Odin can a hammer forged by the gods and imbued with the power of lightning and thunder not break (or even dent) Captain America’s shield? I don’t care if it was designed by Howard Stark. And even if we grant that the shield is indestructible, why is Cap’s arm not broken behind it? This might seem like a minor detail, but Avengers is full of questions like this, because the mythologies don’t gel. And because they don’t, we have to settle for a movie that is about like watching a video game. The B-movie “story” concerns a race of computer-generated aliens that invade New York City. Who are these guys? We don’t really know. Where do they come from? Who cares? What were the events that provoked their hostility with the Earth? If they can rip open a portal to NYC, what prevents them from attacking several points of Earth at once? And if they have such technology, why do they still need live mounts? None of these questions are ever bothered with, as these aliens are just cannon fodder for the heroes to show off their powers. The aliens are led by Loki, who has transitioned from being a poorly written prodigal son in Thor (first he hates Odin, then he loves Odin, then he throws himself down to the earth because Odin simply tells him “no”) to now being a flat-out cartoon villain, consumed with a drive to (what else?) take over the world.

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers ...

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers …

Marvel Studios also needs to learn that stone walls do not a prison make, nor rampant destruction an action sequence. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent rendering huge battle sequences for Avengers in which skyscrapers and aircraft carriers are laid waste, and the audience never breaks a sweat. In fact, the one action sequence in the movie that’s actually engaging is the one-on-one fight between Hawkeye and Black Widow, which involves no CGI, but only great choreography.

... and which one is from Man of Steel?

… and which one is from Man of Steel?

This summer, movie goers were treated to a similar movie, The Man of Steele, which was panned by critics and audiences alike. And not without reason. But the people who lapped up Avengers  never seemed to realize that Man of Steele  was the same movie (In fact, Google either one, and you’ll get lots of images from both). Avengers  throws constant superhuman fighting in your face with no rules of reality. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers  spends most of its two hours blowing up trains and tearing skyscrapers to bits. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers wastes precious little time on story or character development. Man of Steele  does the same thing. In fact, Man of Steele comes out the stronger, because

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

the director isn’t mediating between six stars and dividing up the face time. We at least get an interesting and moving expose of Clark’s relationship with his parents, and Michael Shannon is actually able to develop a compelling (if over-the-top) villain in General Zod. The only thing Avengers  brings to the table that Man of Steele  doesn’t is some great shots of Gwyneth Paltrow from behind and Scarlet Johansson from above. In fact, Amy Adams as Lois Lane spends most of her movie in a parka. But really, which of those two options is the mark of the superior film?

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Princess B poster#2 The Princess Bride (1987 Rob Reiner)

We now reach the hard-core portion of this list. Strong of heart, read on. I apologize if I shatter your childhood, but it’s high time that you knew 1) there is no Santa Clause, and 2) this movie sucks. The faithful reader may remember my review of The Grey, in which I commented that, at the end, I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up by Director Joe Carnahan, only to find out in bed that Carnahan had this … “little problem.” My experience watching The Princess Bride was similar, except that I felt more like a chronically cheated-on wife, who has spent years going to counseling and forgiven her husband over and over and over again, because he has promised to take her on some romantic vacation to some exotic location, and then, when the time comes, he leaves her at the airport and goes off with his secretary.

From the start, we see a cheap movie. Cheap sets, cheap camera work, cheap actors. But it still shows signs of being a fun, campy fairy tale. After enduring the griping of a young, ailing Fred Savage about the story being read to him, we see the story of a girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) falling in love with a farm boy named Wesley (Cary Elwes). Buttercup later hears that a ship carrying Wesley was taken by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never takes prisoners, so she figures he’s dead. Five years later, she is betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). However, she is kidnapped by three brigands and taken on a ship. At one point, she tries to escape by jumping overboard, and hears a strange noise. And here we have a good example of the crystalline dialogue we get to hear over and over in this film. The leader, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) shouts out “You hear that, highness? Those are the shrieking eels! They always grow louder when they’re about to feast on human flesh!” Did they have a five-year-old write this? Vizzini also spends much of this part of the movie repeatedly shouting “inconceivable!” It gets old real fast. He also shouts lines like “Move the thing! And that other thing!

I’ll admit this part does a good job of creating mystery and suspense, as they find themselves being followed by a stranger who gains on them no matter what they do. After they scale the Cliffs of Insanity, Vizzini cuts the rope at the top, leaving the stranger clinging to the cliff side. He instructs his swordsman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to dispatch him once he reaches the top, while he and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) escape with Buttercup.

The stranger ascends, and we get the single awesome scene of the movie. And awesome it is! I have PB fightpersonally studied under Ted Katzoff, the Fencing Maestro who choreographed this scene. The man is a swordplay genius (not to mention one of precious few non-European Maestros). He has worked on films such as Hook and Outrageous Fortune, and I would expect nothing less than what he delivers in this scene. The swordsmanship displayed by both combatants is truly remarkable, being both technically proficient and exciting to watch. Each man starts out fencing with his left hand, and just when we think one of them is going to lose, he switches to his right! We get flips, dives, stair fencing, the whole nine yards. The whole movie should be like this. Alas …

The stranger bests Inigo, but knocks him out rather than killing him. He then goes on to somehow defeat Andre the Giant in a wrestling match that still somehow manages to be boring. Finally, he bests Vizzini in what is called a “battle of wits,” but is really just a contest to see whose ears start bleeding last from listening to Wallace Shawn’s incessant, nasal rambling. Thankfully, Shawn dies. Buttercup is now the stranger’s prisoner, and in a following scene, she learns that he is the pirate who killed her love. Eventually she pushes him down a hill. The camp meter shoots up here, from merit-badge-camp-out to Mt. Everest-base-camp. As he rolls down the hill, he shouts out a catch phrase that Wesley used to say to Buttercup. This is supposed to immediately clue Buttercup in that the stranger is actually Wesley. Upon realizing this, she throws herself down the hill for … some reason, and we have this long, stupid scene of them rolling down a hill, at the bottom of which they kiss.

About this time, we join Humperdinck and his right hand man, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), at the head of a search party, examining the footprints from Inigo’s fight with Wesley. Two things take shape in this scene. First, we see that Humperdinck is able to analyse the fencing technique of both fighters from their tracks, implying that he is a skilled fighter and tracker himself. Second we learn that Humperdinck hired the brigands to kidnap and kill Buttercup, in order to frame a neighboring kingdom for it, to generate public support for a war. Humperdinck is beginning to show himself as a stereotypical fairy tale villain. And that’s a good thing because, as we all know, when people go to a fairy tale movie, they’re going to see sword fights. Yes, there’s also that “true love” thing, but there’s no point in having a true love if there’s no danger to save her from. That’s why good movies of this genre, such as Errol Flynn movies or Zorro movies, are packed with sword fights, each one more spectacular than the last, leading up to the climactic battle between the hero and the villain, which should blow us all away. Yes, it’s a formula, but there’s a reason it’s a formula. And hey! Reiner has already got Maestro Katzoff right there on set, and he has two sympathetic swordsmen, Wesley and Inigo, still alive after their fight. What’s more, we’ve learned of Inigo’s vendetta against Count Rugen for killing his father, so we also have two villainous swordsmen, with henchmen at their command. Perfect!

Make no mistake, while there have been some clever moments, up to this point, this has been by no means a good movie. We’ve seen ham-fisted acting, painful one-liners, and gaping plot holes. There’s been no explanation of why Humperdinck wants to go to war, or who with. For that matter, why was he trying to catch the brigands if he hired them? I’ve been overlooking all of this because there has got to be some more of that swashbuckling action before too long. I mean, it’s not like Reiner would actually put his one good fight scene in the first 20 minutes of the movie! Would he?

The boneheaded moments are coming faster now. As they walk through the Fire Swamp, Wesley tells  Buttercup the story of how he was, in fact, captured by Roberts, but Roberts took him on as a valet. Three years later, Roberts decided to retire, and so appointed Wesley to plunder in his place.

Wait a minute! Did I miss something here? This is our hero in this fairy tale? And he’s spent the last two years as a pirate, killing people by his own admission? Was he under some kind of coercion? Was he using his position to undermine Humperdinck’s oppression of the masses? Was he at least using his ill-gotten gains to provide for the less fortunate? If any of these things are true, we’re never given any indication. We’re just left to assume that Wesley has been raping and pillaging his way around Florin for two years because … his old boss said to. Worse yet, at the end of the movie, Wesley actually suggests to Inigo that Inigo take over raping and pillaging from him!

At least our primal couple are walking through a dark and dangerous swamp from which none have returned. What thrilling dangers and battles lay ahead? Will Wesley have to fight dragons? Trolls? Orcs? Will the adversity finally force Buttercup to find her inner strength so she can be of help? The tension is palpable as they push their way through vines and trees. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Wesley is pounced upon by a … rat? A freaking RAT! Granted it’s an unusually big rat; one might even say a rodent of unusual size, but it’s a freaking rat! In addition, it doesn’t look real at all. So we spend three minutes watching Buttercup cower in a corner while Wesley rolls around with a stuffed animal.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

To make a long story short, they get out of the swamp and Humperdinck captures Wesley and sends him to the torture chamber, leading Buttercup to believe he has been released. Humperdinck eventually kills Wesley by sucking his life away. On the day that Humperdinck and Buttercup are to be married, Fezzik and Inigo break into the torture chamber and steal Wesley’s body. They obtain a pill which brings him back to life, but with temporary paralysis. The three break into the castle. Inigo has to fight four guards, but it’s over in about three seconds. He then confronts Rugen, who flees. Inigo gives chase, but Rugen is able to trick him by throwing a dagger into his gut. He recovers, however. This fight isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing compared to the first one. Inigo basically backs Rugen into a corner and skewers him after some dialogue.

But that’s okay, because we’re almost to the big fight between Wesley and Humperdinck!

Buttercup enters the bridal chamber, sick with grief after the wedding, and is about to kill herself, when she hears Wesley’s voice! She turns to see him lying on the bed. They kiss and he tells her she’s not married, because she didn’t say “I do,” and didn’t do “it.”

“A technicality that will shortly be remedied.” Ooh, boy! Our contrived, two dimensional villain stands in the doorway, sword in hand. Chills run up my spine. This is it! “But first, to the death!” Sounds good to me. “No!” Wesley says. “To the pain!” Um, okay. That sounds fine, as long as you guys fight.

Well, not just yet. First we have to listen to a long explanation of what “to the pain” means. Finally (finally!), Wesley rises to his feet and the fight is on! He raises his sword. Humperdinck counters by … dropping his sword?? Then sitting down and letting Buttercup tie him up? No!

No, dammit, no! Don’t do this to me!

I forgave the whiny, prepubescent Fred Savage, the shrieking eel nonsense and Wallace Shawn’s inconceivably annoying rants. I forgave our “hero” spending years as a murderous pirate for no discernible reason.  I forgave the stupid and unscary “battle” with a stuffed animal in the Fire Swamp.  I forgave the torturously boring torture scene and the physiologically ridiculous fight between Inigo and Rugen, but I forgave those things because this movie promised a thrilling climax. A dazzling duel between hero and villain. I mean, they had a world-class fencing maestro right there on set. He had already done a great job with one fight scene — the one at the end should have been even better! Fencing on rafters! Falling chandeliers! Backflips! But the best Reiner could come up with was to have the villain wimp out and sit down and get tied up. Haven’t you ever seen a campy sword movie, Reiner? You couldn’t possibly have thought this movie was good enough to be different.

When I first saw this movie, I had a headache for the next day or so, thinking of the two hours I’d never get back. Even after I saw it, I really wanted to like it, but I’m just not that dumb.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

And now, the most overrated movie of all time:

 

 

Nightmare poster#1 Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 Dir. Henry Selick)

This is it, the creme de la crap. How this mess of a movie achieved critical acclaim and won a loyal cult following of tens of millions, I will never understand. Everything about it is just plain warped, right up to the way it was marketed. It was sold to the public as a Christmas family film, and given mild-sounding PG rating. Then, as soon as the theatre doors were shut, a door that looked like a pumpkin swung open and families with young children were sucked into a world full of vampires, werewolves and ghouls in a celebration of the macabre. And I have to admit that this opening number is pretty cool — that is it would be if this were a horror movie. But it’s a Christmas movie, dammit. At least that’s what it said on the poster. Don’t get me wrong, the horror genre has its place, but this is not it. We have to wait until 20% of the movie has gone by to see the first glimmers of holiday cheer. And even once it arrives, there’s not much too it. I know we’ve all seen plenty of cheesy holiday specials with titles like So-and-so saves Christmas, and most of us were tired of them by age 10. But to those specials’ credit, they at least make an effort to capture the true feelings of Christmas that bring people together during the holidays; the joy of giving and forgiving. The only “Christmas” this movie has to offer is the most two-dimensional, cellophane-wrapped, commercialized version imaginable, and even that only shows up for about 5% of the movie.

This movie doesn’t have any good versus evil narrative, which wouldn’t be fatal if it had another narrative that went somewhere — but it doesn’t. It seems to try to tell a story of how a misguided hero’s plans go wrong, but it never gets off the ground. After a whiny solo about being tired of his job, Jack Skellington, the “pumpkin king” of Halloween, wanders into Christmas  Town, and is taken aback by the feelings of warmth and joy that replace the fear of Halloween. Having “grown so tired of the sound of screams,” he becomes convinced that getting involved in Christmas is the way to escape the rut he is in.

So, like any reasonable businessman fancying a career change, Jack seeks out the owner of this … franchise he’s discovered, and buys him a beer and says “I would like to learn more about what you do here, maybe even try working with you for awhile,” right? No of course not. He dispatches three of his minions, Lock, Shock and Barrel, to kidnap Santa, and announces that he is forcibly taking over Christmas. What the hell? It’s really hard to buy Jack as the well-meaning but misguided tragic hero, because if his intentions are truly non-malevolent, he has to be the biggest bone-head the world has ever seen. I mean, how could anyone not out of his skull ever think this was a good idea? When Lock, Shock and Barrel have accomplished their task, they haul in Santa, bound at the hands and feet and tied in a sack (a freaking sack!), and throw him at Jack’s feet. Jack simply tells Santa “You can consider this a vacation — a reward! I’ll be taking it from here.” He then allows Santa to be dragged away by the trio, absentmindedly dismissing them with the comment “See to it he’s comfortable!” Are you kidding me? these kids have shown themselves in previous scenes to be anything but responsible, careful or empathetic, and Jack can see they’re dragging Santa off into a world full of open sewers and torture devices. What does he think the three little psychopaths are going to do, put Santa up in a Hilton and serve him coffee and a croissant every four hours??

Sure enough, Santa soon finds himself stuffed down a pipe and tied to a torture rack in the lair of the

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Boogieman, Oogie Boogie. Meanwhile, Jack carries on with his insane plan, placing gifts under trees that attack children all over the western world. He never seems to feel the least bit bad about it, his narcissism even prompting him to insist that humanity is “thanking us for doing such a good job,” when the national guard is firing at his sleigh. There’s nothing to root for in this movie. We’re supposed to identify with Jack as his “good intentions” blow up in his face, but he has more in common with a maniacal comic book villain than anything else, sicking killer toys on children a la the Joker, or being driven to remake the world in his image a la the Lizard. The female lead, Sally, at least has her head on straight (if only thanks to stitches), but she never accomplishes anything. We can’t root for Santa to save the day either, because we never see anything he does.

Fans of this movie will probably argue that it wasn’t made for the story, but rather for the animation and the music. To be sure, the stop-motion animation is done with tremendous care and skill, but the most that animation can do is make your movie look real. It can’t make your movie good. Without at least a decent story to carry the movie, no amount of technical skill will save it. And to be honest, as fluid as the animation looks, there’s nothing revolutionary about it. The same techniques have been used hundreds of times before. The music, frankly, is overrated. There are two numbers in the movie that I found impressive; the opening and Oogie’s song. The rest range from annoying to decent, but cliche.

Anyway, Jack finally gets it through his skull that this was a horrible idea, and races back to Halloween Town. We get the single scene in the movie where good faces off against evil, and he saves Santa and Sally from Oogie. Santa races off to magically save the day off camera, and finally causes snow to fall on Halloween Town, presumably for the first time ever. We then get the culmination of a romance that was assumed, rather than developed; a kiss between Jack and Sally, even though they only have about 1.5 lips between them. So did this story actually go anywhere? Is there going to be some cultural exchange or cooperation now between Christmas and Halloween Towns, which might vindicate all this foolishness? Or did Jack actually learn anything from this debacle? Probably not, because Jack wasn’t trying to do something good that went wrong. He was doing exactly what writer/producer Tim Burton did when he wrote this story, along with most of his other stories: taking something that everyone loves, something that was fine as it was, and putting his own twisted stamp on it, expecting us all to care. Look, I’m sorry Burton had an unhappy childhood. That’s no reason to subject all of us to it. The stuff in his movies should be shared with a psychologist, not with families who’ve come to see a warm holiday film. I bet Burton deliberately neglects to flush public toilets, too, because he’s convinced the next person to come along would love to dissect Tim Burton’s leavings to learn what kind of food Tim Burton eats. And that’s what this movie is: the poo from Burton’s narcissistic ass, spread across the silver screen for the world to marvel at and analyze!

Society’s rating:

My rating:

It’s fun to talk about why a movie is good or bad. But just as interesting is the question of what makes people love some bad movies. Some movies achieve acclaim by touching on subjects that make people afraid to criticize them. Glory exploits an inspiring part of history. No one wants to say anything negative about it, partly for fear of being considered racist or otherwise uncaring, and partly because they really want the film to be as meaningful as the event. Some films rely on shear marketing “firepower,” spending huge numbers of dollars. The world was smothered in merchandise related to Cars and The Nightmare Before Christmas both before and after their releases. Everyone talks about how much they love them, but few actually remember the movies themselves. Still other films manage to get a commitment from people early, so that they refuse to believe they have been cheated. The Princess Bride actually starts out pretty promisingly. That was why I endured the last two thirds of it and really tried to like it. It seems many people actually managed to make themselves like it. Marvel Studios actually spent four movies advertising Avengers. People were so excited, they were giving Avengers five-star ratings before they’d even seen it.

I hope you got a kick out of this article. Perhaps you have an overrated movie you’d like us at Walking Taco to take down a peg. (Already, I’m beginning to think of movies that probably should have been on this list.) If you do, post a comment and ask us to review it! Until then, good night.

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Rise of the Guardians

Rise G posterThe first thing you’ll notice about Rise of the Guardians is that it’s certainly, well, different. We start off with narration by the main character (Chris Pine). “Darkness … that’s the first thing I remember. It was dark and it was cold and I was scared.” Fair enough. But he continues. “Then I saw the Moon. It seemed to chase the dark away, and then I wasn’t scared anymore.” Ooookay. About this time, we see our narrator, his face young, but his hair white, apparently being pulled by an unseen force through the top of a frozen lake, to alight, barefoot, on the snow-covered branch of a tree, apparently unbothered by the cold. He soon wanders into a village, where he realizes no one can see or hear him. He continues: “My name is Jack Frost. How do I know that? The Moon told me so. That’s all he ever told me.”

Ooookay.

We then cut to 300 years later, at the North Pole. How do we know it’s the North Pole? The text on screen tells us so. We cut to the inside of a building, where a pair of booted feet make the ground shake with each step. We see a pair of strong arms, one tattooed “naughty,” the other tattooed “nice,” gripping a chainsaw, as it lays into a hapless block of ice. As a brilliant ice sculpture takes shape, we hear a booming voice: “Still waiting for cookies!”

Yes, it’s him. Chris Cringle, Pier Noel, bringer of joy and lover of children, but he’s nothing like you’ve seen in any other Santa movie. “North,” as he is nicknamed in Guardians (Alec Baldwin), is a regular badass, a mountain of a man that would make Jack Reacher submissive (yeah, I said it). He drives a tricked-out sleigh that would make Shaft jealous, pulled by reindeer that look like they should be ridden by the eight horsemen of the apocalypse. Or maybe Ghost Rider. Or the Headless Horseman. (They totally needed a scene where North pulls the sleigh up in front of the Fortress of Solitude and yells “Hey, Kent! You need to get yourself one of these babies!” And then races off, leaving a green-with-envy Superman in a cloud of dust. Alas, I wasn’t consulted.) Best of all, he carries these two huge scimitars, which he twirls with expertise, and with which he slices and dices the forces of evil!

Dude! Where was this Santa when I was kid??

North looks at his globe, a magical monitor from which he watches over all the children of the world and sees evil power creeping across it. He deduces that the lord of all evil himself, none other than the Boogeyman (Jude Law), is amassing power for an attack on the world’s kids. He calls an emergency meeting of the Guardians, supernatural beings who are given the power and responsibility to protect the wonder and innocence of children everywhere. The team consists of North, the Tooth Fairy (Isla Fisher), the Sandman (no voice) and, of course,

I'm not a kangaroo, mate. I'm a bunny. The EASTER Bunny.

I’m not a kangaroo, mate. I’m a bunny. The EASTER Bunny.

the Easter Bunny, who is also nothing like you’ve seen before. “Bunny” is voiced by Hugh Jackman, and Jackman must have enjoyed the heck out of this roll. He gives free reign to his Australian accent, and kicks his tough-guy persona into overdrive. Fittingly, his animated avatar is six feet tall, master of Thai-Chi and sports thorny tattoos across his keg-sized shoulders. He also wears a quiver across his back, carrying deadly boomerangs and egg bombs, which he’s not afraid to use.

Awesome. Though I have to say, all this makes watching him paint beautiful designs on eggs kind of awkward. Imagine if you caught Tito Ortiz doing needle point. Well, nothing’s perfect.

As you’ve probably figured out, this is a story not unlike The Avengers. The idea is to get a handful of superhumans together and have them fight against a huge army of nameless, faceless bad guys led by one villain who actually speaks. The Boogeyman (aka Pitch Black) even has a back story similar to that of Loki in Avengers (also rather similar to that of Satan in the Bible). He was once a Guardian, but when he demanded all the power and renown for himself, The Man in the Moon dismissed him from the company of the Guardians, and cast him down to the earth, to wander about scaring people. The Man in the Moon fills the roll of God in this story. We never see him directly, but he selects people to be Guardians and directs them in the fight against evil. He watches over the earth. And for a movie about Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy … it works well enough. Once he knows Pitch is up to something, the Man in the Moon selects Jack Frost to join the ranks of the Guardians, and the battle begins.

If your dentist had Tooth's enthusiasm, you would run out the door in terror.

If your dentist had Tooth’s enthusiasm, you would run out the door in terror.

How does Rise of the Guardians stack up? It definitely takes some risks and I have to give it a nod for that. It’s not likely to become a classic, but it creates a world you can lose yourself in, and takes its characters to a place no one ever has before. It has a few gripping action sequences, and some funny lines. All in all, I liked it, and held on to the DVD to watch it a second time before returning it. Director Peter Ramsey helmed it well, considering that, with what they tried to do conceptually, it could have been an absolute train wreck of a movie, and it was actually pretty good. Plus, it’s safe for kids.

Maybe even a little too safe. There is one major flaw in Guardians, and that is that they do an absolutely abysmal job with the villain. Pitch is represented in every scene as this weird looking guy who mainly hangs out in the shadows and whines about how unfair his life is. They never make him scary. This is especially problematic considering who he is supposed to be. I mean, he’s the  Boogeyman, for Pete’s sake! He’s a Satan. A Dracula. The embodiment of all evil and terror from our basest instincts. The faceless horror that reaches out of every shadow to drag you to Hell. He’s the reason 4-year-olds wake up screaming at 2 a.m., the reason you suddenly start walking faster at night and you don’t know why, the reason grown men still make sure their closets are latched before bed. He needs to scare the audience, but Pitch never becomes the slightest bit threatening. We never see him do anything, except create this army of black horses (Night-mares. Get it?) that the Guardians fight. It’s implied that he’s giving kids nightmares around the world, but we never see any nightmares, or their effects.

Do something scary!

Do something scary!

I understand they were making a PG family film; I’m not asking to see blood and guts. They still could have made him scary. All Ramsey had to do was watch a few Disney movies and take notes. Disney has perfected the art of terrorizing kids and still getting a G rating. Throughout the whole movie, I thought it must be building to something. Pitch was going to change into something horrible and start attacking some kids … no? Well, I’m sure they’ll at least have some decent jump-scares where he pops out of something, maybe his eyes red, his teeth pointy … no? Well maybe he’ll transform for the final battle … nope. Pitch stays the same bland computer sprite for the entire movie and never makes himself a real threat. That, by itself, takes a star and a half off of this movie’s score.

Oh, well, like I said, nothing’s perfect. Guardians is still a wild ride, and well worth watching, if only for being original and good.

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Oz: The Great and Powerful

It has been over 70 years since the Wizard of Oz graced the silver screen, so obviously Disney decided it was about time to make the prequel to one of the most beloved cinematic works of all time. Of course their decision could only have been easier once they opted for action/horror movie extraordinaire, Sam Raimi, as the director. Have I sold you on the concept of this movie yet? Alright, so maybe it doesn’t sound like a sure home run, but as a whole, the movie doesn’t strikeout either.

Oz-The-Great-and-PowerfulWe are first introduced to Oz (James Franco) as he is readying to perform his sideshow magician act at a traveling circus touring in Kansas (yes, there is no shortage of direct allusions to the original movie). His narcissistic, yet charming personality is immediately put on display for the audience as he all but seduces his naive assistant. After a very rocky performance in which he is booed offstage, the con man Oz is then assaulted by the circus strongman and only narrowly escapes in his very convenient hot air balloon. This is only the beginning of the adventure since his hot air balloon is sucked into a tornado and transported to the wonderful world of Oz. Oz immediately meets a witch named Theodora (Mila Kunis) who informs him of a prophecy that a great wizard will save the people from an evil witch and become king of Oz. The reluctant hero only agrees to become that wizard after meeting Theodora’s sister, Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who reveals the massive amount of wealth that the ruler would inherit. After almost killing Glenda (Michelle Williams) the good witch by mistake, Oz learns that Evanora is the true wicked witch that must be defeated.

Cue the inevitable “ethically questionable protagonist learning that he needs to help the oppressed because he is a better person than any of his actions have so far suggested” scenes. This is paired with the equally predictable comic relief sidekick Finley (Zach Braff) who just also happens to be a flying monkey. I am not sure if I have mentioned that they are indeed in the land of Oz.

Despite the feeling that you are being beat over the head by the constant, overt references to the original movie, the action is fairly enjoyable. The 3-D was  very well done along with the rest of the cinematography.The world that Raimi has created is visually stunning and clever to say the least.  This is one of those movies that probably needs to be viewed in the local cinema to be fully enjoyed. The movie also retains some of the lovable camp of the original while maintaining a fresh and current feel. However, with that lies possibly the biggest flaw of the movie.

At times, the direction felt very conflicted. No doubt with the Disney tag and the PG rating, the movie is made to be a family affair. But much too often the audience is forced to shift from fun, kid-friendly dialogue and music to disturbing visuals and violent confrontations.  It seemed as though Raimi was constantly fighting the urge to turn this into a wannabe Snow White and the Huntsman. Ultimately, the movie will overcome this detail for many people given the nostalgic affection for the land of Oz. Unfortunately, I cannot say that this movie was either great or powerful, probably more like decent and capable. Either way, let’s just hope that Disney leaves that old Casablanca prequel alone for a few more years.

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Wreck-it Ralph

Wreck-It poster

The premise of Wreck-It Ralph is a digital-age version of Toy Story (1995). It all takes place in a happy little arcade, strangely free of graffiti, litter and juvenile delinquents. Every night, when the arcade closes down, the characters in the games are free to wander between consoles, socialize and goof around. Only one catch: if you die outside your own game you don’t regenerate. But I’m sure that won’t become an issue.

We are introduced to this world by Wreck-It Ralph himself (John C. Reilly), the miscast, wheel grinding, time-card punching “bad guy” of the game Fix-It Felix, Jr. He explains how, all day, he has to demolish a building with his comically big hands, so the hero, Fix-It Felix (Jack McBrayer), can save the day. After which, Felix is rewarded with a pie on the roof of the building, and the tenants throw Ralph off the roof, into a mud puddle. Ralph shares his frustration at seeing his contribution to the game go unrecognized while Felix is given pies and medals. Ralph is talking to a villain support group, whose members extol the value of being a villain. As Zangief, from Street Fighter II, says “If Zangeif was good, who would crush man’s head like sparrow’s egg between thighs?” They tell him that it’s a villain’s lot in life to get beat over and over, and watch the hero get the glory, and that his life will be happier if he excepts it.

And I just have to make a comment here. Don’t villains usually win in video games? Especially in arcade games, which are designed to keep you pumping quarters in. Realistically, it would be Felix getting thrown into the mud 99% of the time. Oh, well.

Ralph has his inevitable confrontation with the rest of the game’s cast (Nicelanders, they are called), in which Mayor Gene (Raymond Perci) tells Ralph that bad guys don’t get medals, and if Ralph ever won a medal (since he clearly never will) the Nicelanders would let him live at the top of the building in the penthouse. Ralph calls his bluff, and storms off to do just that. Something that’s amusing to watch here, and in certain other scenes, is the choppy, blocky way in which the characters move. It is, of course, intentional, and it does bring out the feel of a 1980s platform game, which is what this is supposed to be, but I’m sure it also saved Disney several tens of thousands of dollars.

Ralph’s quest for a medal leads him to steal the uniform of a space marine from the game Hero’s Duty, a fictitious game that is exactly like 10,000 real shoot’em up, blow’em up, throw-away first-person shooters that you find in arcades all over the world. Ralph’s misadventure in Hero’s Duty is certainly one of the best, possibly the best scene in the movie, and gives rise to a line every parent in the audience will love: “When did video games become so violent and scary??” It also introduces us to Sgt. Tamora Calhoun (Jane Lynch), the model-proportioned, yet tough-as-nails cliché who leads the marine troop. Calhoun’s spittle-throwing PG version of a potty mouth might just be the most entertaining part of the movie, but “It’s not her fault,” because “she’s programmed with the most tragic back story ever.” I won’t tell you what this back story is. Suffice to say, I laughed enough to shed tears when I saw it, because it’s so over the top, and yet just like what you see in video games today. Calhoun is awesome.

Tri-fold

Eventually, Ralph also lands in Sugar Rush, a candy-themed cart racing game. The landscapes in Sugar Rush are beautifully rendered, although, if you’re a salty snacker like me, you might get a little nauseous after a while. Here, Ralph meets Vanellopy Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a game character who wants to join the races, but is ostracized from the racing community because she is a glitch, the oppressed subculture of the video game world. Ralph is blackmailed by Vanellopy into joining her quest to buy or pry her way into a race so she can become part of the game, and the two start to become friends. Their relationship is similar to that of Sully and Boo in Monsters, Inc., except that Vanellopy talks. And boy does she ever. She could have gotten really annoying in the hands of a lesser director, but Rich Moore (who has directed voice acting for The Simpsons and Futurama) toned her down just enough that she’s lovable, if slightly eccentric. Ralph, Vanellopy, Calhoun and Felix eventually find themselves in a battle to save the arcade from a cataclysmic threat, and from one of the most subtle, surprising and effective villains I have seen in a long time. This leads to a lot of great chemistry between the characters, and a weird, yet strangely plausible romance between the pint-sized Felix and the arm-twisting, nose-breaking Calhoun (classic pick-up line: “Look at the high definition in your face! It’s beautiful.) I will say, I thought the ending was just a little too happy. There’s a point where it looks like victory is going to require a terrible sacrifice, and the movie would have been more powerful if it had. But, in typical Disney fashion, they had to have everything work out a little too perfect. Oh, well.

To help the reader fully appreciate the quality of Wreck-it Ralph, I thought it would be worth putting my encounter with it in context. My wife and I had previously driven 250 miles. We did this because, for the first time ever, we were going to leave our 2 1/2 year old daughter in the care of her grandparents overnight so we could spend a romantic evening together. On said evening, we dressed to the hilt and had a romantic dinner at one of the finer restaurants in town, then spent some time strolling around downtown under the lights. Finally, we checked into a hotel and got ready for bed. We had a bottle of champaign in a bucket of ice when we slid into bed. We were snuggling a little bit, when we decided  a movie wouldn’t hurt, so we charged some extra to our room to see Wreck-it Ralph. At the credits, we realized we could back the movie up in 30-second increments, so I spent about 10 minutes repeatedly pushing the button, and the ice in the bucket melted while we passed the champaign back and forth and watched Wreck-it Ralph a second time.

Yeah. It’s that  good.

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ParaNorman

ParaNorman posterThis movie is stupid. Worse than stupid, it is probably the most retched piece of filmth I have seen in a long time (and I have seen some doozies). It offends on all fronts. It’s badly written and badly directed. On top of that, the story is just plain stupid and it insults anyone who knows something about history (admittedly a minority). And finally, it perpetuates certain misconceptions that are very dangerous and damaging.

The movie opens with Norman sitting on the floor, watching a movie, while he talks to his grandma. Then his father enters the room and tells him to take out the garbage. Norman walks into the kitchen, and we meet his parents and teenage sister, Courtney. We immediately notice one thing: everyone in this family is butt-ugly. Both the mother, Sandra, and Courtney have hips in different time zones, Perry’s (the dad) gut fills up the room, and all their faces appear to have some deformity. Norman tells Perry that Grandma is requesting he turn up the heat, and we get the big surprise: Grandma is dead. Norman has the ability to see and talk to ghosts. (Why does a ghost

The ghost of Norman's mother, who's head was tragically crushed ... what? She's one of the living characters? Yikes.

The ghost of Norman’s mother, who’s head was tragically crushed … what? She’s one of the living characters? Yikes.

need the heat turned up?) So of course, his family encourages him to mourn the loss of his grandma in his own way, and gently directs him to some more constructive occupation of his time. No, I’m kidding. They’re total dicks to him and call him a freak.

As the movie goes on we see that everyone in town (Blythe Hollow, apparently someplace in Massachusetts) is the same way. There’s not a single attractive OR likable character in this whole movie. To be sure, Hollywood deserves criticism for being obsessed with appearance and filling its movies with impossibly beautiful people, but this movie goes to the opposite extreme. If they didn’t care how their movie looked, why didn’t they make it live action? Give some much-needed work to all the aspiring actors who don’t meet the usual standards of perfection? Almost every character looks like something I’ve seen dangling from a Q-tip, and has a voice to match. It makes the whole movie downright painful to look at and listen to, even before the dead start crawling out of their graves. Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell seem to have a particular obsession with women with huge butts. One of the most (sigh) memorable scenes in the movie is of a black, female cop on a motorcycle, using her butt to force a van off the road.

Most of the first act revolves around Norman getting picked on by everyone in the world. We sit through a lot of bad dialogue and toilet humor, all delivered with painful awkwardness. Most of the scenes open with a close-up on the face of some hideous grown-up we are supposed to hate. Norman eventually learns from the ghost of his uncle that he is supposed to use his gift to avert a super-natural catastrophe. A young girl was hanged as a witch in 1712 in Blythe Hollow and at midnight that night, her ghost is going to wake up and reek a terrible vengeance upon the town. What is she going to do? Spread a plague? Set the town on fire? Nope. She’s going to raise the bodies of the six witnesses and judge who convicted her. And then … well, we never really get any explanation of why this is such a big deal. The zombies don’t really do anything but stagger around and moan for the whole movie. It’s about like a Scooby Doo cartoon; it’s all about running from the zombies, but there’s never any indication of what will happen if the zombies catch us. We’re just supposed to run because … they’re scary because … the script says so. Even if we grant that the zombies will perpetrate some standard zombie fare, the mention of which is omitted from a PG movie, we’re talking about seven dilapidated corpses versus the world. What’s the big threat? Sure there might be some casualties, but there’s not a single character in this movie I’d lament being rid of.

scooby doo

If you squint your eyes, you literally can’t tell this isn’t Scooby Doo.

And in fact, when Norman is finally cornered by the zombies, they don’t try to eat him but rather speak to him, asking him to read from a certain book, which will effectively send them back to the grave. This is supposed to be a big moment where we realize the zombies, now repentant for killing the girl, aren’t dangerous, after which Norman comes to their defense and berates a torch-bearing mob for being fearful and reactionary. But if the zombies are good guys, how do they serve the witch’s purpose of revenge?

As for the witch, a word needs to be said about the portrayals in popular culture of Puritan life and thought, and of so-called “witch hunts” (unlike a lot of mainstream movies that exploit the stereotype, this one actually accuses the Puritans by name). Unfortunately I don’t have the time or the space here to give a full treatment of Puritan history. It will have to suffice to say that, unless you have done serious independent research on the subject, you should forget everything you think you know about the Puritans, as they are probably the most unfairly maligned group of people in history. They possessed a truly rare understanding of the world and of human nature that allowed those that came to this continent to create stable and sustainable societies with very few resources. They were passionate about education and were one of the first groups to require by law that all children be literate. They eventually founded a number of the most venerated colleges in America, including Harvard. Alexis de Tocqueville would later write that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for democracy.

I bring this up because popular culture, when it mentions the Puritans, always tries to get us to laugh at them as superstitious nincompoops, and hate them as religious nuts whose zeal gave way to atrocities, the symbol of which in movies is usually an exaggerated version of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. But here’s the thing: in popular entertainment, they are always real witches. How many movies try to get us to believe that witches are real, and can do so many cool (if terrible) things? Movies like Sleepy Hollow, The Blair Witch Project, or this one always want us to scoff at the simple mindedness of colonial peasants, but their witches always turn out to be real witches, whose powers are indeed a great danger to everyone around them. In which case, why shouldn’t they be outlawed and eliminated?

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

The reaction of the audience, upon realizing they paid to watch ParaNorman.

Anyway, we get a cheesy climax, where Norman confronts the witch and she turns the landscape into a really blasé field of yellow smoke and floating islands that was probably easy and cheep to animate. He’s able to get her to stop by, I don’t know, being nice to her or something. The various dead characters all go back to their graves and the living get various trite comeuppances, good and bad, according to their sympatheticness.

I tried to find something good to say about this movie, I really did. I suppose the animation is okay, especially considering that they did it with models. In this age of computers, that deserves a nod just for being there. I think I did laugh at a line once or twice, maybe three times. But I couldn’t tell you now what the funny lines were, because the memory is buried under two hours of agony and regret of my wasted time and money (I only paid $1.28, but the movie sucked so much I’m still depressed about it). At least I can spare you from repeating my mistake. You owe me one.

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Brave

This movie rocks. Everything about it. The story, the colorful characters, the laughs, the scares, the gorgeous scenery rendered in flawless CGI, and the haunting Celtic soundtrack that wafts through the theater as you sit transfixed. Pixar has done it again, serving up a feast for the eyes and ears, without sacrificing a good story, thought provoking messages, and something for every age, gender and background to relate to.

At the start, we meet Merida (Kelly McDonald), princess of a Scottish kingdom, and Daughter of King Fergus (Billy Connolly) and Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson). Elinor works overtime, trying to teach Merida to be a princess, which generally involves being lady-like. Merida loves to ride horses, shoot arrows and climb mountains, much to her mother’s chagrin, and father’s chuckling pleasure. The best scene in the movie is an early one in which Merida, and her horse, Angus, gallop through a shimmering emerald forest, Merida firing arrows into passing targets while Gaelic siren Julie Fowlis weaves a haunting yarn over fiddles and Celtic flutes. I’d probably buy the DVD just for that scene.

For awhile, it looks like Brave might turn out to be a microwaved version of Aladdin. Merida is horrified when she learns that her mother has invited three other kingdoms to submit contestants for her hand in marriage, and three princes are coming to compete for her in the Highland Games. A series of arguments follows, in which Merida doesn’t want to get married, least of all to someone she’s never met, and her mother tries to remind her of her duty to the kingdom and the importance of stable government. The big day arrives, and the three princes fire arrows at targets to determine who will win her hand. Suddenly, in what initially appears to be the ultimate cliche, a cloaked figure approaches the archery range. Merida throws off the cloak (big surprise, right?) and declares, “I’ll be shooting for my own hand!” As her mother protests, she fires arrows dead center into each target, winning the competition.

Of course, for your average modern fairy tale, this would probably be the climactic scene. Our strong, free spirited heroine throws off the shackles of patriarchal oppression, beats the men at their own game (using weapons, of course), and establishes herself as an independent woman, or at least chooses her own man. It would have been easy, and politically safe, to throw something like that together, but of course, easy doesn’t cut it for Pixar. We still have a lot of movie to go and, while Merida doesn’t exactly end up as a tamed shrew, she soon realizes she has a lot to learn about life in medieval Scotland, not the least of which is putting family and country above her own desires.

Pixar’s talent for story telling especially comes through in the fact that this story relies for its context on a back-story from eons past. This back-story is mentioned only in two very short, and rather washed-out flashbacks, but it still makes perfect sense (within the context of the movie, that is). Using the art of brief, visual story telling Pixar wove the two stories seamlessly together.

That’s probably as much as I should say. Pixar wisely left some major plot points out of the trailers, and it’s better for you to be surprised. It’s no fun reviewing great movies; I can’t say much or I’ll ruin it. I should note that the main reason I’m not giving Brave five stars is that I’ve only watched it once. But I intend to remedy that when it’s out on DVD.

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Courageous

The Kendrick Brothers of Sherwood Bible Church are at it again. No doubt hoping to match their home run of Fireproof of 2008, they’ve shifted their focus from taking on divorce to attacking fatherlessness in America. We’re still in Albany, Georgia, but this time, instead of following the heroics of the Albany Fire Dept.,  we’re on patrol with the Dougherty County Sheriff’s Dept. (Interesting that, Albany being a city of 77,000, it doesn’t seem to have its own police force, but I guess they had to trim the cast somewhere.)

The Kendricks have ramped the action up a notch with this one. Right at the beginning, we see Fireproof’s Ken Bevel, now playing Nathan Hayes, stop for gas, only to have his truck stolen by a dew-rag clad gang-banger (T.C. Stallings, a devoted husband and father in real life). He throws himself half-way through the driver’s window, and we are treated to a fist-fight with Nathan hanging out the window at 30 miles an hour. The movie eventually leads up to a climactic scene with guns blazing. In between is more action, more than a few laugh-out-loud moments, and a heart-felt message about how crucial a father is to a child’s development, and how those without fathers often become dew-rag clad truck thieves.

The story follows Deput. Hayes, a recent transfer to the department, three other Deputies, Adam Mitchell (Alex Kendrick), Shane Fuller (Kevin Downes), and David Thompson (Ben Davies), and Javier Martinez (Robert Amaya), a rarely employed construction worker, and their families. Javier breaks his back to provide for his family and eventually finds employment working on Adam’s house. He then becomes part of the group. David is the rookie of the squad who’s holding in a shameful secret. He has a daughter around three years of age, whom he has never met, and whose support he had not contributed a dime to. (Apparently, the Georgia Division of Child Support Services was vaporized along with the Albany P.D.) Shane struggles to be a dad to his son when he only sees him every other weekend.  Adam dotes on his daughter but refuses to join his son for the father-son 5K. And Nathan and his wife, Kayla (Elenor Brown), struggle to fend off the “saggy-pants boys” interested in their teenage daughter.

A tragedy eventually forces these men to reevaluate what they are doing as fathers. The story dives into Christian kitsch for awhile. Adam comes up with a written resolution and the five families actually hold a ceremony with their pastor in which they dramatically recite it. In a similar vein, we later see Nathan take his daughter to a very expensive restaurant (below), where he, again with great ceremony, presents her with a “promise ring.” Yeah, I know. I chortled at this scene, too, but then I found out my wife had very specific plans for me to do exactly that with our daughter one day.

But for all the kitsch, the film really is trying, and trying to do far more than just entertain. The problems with Courageous mainly serve to highlight the fact that most movies just fill themselves up with explosions and car wrecks and expect you to buy a ticket. Courageous sets the bar much higher, and does come close to clearing it.

There was a time when I would have been unable to enjoy this movie. I can enjoy it now largely because I have a wonderful wife, who makes my life very sweet. That said, there are still some key points of this film I can’t help but take issue with. A lot of the film’s attitude is summed up when Nathan delivers the curmudgeonly line “If fathers just did what they were supposed to, half the junk we see on the street wouldn’t exist.” This seems to be the mantra of conservatives and liberals alike: it’s all men’s fault. But if you look at the history of America over the last 40 years or so, men have not been the only – or even the primary – culprit of the breakdown of the family. History does not tell of a movement of men throwing off their responsibilities to society. We don’t see crowds of men burning their undergarments and demanding the right to kill their children. We do, however, see women doing all these things.

In the U.S. today, more than two thirds of all divorces are initiated by the woman. And why not? The feminist political machine has tilted the legal game board of divorce ridiculously toward the woman’s pockets. (Please note: Every man in Iowa should carefully read chapters 236 and 598 of the Iowa Code before he even thinks about getting emotionally attached to a woman. As for the other states, talk to a lawyer there.) Millions of children in the U.S. grow up without fathers because their mothers want it that way.

My first year out of law school, I worked in a family law firm. I never had a man in my office who didn’t care about his children. Most of my clients were there because they were having to fight just to see their children. The slant in family court is based on more than gender stereotypes.  The judicial community includes many territorial lionesses. A child is power, and they are not about to share it. Conversely, male judges are of the old way of thinking, in which men are expected to take the lumps and bear the weight of the world on our shoulders without complaint. This combination of liberal women and conservative men, not only in court, but also in society, is a frustrating dynamic. While women are exhorted about their rights, men are flagellated with our supposed responsibilities. Lawyers aren’t supposed to get emotionally involved, but I couldn’t help feeling the pain my clients felt. Commanded to be fathers by the right, yet torn from their children by the left; commanded to “be a man,” yet emasculated.

Courageous never addresses any of this, failing to live up to its name. The Kendrick brothers buckle under the pressure of political correctness. Too afraid to take women to task for their desertion, like so many before them, they turn on men.

It’s hard to stay angry at a movie that has this much heart, and is actually trying to make a difference in the world. But while it’s a valiant effort, another Fireproof it is not.  Fireproof met

Actor-director Alex Kendrick takes aim at bad fathers.

people squarely where they were at. There’s no reason 3 billion men couldn’t have connected with Caleb Holt, the fire chief who shows valor in the work place, but doesn’t know how to love his wife. The story eventually shows that, only by first receiving the unconditional love of God can Caleb show unconditional love to the flawed and sinful woman he lives with. It would actually  have been fairly simple for Courageous to do the same thing. Shane Fuller is a character that millions of men would easily connect with, including unbelievers. He is divorced. He wants to be a father to his son, but, as he explains it, he only gets him every other weekend, after his mother has filled his head with her toxic opinions of him. He wants to provide for his son, but almost a third of his paycheck is swallowed by alimony. Shane should have been the lead role of this movie! He could have been the Caleb Holt of Courageous. How can Shane, and other men, be the kind of fathers God wants them to be, despite the obstacles? How can God help them to raise their kids right despite what they have  to deal with? This was a golden opportunity for the Kendricks to win the hearts of their intended audiece. Beating up on men will do nothing to fix the family. Ministering to broken men where they are at will do a lot more.

Sadly, Shane is confined to a small role as the bad cop we’re not supposed to like, and Courageous preaches to the choir. Most of the focus is on Adam, Nathan and Javier, who all have perfect wives, straight out of a Christian fantasy.

Overall, I recommend seeing Courageous. There’s a lot of great moments I didn’t want to spoil here. The fact that I can even disagree with it shows it had more of a brain than most movies. It’s not easy to make a movie that ministers. I still laughed and I was still swept along by the story. It was good to see Christian cinema taking another (mostly) positive step.

Number four at the box office in October of 2011. High-five!

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