High Noon (8/30/12)

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When a dangerous criminal is released from prison, the town marshal that sent him there must face him one last time in High Noon.

Will Kane (Gary Cooper), the marshal of Hadleyville, marries Amy (Grace Kelly) and plans to give up his badge and live a peaceful life as a shopkeeper. As the newlywed couple is preparing to leave, word spreads that Frank Miller (Ian MacDonald), a criminal that Kane put behind bards, is arriving on the very train the couple would be leaving on. The Kanes rush off on horseback to get out of town but Will decides to turn around and stop running. As he tries to roundup townsfolk to help him, he is met with no assistance and the clock is still ticking for Miller’s arrival.

High Noon was quite a surprise for me since I had never seen it before and was not even very familiar with the film. The timing of the film actually elapses in almost real time and we are constantly reminded the clock is always ticking away for the inevitable showdown between Kane and Miller’s gang at noon. Apparently the film is allegorical for the House Un-American Activities Committee that was trying to fish out communists during the Korean War with no one standing up to help the film’s producers. Unfortunately, we found that connection out after watching High Noon but it made the story a little more poignant.

I’m also a bit ashamed to say that I’m not sure if I’ve seen a Gary Cooper film before. The part of Kane in High Noon could have very well have gone to John Wayne but I’m glad that Cooper was the star, he was quite fitting for the role. He was tough, but his reluctance to fight (and likely die) was believable. It was really a great performance. Another great performance is the gorgeous Grace Kelly. Lloyd Bridges also has a part as a deputy, but it’s hard for me to think of him as anyone but Izzy Mandelbaum from Seinfeld.

I always appreciate seeing films like High Noon, especially if they are new to me. While I don’t often get in the mood to watch a Western, there is a short list of Westerns that I could watch just about anytime. I think High Noon has secured a place on that list.

I give it 4 High Noon theme songs out of 5.

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ParaNorman (8/22/12)

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ParaNorman is the story of a boy who can speak with the dead and has to save the town from zombies.

In a small New England town called Blithe Hollow, Norman (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a seemingly normal boy that has the power to see and speak with the dead. While with his chubby friend Neil (Tucker Albrizzi), the boys are approached by Norman’s estranged uncle Prenderghast (John Goodman) who tells Norman that he must protect the town against the witch. Unfortunately, Prenderghast dies before leaving Norman instructions, and has to visit him as a ghost to deliver the message that Norman will need to read a book at the witches burial site before sundown. Norman gets to where he thinks the witch was buried, only to find out he is wrong and now the dead are rising and the curse of the witch is unleashed. It’s up to Norman, his sister, Neil, and Neil’s brother to break the curse.

I have seen reviews for ParaNorman on both sides of the spectrum, some folks love it and some seem to be completely nonplussed by it. While the film certainly has its faults, I was quite charmed by it, largely due to the art style of the stop-motion animation. As a huge fan of the film Coraline, I wanted to see ParaNorman just knowing that it would be made by the Chris Butler, the writer/director. Luckily, ParaNorman looks amazing. There are many times that it lokos like the entire film is CGI, and CGI is used heavily in some scenes, but most of it is actually stop-motion animation and I love that.

The plot of ParaNorman is almost like an introduction to zombie movies for kids. The humor, well most of it, is clearly aimed at a young crowd. I found several of the jokes really lame, but I also found myself laughing out loud. Not quite a horror movie, it doesn’t offer scares but it is a bit intense by the end, though not as all out creepy as parts of Coraline are. It makes for ParaNorman to be slightly uneven but on a whole it’s a fun film that would be good for almost everyone. One last thing to note is that I saw this in 3D (it was only showing in 3D, actually). Normally, I would opt for 2D versions of films but I found the 3D to be good in ParaNorman; not too intrusive and not obnoxious.

If someone asked me if I would recommend ParaNorman, I would heartily say “yes!” and also suggest seeing Coraline. ParaNorman is a film that spoke to me (pun intended). I didn’t love all of it, but what I loved enough of it that made it a pretty good little film.

I give it 4 deconstructed Normans out of 5.

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Beasts of the Southern Wild (8/5/12)

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A little girl lives with her father in a sheltered bayou community and goes in search of her mother as her father’s health begins to fail in Beasts of the Southern Wild.

Six year old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her father, Wink (Dwight Henry) in an isolated shanty community called The Bathtub south of the levees in Louisiana. As her father’s health begins to fail and a storm rolls through, leaving The Bathtub entirely underwater, Hushpuppy believes the universe is out of balance and attempts to find her mother. Part of the universe being imbalanced means that a group of large beasts known as aurochs become thawed from the ice caps and are making their way south to The Bathtub.

Beasts of the Southern Wild is much more touching than I anticipated it being. Hushpuppy’s childlike wonder makes the film a blend of surreal fantasy and we are left to wonder what is really happening or what is her interpretation of the events. She knows little of her father’s illness because he keeps it from her and we, the audience, are also left mostly in the dark to the specifics. This also makes the aurochs a great force that is mysterious and their presence in the film is small but significant.

One thing that I normally point out when I review films is whether or not they use shakycam and then I point out how much I abhor shakycam. Beasts of the Southern Wild is shot entirely in this manner, but it works in the manner of the film and never feels out of place. In fact, after the first 15-20 minutes of the film, I barely even noticed because it just felt so organic.

First time filmmaker Benh Zeitlin really provides a lot of love here and Beasts of the Southern Wild is a film that is quite hard to describe in short. While the plot may be too esoteric for its own good, and certain scenes seem to lack focus, everything has its place in the film. I went in to Beasts of the Southern Wild expecting a Where the Wild Things Are if it had been directed by Terrence Malick but I was way off. Beasts of the Southern Wild is actually quite unlike any other film I’ve seen that is a story of survival just as much as it is about growing up.

I give it 5 auroch face-offs out of 5.

Fun fact: The aurochs in the film are completely different from their real, extinct namesakes. The creatures in the film were created by using baby pot bellied pigs with a nutria skin prosthetic.

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North By Northwest (7/18/12)

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North By Northwest tells the tale of a case of mistaken identity leading to a kidnapping by international spies.

Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant) is mistaken for George Kaplan after paging a bellhop who is paging Kaplan. Two thugs take note and force Thornhill to the estate of Lester Townsend by a man impersonating Townsend named Philip Vandamm (James Mason). After questioning and Thornhill’s refusal that he is Kaplan, they fill Thornhill with liquor and send him on his way over a cliff. Instead, Thornhill, who is extremely drunk, drives away and gets picked up by the cops. When no one believes his story, Thornhill decides to track down the real George Kaplan to get to the bottom of things. He soon finds himself on the run after another case of mistaken identity and becomes involved with a young woman named Eve Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) who helps him escape capture only to land him in more trouble.

North By Northwest is very much an Alfred Hitchcock film. It has everything we’ve come to expect from the master of suspense and it could easily be argued that North By Northwest is one of his finest films. Cary Grant absolutely shines on screen and can be charming and funny no matter what. The rest of the cast is good, especially Saint, but Grant is undoubtedly the star here.

I actually got the opportunity to see this in theaters, in the same summer series as A Clockwork Orange, and unlike that film, North By Northwest looked and sounded like it had been carefully restored for the big screen. Unfortunately for me (and the rest of the theater) the experience was marred by a group of cackling idiots near the front of the theater that shrieked and bounced up and down during most of the film. Scenes that were not meant to be funny were laughed at and tense scenes were marred by their outbursts. They were clearly enjoying themselves but it was incredibly irritating. If you’re wondering, we didn’t get a manager because they weren’t doing anything wrong, per se, they were just irritating people. As a public service announcement, please remember that a crowded movie theater is not your living room.

Alfred Hitchcock’s films catalog is vast and it would take ages for one to watch all of his films. It would be hard to even just recommend one film of his to watch, let alone several. North By Northwest is a film that should be viewed both because it’s a Hitchcock film and because it’s a beautifully crafted thriller.

I give it 4 missed the bus moments out of 5.

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The Dark Knight Rises (7/20/12) [Spoiler-free]

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The Dark Knight Rises concludes Christopher Nolan’s spectacular Batman trilogy with Bruce Wayne donning the suit of Gotham’s hero for perhaps the final time.

Picking up eight years after the end of The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises has Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) living in seclusion, except for Alfred (Michael Caine) of course, after he uses Batman as a martyr and sets Harvey Dent up as Gotham’s real hero. During a party at Wayne Manor, Bruce finds a young woman stealing his mother’s necklace and taking his fingerprints. Bruce soon finds out this woman is Selina Kyle, aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) and she is selling Wayne’s fingerprints for a plot by Bane (Tom Hardy) to bring down Bruce Wayne and also Gotham city itself. With the assistance of old friend Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman), “hotheaded” rookie cop John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), and board member Miranda (Marion Cotillard), Bruce Wayne must come out of the shadows to become Batman and save Gotham before Bane destroys everything.

There are no doubt going to be people that walk away from The Dark Knight Rises disappointed, it’s inevitable. And yes, there are some disappointing things about the film, but nitpicking aside, it shows some of the strongest filmmaking of the trilogy and I would say it actually exceeded my expectations by a fair margin. Christopher and Jonathan Nolan have pulled out all the stops for The Dark Knight Rises and I will say that the action grabs you by the throat early on and doesn’t even let up, though the film throws a lot at you to begin with so that helps keep you on your toes.

While I did not view this film on an IMAX screen (I will in a few weeks, though) there is obvious care taken to filming and I could safely guess which portions of the film were shot for IMAX. The sets are somehow even grander than The Dark Knight and Gotham feels larger too. Both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight were filmed here in Chicago and The Dark Knight Rises was filmed elsewhere (Philadelphia, I believe Pittsburgh) so that may play a part in this. Most surprising for me was the high quality acting, Michael Caine especially. It would be forgivable for a comic book film to have the actors mostly phone it in, but the actors all truly deliver here. The only exception would possibly be Tom Hardy as Bane…

Which leads me to my few nitpicking gripes about the The Dark Knight Rises. Bane is my biggest peeve since he sounds like a cross between Hardy’s earlier role in Bronson and Sean Connery doing a Peter Sellers impersonation. Obviously test audiences had a hell of a time understanding Bane when he talked, so they made his voice this way on purpose and it sits high in the mix too. At least he is clearly audible. My other main gripe is that the CGI is a bit uneven. Nolan is fantastic at using real sets for his stunts so maybe the CGI portions just stood out because of this, but I thought some of the bits looked a bit flat.

I was not expecting to be surprised by The Dark Knight Rises and yet I was. Several times, in fact. While Christopher Nolan may not be returning to Batman films anytime, I hope he and and his brother are at the very least creative consultants on the next set of Batman films. In case you are wondering if I prefer this film over The Dark Knight, it’s a close call. In fact, I would rate all three of Nolan’s Batman films 5/5 so technically I can be noncommittal and say they all tie! I will be seeing The Dark Knight Rises again very soon and I honestly cannot wait. This is a real contender for best film of 2012.

I give it 5 Pee-Wee Herman narrates the trailers out of 5.

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A Clockwork Orange (7/11/12)

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A Clockwork Orange centers around a youth who partakes in drugs, sex, Beethoven, and ultra-violence before being imprisoned and reformed.

Alex (Malcolm McDowell), and his gang of droogs start A Clockwork Orange in the milk bar they frequent and we see their fights with rival gangs, rape, brutal beatings, speeding in cars and in general what they refer to as “a bit of the ol’ ultra-violence”. Alex is particularly callous and sociopathic in his ways, but has a fondness for Beethoven. After murdering a woman with a giant phallic statue, Alex is betrayed by his gang and is hauled off to prison where he is involved in an extreme experimental procedure to “cure” him.

Stanley Kubrick stands as one of my favorite writer/directors, if not the favorite and I used to watch A Clockwork Orange several times a month in high school. It has been several years since I had seen the film and was lucky enough to get a chance to see it shown theatrically. Unfortunately, the theatrical release was marred by an old restoration or a careless one which is perplexing since the film was recently relreleased on blu-ray and this was definitely not the blu-ray. The sound was a bit muddy and the picture had several hairs and specks on it that weren’t quite distracting, just disappointing.

As for the film itself, A Clockwork Orange has certainly stood the test of time. In 1971 when it was released it obviously caused quite a stir, even today it is a very hard R-rating. Kubrick shows an unflinching view of the rape and violence as well as Alex’s treatment. This is not an easy recommendation for everyone but for those willing to look deeper into the meaning of the pointed remarks being made about government, psychiatry, and the prison system may appreciate A Clockwork Orange for what it stands for.

Malcolm McDowell is absolutely chilling in the lead of this film and the role of Alex has gone to define his career. In A Clockwork Orange he is terrifying while also charming and likable, long before Dexter graced our televisions. The other performances in the film are executed well, but none come close to McDowell’s. I also have to point out the fantastic soundtrack, comprised of classical music and synthesized tracks. It would be impossible to imagine the film working with any other soundtrack and it adds tremendously to the tone of the scenes.

A Clockwork Orange is a great film that is sure to disgust people that aren’t aware of what the film is actually about. Stanley Kubrick made a career of directing masterpieces and A Clockwork Orange is still one of the greatest films released.

I give it 5 Ludovico techniques out of 5.

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Moonrise Kingdom (7/4/12) & (11/14/12)

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Set in New England in 1965, Moonrise Kingdom is the story of two young lovers that don’t fit in with others and decide to run away together as the rest of the island sets out in search of them.

At the khaki scout camp, led by Scout Master Ward (Edward Norton), they discover a scout has escaped. The scout is young Sam Shakusky (Jared Gilman) and we learn that he has run away from camp to be with his love, a young girl named Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward). Suzy lives on the island with her parents (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) and younger brothers but doesn’t fit in with the other kids. Suzy and Sam had met several years prior and had remained in touch via letter. After the two run away, the entire khaki scout camp, the Bishops, policeman (Bruce Willis), and other set out to rescue the young lovers.

Moonrise Kingdom is one of the most stylistic movies I’ve ever seen, even more than Wes Anderson’s other films. The color palette is heavy on yellows and browns but everything still feels campy and awesome. I have long found Anderson’s work to be a bit hit or miss, and Moonrise Kingdom is easily the film I think where his unique brand shines the brightest. The quirky characters, the motifs, the sets, the props, the color palates, the score…Everything works wonderfully here and creates a film so full of wonder and amazement.

Both child leads are non-actors starring in their first feature, which is incredibly impressive given their performances. They both give deadpan deliveries, which in the case of Sam Shakusky, I thought gave Moonrise Kingdom most of its laughs. The entire cast is wonderful. Who in their right mind could complain about a film with Bill Murray, Edward Norton, and Bruce Willis together?

If you have any preconceived notions of what a Wes Anderson film entails, Moonrise Kingdom will not change your mind, but it’s almost as if Anderson has taken his style and cranked it to the maximum and the end results work better than most of his other films. The whimsy here is something that few other movies could ever hope of portraying. Not only is Moonrise Kingdom my favorite Anderson film to date, but it is my favorite film of 2012 thus far. Try to watch it without a smile plastered on your face the entire time.

I give it 5 seriously amazing soundtracks out of 5.

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