Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Project 365: Movies 109 - 112

109 / 365: Wreck-It Ralph (2012)
© Disney Animation Studios

In Disney's most creative, intelligent, and non-pandering work in over a decade, we're granted the opportunity to see witness animation do what it does best: re-invent a familiar world by giving life to the lifeless. Taking a page from Pixar's tried-and-true playbook (think Toy Story on crack), Wreck-It Ralph grows us up a bit from playing with toys to playing games, of the 'video' variety. Set in the electrical workings of a modern video game arcade, when the lights turn off at the end of the night, the games come to life, jumping from their games and making their way to Game Central Station--in other words, the giant surge protector they're all linked to. They socialize, share stories, and gossip, but one thing never changes: Heroes are the heroes, and villains are the villains.

That's when we meet Ralph (John C. Reilly). Spending 30 years as the "wrecking man" villain of the popular 80's game, "Fix-It Felix," Ralph is fend up with being the outcast in not only his game, but in the rest of the game community, so he sets his heart on winning a medal and becoming the hero he's always dreamed of being. When he abandons his game in search of a medal, his journey takes him from a first-person shooter, "Hero's Duty," all the way to a racing game called "Sugar Rush," where he meets another outcast, Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitch in the game whose always dreamed of being a star racer. They agree to help each other, but little do they know that trouble has followed Ralph to "Sugar Rush," and changing the path written in their code may not be as easy as it seems.

Everything about this movie hits all the right notes. It's remarkably creative, mixed enough nostalgia and Easter eggs to satisfy even the most critical 30-something gamer/pop culture nut. More than that, though, it is rife with the right amount of comedy and the right amount of tears. Silverman's Vanellope is delightful and innocent, the perfect catalyst to Reilly's rough-and-destructive Ralph. And, in true Disney fashion, the side characters have enough guff and personality to head up their own movies. Jack McBrayer as Felix, the hero to Ralph's villain, Jane Lynch as the leader of the FPS brigade of "Hero's Duty," Calhoun--and of course, every single voice that pops up in "Sugar Rush," like my personal favorite, Alan Tudyk, breathing life into the slobbering, deceitful King Candy.

Constructed to perfection, Wreck-It Ralph rivals any animated feature put up against it, and is a real triumph for Disney. Any movie that can touch me like this one does deserves to be watched again and again. Just thinking about the Bad Guy affirmation brings tears to my eyes.

I'm bad, and that's good. I will never be good, and that's not bad. There's no one I'd rather be than me.
*sniff* *cry* omg.

Rating: ★★★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: VUDU
Seen Before: Yes

110 / 365: Far from the Madding Crowd (1967)

In anticipation of the most recent, beautiful-looking adaptation of Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy's book, Far from the Madding Crowd, which I have plans to see later this week, I suddenly realized I had never seen a single version of this story on stage or screen. As it stood before today, the most popular re-telling belongs to this 1967 classic, starring Julie Christie as Hardy's independent and stubbornly love-torn heroine, Bathsheba Everdene. Cursed with a distracting beauty but blessed with gracious intelligence, Bathsheba struggles to balance a slew of romantic suitors when she inherits a farm from her deceased uncle.

Now, wealthy independent of a man, she turns down a proposal from Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), a poor farmer-turned-shepherd, because she doesn't love him—despite his always looking out for her and running to her aide when she's in a bind. Likewise, her much older neighbor, William Boldwood (Peter Finch), is a wealthy farmer and the most eligible bachelor in the area, who becomes infatuated with Bathsheba as he has no other woman before. Stuck on the notion that her financial freedom should mean marrying with her heart, not her head, she delays giving Boldwood an answer to his proposal, playing with his practical but tender heart in the process. That is until she meets a dashing, womanizing soldier named Sgt. Francis "Frank" Troy (Terrence Stamp). All the feels come rushing to Bathsheba when she watches him whip his sword around (literally), and she falls for his smirk and handsome looks, hook line and sinker. As she navigates these relationships with the men in her life, she must come to terms with what it really means to fall in love—and be the decision-maker in a world that doesn't look kindly on women in control.

Director John Schlesinger directs a truly stunning film, beginning on the rural cliffs of England, all the way through the British countryside. The screen glows with beauty, each shot carefully constructed and purposefully edited. However, there something missing underneath it all. This adaptation lacks in sensuality; it is very clinical in moments that are meant to be passionate, especially from our heroine who is supposedly ripe with passion and strength. The story is pieced together very cleanly, which matches the novel even down to some of the finer points, but it doesn't always translate to a visual medium. Rather, it contributes to the film's choppy pacing, as time passes awkwardly, scenes jolt from one to another and emotions shift on a whim. In print, this can work well, as a fleshed out narration can contribute insight that visuals alone often can't.

The cast looks and sounds perfect on the surface, but there's a fire missing that couldn't hold my attention. The original narrative doesn't require such a rigorous reconstruction to tell Bathsheba's story fully, and Christie's portrayal comes off as cold and unfeeling when we should be just as swept away as she is by the madness of it all. Take it or leave it, I'd rather leave it. What this film did do, however, is make me ever-more anxious to see what Thomas Vinterberg's version has in store for Ms. Everdene.

Rating: ★★½ / 5 stars
Watched: TV / Turner Classic Movies
Seen Before: No

© Zeitgeist Films

This twisted tale of jealousy and deceit that has grown to legendary status is the subject of a documentary that—at least to me—was a story completely unknown outside of the small islands littered off the coast of Ecuador known as the Galápagos Archipelago. Beginning as a bit of a head-scratcher, hints are made to the "unbelievable" story to follow, but not without the requisite back story to get us all on the same page.

Through compelling narrations reciting old letters and journals, we're introduced to a German doctor emboldened by Nietzsche, Friedrich Ritter (voiced by Thomas Kretschmann), and his doting paramour, Dore Strauch (voiced by Cate Blanchett), who escaped Europe to find peace, tranquility, and solitude on an uninhabited island in the Galápagos called Floreana. That is until word of their private island spread, and "interlopers" began to descend upon their shores, beginning with a German couple, Heinz (Sebastian Koch) and Margret Wittmer (Diane Kruger), and followed not long after by the eccentric and self-titled, Baroness Von Wagner (Connie Nielsen) and her bevy of lovers. It is at this point, in 1931, when the battle for privacy, possessions, sex, and sanity grip Floreana and its residents, leading to the mysterious disappearances that remain, to this day, unsolved.

The documentary makes an upfront promise of murder, sex, and madness within this untamed paradise of the Galápagos, though the filmmakers take their time in laying out all of the details they feel are necessary in taking you on this journey. Some of it is fascinating, but some of it is achingly dull. We rejoice whenever there is a focus on the main story of intrigue, a steady timeline of photographs and home video footage of the people themselves, glittered with gossipy narrations. A type of re-enactment that never teeters on cheesy or tired, one that fully portrays the mystery and unbalanced energy behind this odd and incompatible group of people. The Baroness, particularly, is an almost inconceivable personality, desperate and delusional in her attempts to become Queen of her own private island.

But then the shift happens, pulling away from the developing mystery to listen to lamenting accounts from other Galápagos ex-pats still inhabiting the larger, nearby islands today, sharing their experiences of lonely island life. An attempt to offer a first-hand perspective of the freedoms and hardships of escaping to "paradise," I suppose, but the constant back and forth just feels like a distraction, causing the story of Floreana to lose some of its momentum. It is during these cutaways from the primary story that the film feels heavy-handed and over-stuffed. The incorporation of the soul-seeing Galápagos tortoise to shove in that bit of mythical strangeness doesn't help matters either. Getting through this B-plot can only be viewed as a small hurdle, though, because in truth, the story of Ritter, Strauch, the Wittmers, and the Baroness makes for a real tabloid expose worth the time it takes to get there.

Rating: ★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Netflix
Seen Before: No

112 / 365: The Age of Adaline (2015)
© Lionsgate

An honest romance is a rare thing to find these days. It's hard to find an audience for something not based on a young adult novel or a story bathed in S&M controversy... but maybe that's why The Age of Adaline was such an intriguing offering. It is unapologetic and refreshing, delicately constructed to tell the story of Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively in a career-defining role), who in 1933, after a series of unexplainable phenomena, freezes her internal clock at the young age of 29. She will never age. For the next 70 years, she must change her identity and avoid any personal relationships for fear of someone discovering her secret. Her only solace is her daughter, Flemming (Ellen Burstyn), now an old woman. When she meets a dashing young philanthropist, Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), on the eve of her next big identity change, she begins to question her life of solitude and risks everything to see if a future with someone else is even possible.

Accepting the concept of Adaline's fantastical, ever-lasting life doesn't take much on our part. The story weaves together so many details that give Adaline's story and personality the weight of someone who has experienced a lifetime of joy, grief, and sacrifice. In the film's saddest scene, Adaline flips through a book of old photographs, of the generations of dogs that she's had, her only constant companions. It's so touching, it's almost unfair, and my heart burst into a million pieces. The flashbacks to the various decades of her life are expertly placed throughout the story, becoming more and more prevalent when she travels to visit Ellis' parents, only to discover that she has a connection to his father, William (played magnetically by Harrison Ford). His reaction, and inability to make sense of his feelings for her, bring this movie up to a whole new level of romantic.

I do have a quick aside to what I found to be the only irksome thing: the casting of Hugh Ross as the 3rd person-omniscient Narrator. At first, I thought maybe I didn't like the way the narration was written overall. It's very matter-of-fact, full of knowledgeable, scientific tidbits that serve to breath truth into this otherwise unfathomable story—in some ways, completely pointless, since we accept it all easily pretty early on. But it occurred to me my problem didn't lie with the writing; it was with the voice itself. Ross' voice just doesn't fit. The writing asks for a Jim Dale-like presence, à la "Pushing Daisies," and Ross just doesn't have the chops. He didn't match the glamour of Adaline or the romance of the story, and it's a crying shame.

Thankfully, the narration makes up only the beginning and end of the story. In the middle, we're treated to a stunning, gripping, and soaring romance, with a performance by Lively that can only be described as ethereal. No doubt about it, this woman can really act; clothes and hair aside, she carries Adaline's antique style and grace like a confident young woman whose soul was born in another time, but whose feet are firmly planted in the present. I couldn't help but be taken with her, exactly the way that Ellis and William were. Harrison Ford gives his best performance in years, internalizing his love for this woman until it wells up in his eyes and spills out all over the screen. It catches him, and us, by surprise, and we can't help but believe him; not just because we buy in to his performance, but because Lively's Adaline earns such adoration.

To go on and on about the finer points of this movie would be redundant, and would frankly ruin a lot of the gems that it has to offer. As a romance, it is simply lovely; an unexpected film that glitters with a mature, honest spirit. I felt lighter and happier walking out of the theater than I have in a long time, and I have every confidence that you will, too.

Rating: ★★★★ / 5 stars
Watched: Theater
Seen Before: No

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