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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It’s Complicated

It's ComplicatedSeveral years ago there was a television show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous wherein heavily-accented host Robin Leach would indulge viewers in glimpses of how people who were, well, rich and famous, lived their everyday lives. For the ten-year run of the show, viewers were entranced with visions of indoor swimming pools, personal chefs, expensive vehicles, and extravagant wardrobes.  It was escapist television, and offered a snapshot of what life could be like for the mortal average guys and gals who punched in at nine and out at five.  Watching It’s Complicated is kind of like Leach’s show, save for the fact that we are asked to possess a certain degree of empathy for the characters, specifically divorcee Jane (Meryl Streep) as she struggles with feelings of attraction to her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin) while simultaneously being courted by her architect Adam (Steve Martin).  But in watching these highbrow socialites as they struggle through midlife crises, empathy is somewhat hard to come by.  Fortunately the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, and provides enough lighthearted humor to be entertaining, if rather forgettable.

It's Complicated Jake

Give it up, Alec...you'll forever be Jack Donaghy in our minds. :)

The casting of It’s Complicated is as smart as they come, and it’s nearly worth the price of admission alone to see Alec Baldwin slipping into his role like a pair of comfy jeans.  After ten years of divorce, Jake is unhappily remarried to a typical Stock Hollywood Annoying Wife Character #4-C Agness (Lake Bell) with Stock Hollywood Bratty Kid #3-F Pedro (Emjay Anthony) in tow.  As luck (or movie logic) would have it, Jake and Jane meet up in the bar of the hotel where they are staying for their son’s graduation from NYU.  Sure enough, they hook up for the night and spend the next few days re-thinking their lives along with a series of romantic trysts at Jane’s new house.

Meanwhile Adam continues to develop feelings toward Jane, which leads to a bit of a conundrum for Jane:  Does she reunite with her ex-husband, with for whom she is beginning to develop some serious feelings of affection, or does she go for the Adam, the safe bet who is searching for love after a few years of his own divorce?  Despite the movie’s title, it’s actually not all that complicated, and this type of love triangle is nothing we haven’t seen before.  Streep and Baldwin have an infectious screen chemistry, and much of the fun of the movie comes from watching the two of them romp around like a pair of twitterpated high school lovebirds.  Martin’s incredible talent seems woefully underused, though, and only has a handful of truly funny scenes throughout the entire movie.

It's Complicated Meryl Streep Steve Martin

Jane and Adam, looking for love in all the wrong places. Like behind a lilac bush.

It’s Complicated plays on the premise of relationship confusion, something all of us have gone through. But Streep’s problems really don’t seem all that bad–she is the owner of a posh cafe where a single croissant will set you back over $10, she’s got a good relationship with her children, and has a group of Stock Hollywood Divorced Friends #6B-F with whom to gossip and eat pastries.  And Jack seems to be doing pretty well with his new marriage, even though his wife exhibits such egregious character flaws as wanting to know why he is out at all hours of the evening and why he seems to be having secret conversations on his cell phone.

Despite the somewhat questionable logic at work here, director Nancy Meyers must be commended for crafting a film that does not cater to the lowest common denominator:  though It’s Complicated secured an R rating, typical scatalogical gags, bathroom humor, and even swearing are almost nowhere to be found.  It’s a film that tries to be an exploration of midlife crises, past regrets, second chances, and horribly awkward video iChat sessions.  Ultimately it feels a little hollow, but at the same time it’s enjoyable as an escapist fantasy.  These individuals live in a world far removed from my own, and that of everyone else I know, and their fairly inconsequential problems and supposedly complicated relationships are a bit of an insult to the real people with actual problems and genuinely complicated relationships who will be watching the movie.  But sometimes it’s good to just sit back and enjoy a lighthearted movie for what it is.

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The Hunt for Red October

Midway through The Hunt for Red October a few nights ago, my wife turned to me and said “Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?”  I asked her what she meant, and she said “You know, movies with just a really good plot.”  As we spent a good chunk of our evening watching Jack Donaghy track down a renegade Henry Jones, I realized more and more the truth of her question.  Red October is an excellent film partly for what it is (a solid plot filled with political intrigue and suspenseful Soviet/American showdowns, played by a veritable Who’s Who of famous 1990’s-era leading male actors) but also for what it is not:  an exercise in special-effects showmanship and envelope-pushing visual wizardry.  It is the story of a man determined to do what he knows to be right, and a man who, by the courage of his convictions alone, does whatever it takes to help.

John McTiernan is a veteran of action movie directing, and he puts his chops to good use here, even though much of the action takes place in confined spaces aboard submarines.  Having cut his teeth on the excellent Predator (one of MJV’s favorite movies of all time) and defined an entire hero archetype with Jon McLane in the original Die Hard, he once again shows his talent for creating scenes that ratchet up suspense and tension, though this time he does it through characters and dialog alone:  a key scene in which Captain Ramius, played to the hilt by the outstanding Sir Sean Connery, orders his men to continue down a deep ocean trench even though all their sea charts point to imminent doom if they don’t turn aside is just as powerful as any minigun or broken-glass moment in other McTiernan films.  The rest of the cast is stellar as well, including Alec Baldwin, Sam Neill (working hard to perfect his Event Horizon “I am home” look), Scott Glenn, Stellan Skarsgård, James Earl Jones, and even Fred Thompson and Tim Curry (not to mention longtime McTiernan collaborator Jeffrey Jones) for good measure.

Another aspect of this film I admire is its restraint in terms of plot:  the Russians have built their largest, most powerful submarine yet, and it can run nearly silent.  However, instead of plotting the utter destruction of the United States, Ramius is ordered to conduct routine naval maneuvers in order to show the USA how powerful the Russian navy truly is.  There’s no doomsday scenario here–the Russians are not out to destroy the whole of North America.  They take a far more measured approach, which heightens the realism of the movie and makes the conflict all the more palpable.  Ramius of course has other plans, but again they are not what we would expect:  instead of ignoring orders and going ahead with the destruction of his enemies, he plans to defect and essentially give the entire submarine to the United States.  His enemies become the entire Russian navy, who wants to stop him from defecting, as well as several key players in the US Military who don’t believe such a brilliant Russian patriot would actually give himself (and his submarine) up so easily.

Jack Ryan, the longstanding Tom Clancy hero played here by Aled Baldwin, is the only one who knows what Ramius is really up to.  Here again Red October avoids cliché, and instead of having the entire movie come down to a matter of one powerful commander refusing to believe Ryan (as is the case in so many movies like this), his concerns are mostly heeded throughout the movie, and moments of tension are scattered throughout instead of having everything lead up to one moment at the end, which the audience would surely know the outcome of anyway.

One more noteworthy element of Red October is the special effects:  no cutting-edge CGI here (remember, this movie came out one year after The Abyss), just models, clever lighting and smoke effects, and some excellent practical effects.  The submarines plod along slowly underwater, visibility is limited to a few murky projections on the ocean floor and lots of particles floating past, and only the occasional torpedo belies any hint of bluescreen.  There’s a tangible quality about models that, when done right, makes then infinitely more engaging than their CGI counterparts.  The real stars here are not the subs, and had this movie been done today we would have been forced to endure bombastic and unrealistic scenes of submarines careening all over the ocean in some sort of twisted aquatic ballet.  As it stands, though, the effects take a backseat to the actors, conflict, and (gasp!) plot.  And that’s how it should be.

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