Sunday, May 22, 2011

Rio and Pirates of the Caribbean: Happy Birds & Angry Pirates

It's not yet Memorial Day, yet it seems that summer is officially here, and it's time to entertain the kiddies.

Rio - Fox's animated entry voiced by Jesse Eisenberg (of Social Network fame) and Anne Hathaway as a pair of rare, Brazilian macaws who are captured by bird pirates and have to find their way back home, gives a feathered furry of a try, replete with tail-feather-shaking musical numbers dropped into the plot (the characters completely stop whatever they are doing when it's time for a song).

The story arc of Rio seems to have been lifted from Pixar's Up: A sentimental opening coda leads to a set-in-their ways pair (Linda, a bookstore owner, who fawns adoringly over her super smart - almost puppy seeming - pet Macaw, Blue) who are interrupted in life by an overly obsequious busy-body (in this case, a Brazilian ornithologist who wants to mate Blue with the only remaining macaw - a beauty whose personality more resembled that of a Shrew - named Jewel). Off the trio go on a misadventures and misfortune, only to learn about love, friendship, and independence. In these days of Pixar, Tron, and Avatar, the animation feels no more advanced than a 1970's Saturday morning cartoon. A few flying shots when Blue finally figures out how to aerodynamically accelerate himself (love and faith are the key) have a fun freedom, but most of the dance numbers hardly make a step forward from the original Mickie Mouse Barn Dance.

More remarkable that this movie - which has all the inspiration of a video game interstitial - is the mobile app it's paired with, Rovio's Angry Birds. The app is quite a sensation (200 million downloads, which has to be a quantum leap above the audience for this movie). One imagines that app is more entertaining than the movie, which spends most of its time on three-year-old monkey jokes. Rio does have a fey and menacing bad guy in the form of a big white parakeet named Nigel (voiced by Jemaine Clement), as well as the voice of Tracy Morgan behind a big sloppy bulldog, but neither of these assets is well exploited. They got a lot of names into this movie, but it's Rovio, the studio behind Angry Birds, who brings any kind of technical panache, and that, unfortunately, can only be experienced on your phone.

Meanwhile, Disney's fourth attempt at a Pirates movie (On Stranger Tides) finally gets the formula right. Back again is seemingly perpetually anachronistically stoned Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), as well as a few favorites like Pirate Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), as well as a few hardy newcomers (Penelope Cruz, and a marvelously gruff Ian McShane as Blackbeard).

All motion is set in action when the Spanish king discovers the whereabouts of the fountain of youth, and tells his Admiral to set sail. The English king can't let the Spanish best him at the discovery, and so Jack Sparrow is entreated to go after the Spanish. Jack has his own ideas, however, and soon finds himself running from the English (led by Barbossa) and joining camp with Blackbeard and Cruz, as his daughter, as they all race for the treasure of immortality.

This Pirates is directed by Rob Marshall, rather than Gore Verbinksi - who directed the first three - and I must say, what an improvement. While I found the other Pirates glib to the point of being impossible to follow, and full of dead spaces and useless dialogue, this one is all economy and forward action. By this point, Depp has mined all the ironic postmodern gestures in the character and has settled in to a kind of aging, perpetually pubescent swashbuckler who simply wants to pilot a ship again. Meanwhile, Rush and McShane chew the scenery ferociously, and a strong dose of sincerity in the form of a handsome missionary in love with a beautiful young mermaid keeps the emotions anchored. Marshall keeps everyone moving forward towards the fountain and never slows down the pace - from daring escapes to flying sword fights - as the characters race across the seas.

I'm still not that big a fan of the series - as far as pirates go, these are about as mechanical as the Disney ride they're based on. But if I had to pick a pop-corn munching Saturday matinee for the kids, filled with daring escapes, fun bon mots, and exotic locales, this one far outstrips its birdbrained companion.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Win Win – A Feel Good Reality Check

Paul Giamatti is on a roll these days. Here’s another lead role that carries a movie of wonderful warmth and charm. In this case, the timely story of a struggling lawyer who takes legal charge of an old man, suffering dementia, in order to earn his monthly caretaker's stipend, and ends up inheriting care of his grandson, whose wrestling prowess revitalizes the whole town.

The theme: how to seize control over one’s life against the everyday forces that keep us down – whether they be the economy, uncaring parents, or one’s own fears of failure. Giamatti’s lawyer, Mike Flaherty, is struggling to feed his family, trim the dead tree in the yard, and keep the heat on in his office in eye of the Great Recession when the opportunity comes along to earn an extra $1,500 a month. It’s not a lot, but just enough to make a difference. All he needs to do is bend his ethics a little bit and lie to the judge in order to receive custody of the old man, and his monthly stipend.

But as soon as he does, into his life walks the man’s grandson, Kyle. Kyle has problems of his own – his mother is a druggie who deserted him – and he’s come to live with the grandpa, whom Mike has surreptitiously moved out of his house into a nursing home. Mike and his wife (played with Jersey flare by Amy Ryan) takes in the wayward grandson and slowly coaxes him out of his shell and onto the wrestling floor (Mike happens to coach the high school team). Mike and Kyle are clearly kindred spirits and each begins cheering each other up. When Mike and his friends discover that Kyle is actually a wrestling star from Ohio, a secret weapon for their home team, everyone begins to find their passion again; it even looks like this losing team could go to the finals.

But it’s a relationship built on a lie – Mike told the judge grandpa wouldn’t be put into a home – and even before Kyle’s mother comes back into the picture, we can see where this plot is going.

Yes, it’s a kind of Breaking Away story, using sports as a metaphor for self respect, and we’ve seen a version of this movie every decade or so. But what makes this story rise about the predictability is how perfectly rendered the characters are – both by the script and the actors – and how much we fall in love with all of them, and want everything to work out. (Shall I also confess that, like Kyle, I’m from Ohio, and like Mike, I live in New Jersey, and so I also related to the little details of local color?) Mike is a bit devious but he’s also a stand-up guy – he sincerely cares about his charges as a coach and worries about his family. Kyle is just the opposite: all cool, tattooed teenager and superstar jock, but hiding a sensitive, non-judgmental heart. It also inverts the typical plot, making Mike the hero and Kyle the foil – and so it’s the younger teenager whose cool stoicism and sincere openness wins the hearts of those around him; he’s the sturdy center of the movie who needs to be won over by the imperfect adults, and who has to teach the older men about self respect and rising above tough times. It works.

I was skeptical about this movie at first. Shlubbing around seems to be an occupational hazard for Giamatti characters (casting Jeffery Tambor as his assistant coach doesn’t help that impression), and his best friend – a typical divorced Jersey dude played by a middle-aged Bobbie Cannavale – is a bit of a type. But newcomer Alex Shaffer, as Kyle, brings exactly the right kind of sweet dudeness to counteract this bunch (Fast Fact: Shaffer used to be a high school wrestler). What’s so interesting is how intimidating the middle-aged shlubs seem to the kids, and how intimidating the athletic kids seem to the middle aged middleweights. Everyone has something to learn.

That everyone does so is of course a bit corny, but such sentiments in these trying times are not such a bad thing. Through their tiny acts of taking in strangers, showing kindness, and showing respect, each of these characters helps the others just enough. Us Jews have a saying for this accumulation of tiny kind, personal gestures – tikkun olum, or “repairing the world.” This movie does exactly that in its own, sweet way.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Thor: The Summer Hammer Comes Down

Thor may be exactly what we want from our summer blockbusters: rainbow-colored special effects, epic battles, sci-fi trippiness, mythological references, and just a little bit of beefcake. On all those fronts this movie delivers, even if it’s thin on human-centered jeopardy.

The middle of a quintet of Marvel-funded superhero origin-story flicks leading up to an Avengers reunion (Iron Man and the Hulk reboot kicked off the multi-movie quest: the other heroes remaining to be introduced – Captain America and Ant-Man – are already in the works), Thor is a departure from the others, the only hero who isn’t a technological or biological freak of this world. Thor is the actual mythic Norse god of legend, and his arrival on Earth – when cast out by his father from Asgard – is neither questioned (why Norse mythology rather than, say Hindu?) nor is he given any more Earthly awe or glory than any average weight-lifting frat boy from Notre Dame. What Thor has going for him, however, is a mighty hammer, forged from the heart of a sun (when he learns the proper respect it’ll work for him again), as well as a frat-boy smile and showy pair of biceps that endears him with the local ladies (played mostly by a fawning and younger-than-Star-Wars seeming Natalie Portman).

Not much happens on earth (other than the predictable mixed-marriage courtship – you know, I’m a dippy scientist, you’re a Norse god of legend, this will never work). Rather, all the interesting stuff in this movie takes place on Asgard, and the illustration of the Norse legend of Odin, Thor, and his trickster brother Loki. Thor’s Dad opens an Eisenstein Bridge (a wormhole to you and me, brought up on Star Trek lingo) and Thor pops onto Earth like a watermelon seed being spit out of the heavens. But what happens next hardly matters: Writer and director Kenneth Branagh was seemingly more intrigued with illustrating the background legendary family dynamics of warrior conflict rather than the busywork of moving around the mechanical backstory pieces of Marvel’s Avengers set-up (the S.H.I.E.L.D. squad, led by the once credits-relegated Agent Coulson, are now firmly anchored at the center of this story, as they haplessly try to diagnose what this god-like phenomenon is). Thank god, because what happens on Earth really should stay on Earth. The much more interesting action has to do with Loki discovering his heritage, trading with the Ice Giant enemies, and tricking Odin into transferring his love of one arrogant son to another.

A smart decision, since while romping through Asgard and other Ice Giant battles, Branagh is able to largely avoid Flash-Gordon-style camp (despite those fabulous costumes) and give us an old-fashioned action, sci-fi yarn of merit.

The story of Thor, then, is not so much the typical super-hero setup as it is the entertaining rite of passage of legend. Take an arrogant, war-happy, powerful youngster, strip him of his powers and his T-shirt, teach him a bit of humility, and make him fall in love with an Earthling and learn the value of life. This makes him a better King. As far as summer movie life-lessons go, it’s not a bad one. If only some of our recent Presidents had learned the same.