How To Train Your Dragon

December 23, 2010

Think of the way people talk about Pixar.  Now think of the way people talk about Dreamworks Animation.  Pixar has become a studio-auteur, where people go in expecting a certain level of intelligence, emotion, and outright beauty that most reserve for the latest picture by their favourite director.  Of course, Pixar is made up of individuals, and though the only one ever really singles out is Brad Bird (mostly, perhaps, because The Iron Giant is an oft-heralded but little-seen masterpiece), there exist their talented people with their own unique input.  Dreamworks, on the other hand, is an ugly studio with limited ambitions.  They made name for themselves with Shrek, and then proceeded to run that brand into the ground whilst simultaneously infecting a whole score of animated films for years to come with its heavy reliance on pop-culture parody and smirking, adults-will-laugh-too humour.  It’s easy to say that in our modern, cynical world the average moviegoer demands a certain amount of self-awareness.  It’s only a movie, guys, so let’s not get carried away.  Then again, it’s not so easy to say that when you consider Pixar’s incredible (and incredibly successful) run, all of which are grounded in deep, honest emotions.  With How To Train Your Dragon, Dreamworks has made what is easily their best film yet, but it’s tempting to say that it is a one-off or a fluke.  Nothing this quality could come from a studio that only desires a quick buck and maybe a franchise.  While there seems little doubt that Chris Sanders and Dan DeBlois (previously of Lilo and Stitch) have an awful lot to do with the success of the work after being brought in half-way through, credit should go to the studio for letting it happen, and we can hope that they’ve discovered the simple truth that all you really need is a good story well told. Read the rest of this entry »

How Do You Know

December 21, 2010

Perhaps it is unfair to expect more from James L. Brooks.  His romantic comedies have generally been delightful but they are often far from transcending the genre.  They elevate themselves primarily by being wittier and sometimes cleverer than the norm, but they’re hardly great, indispensable films.  I have a certain affection for As Good As It Gets and while I didn’t care for it at the time, Kent Jones’ writing has convinced me that Spanglish might be worth another look (Tea Leoni’s mad performance stood out even then, and is perhaps worth reconsidering).  How Do You Know is slight, meandering, a little too long, vaguely enjoyable and only very occasionally “funny”.  It is an “adult” rom-com only when you compare it to every other mainstream rom-com released in recent years, and that is a sobering thought that those even those of us who love easy entertainments might find hard to swallow. Read the rest of this entry »

Almost ten years ago, some friends and I began a tradition we called the Sunday Morning Movie.  The idea was to wake up, roll out of bed, and drive down to Blockbuster first thing (we didn’t wake up very early) and rent the biggest new release of the week that didn’t look very good or that we had no real desire to see.  This was partly to justify watching crap films that I didn’t want to admit that I actually did want to see (cool special effects actioners or soppy rom-coms, for instance) and partly because we thought it might be worth keeping up with popular culture. The hope was to find a decent little gem amongst the dreck, and to our surprise there were quite a few. When I moved overseas I continued this tradition with new friends, though at some point it got out of hand.  I found myself watching three terrible movies in one afternoon, and at some point the number of bad movies I was watching overtook the number of good ones.  That, combined with falling interest and a number of other factors led to the discontinuation of the program, though it was revived from to time over the intervening years.  As I find myself back in the US with nothing else to do on a Sunday, I’ve decided to resurrect the practice when feasible.  Due to money concerns, you might notice that the films tend to be whatever happened to be on HBO, so if the rule of finding recent films doesn’t quite fit anymore, I hope the spirit of the venture remains in tact.

I’ve always felt that Richard Curtis’ Love Actually was the result of his conception of about ten vague romantic comedy stories that he couldn’t be bothered to flesh out.  By combining them into one film of loosely-connected stories he bypassed all the trouble of creating convincing, three-dimensional characters to get to the basics of the filmed concept of love.  Despite it really being a series of sketches, it largely works because of the impressive array of actors assembled who managed to infuse their caricatures with some degree of recognizable humanity.  In some cases, even the stories gave off the faint whiff of emotional honesty that came very close to what some might consider “moving”.  Pirate Radio moves Curtis out of his rom-com safe zone into more straightforward comedy, and though it still features a large ensemble of characters, they’re all (literally) in the same boat. Read the rest of this entry »

Black Swan

December 8, 2010

Ballet is a peculiar art form in today’s society.  Now, I’m not just saying that because I don’t understand it, though that is certainly part of it.  I mean that it feels like such an anachronism and yet it surely one of the toughest and most competitive performance arts around.  For something that has become a cultural byword for “boring crap your girlfriend always wants to do”, the physical turmoil for the performers is disproportionately brutal.  Or so it seems to me, for I do not run in circles in which the ballet is a regularly attended event on the social calendar.  All of this is to say that it is something of a niche art form, and one gets the impression only the obsessively dedicated, passionate, and in some ways masochistic ever really make it.  There is a scene in Black Swan in which Nina (Natalie Portman) and her fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis) are in a bar talking to some guys they just met.  They know nothing of the ballet aside from having heard of Swan Lake, and Nina begins to excitedly tell them about it and offer them tickets.  Lily changes the subject, knowing full well that these guys and, well, most people don’t care.  Nina doesn’t understand that.  Her life has been the ballet, and the film is about an obsessive artist who knows nothing else and cannot come to terms with anything beyond it. Read the rest of this entry »