Ralph Breaks the Internet

It has been six years since “Wreck it Ralph” popped into our video consciousness and it’s time for a sequel.  I am pretty sure I only saw the previous film the one time. It’s not that I disliked it, it simply was not my jam and I never felt connected to it the way I have to other Disney films. So this sequel was not something on my radar until a trailer dropped, and even though it looked like it might be fun, I was in no hurry to see it. In fact, I ended up in this screening completely by accident. I’d gone to see “Creed II” in the brief window of time I had available yesterday, and the film failed. I sat in the dark and the movie never started. After I notified the management and they struggled for ten minutes to reboot the equipment, I was offered a pass and an invitation to take in another film. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” was what was starting next so here I am.

After having built a world out of the old arcade games of the past, the makers of this film decided that the thing that made the previous film worthwhile was that creativity which made the arcade games real. So instead of building a story in the world they have already explored, they looked for new territory and of course what is right in front of them is the internet. Take all the ones and zeros and turn them into an imaginary community populated with characters that make all the things we users see on line. Algorithms are personified, pop up ads have a life of their own, and web sites are viewed as corporate entities occupying space much like old school brick and mortar retail stores did. Our heroes go on a quest to find a rare piece of equipment on eBay, but of course the journey is complicated and the main duo has lessons to learn.

John C. Reilly reprises his character voice as the lovable villain of a video game, who really just wants to feel a connection to others. His story was much more complete in the earlier film, in this one he is more of a cog in the clockwork of the narrative. Ralph does get to emote and the character has to grow by the end, but this is not really his journey. Vanellope, voiced by Sarah Silverman is also a character with some story to enhance the proceedings, and maybe she could be seen as the key figure in the film, except I think the story is less about either of these two. The story is really about us, the users of the internet, and how we can trivialize just about anything and make it into something to be consumed.

One of the obstacles the two main characters face is a lack of cash, but on the internet, you can generate money with stupidity if it manages to hit the right sweet spot. Just as an example, the post on this site that has received the most traffic over the eight years I have been doing this project is for the movie “The Deep”. I doubt the reason is my keen insight or the widespread affection for the movie. The explanation is simple, I put in a picture from the film that features the best wet t-shirt contest winner ever. Boobs bring in the boobs and “Ralph Breaks the Internet” is primarily about how gullible, distracted and bored we all are with the material that can be found there. The positives are mentioned as well but it is the critique of our behavior on line that makes this a message movie.

If you watch the details of the scenes the characters walk through, you will notice a lot of clever references. Memes that have come and gone still linger in the community. Sly inclusion of Disney characters is both obvious, as with the Disney Princesses, and sometimes more subtle, Mickey hats and castles. You might think this is a movie filled with product placement, but it is our collective memory of products that makes us notice them.  Gamers will find things they can relate to, this movie is almost a mirror image of “Ready Player One” in its’ use of pre-existing products and images. While there is a scene that involves the “dark web” thank goodness it is not a realistic depiction of what might be found there. My favorite detail involves a Louisiana Licence plate, I’m sure you will find your own favorites somewhere in the film.

So once again, there is incredible world building, a serviceable character story and plenty of humor to carry the film. My reaction to this movie is very much the same as the previous entry, it is entertaining and it will work for families and those who love the setting. I would not turn it off if it comes across my radar in the future, but I can’t see much reason to reboot and watch it again. I will be mocked by far more clever films than this in the future, so I’ll probably just wait for them.

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My Fair Lady: A Beautiful Memory

This is one of those posts that is personal nostalgia rather than a film review, so if you were looking for a detailed evaluation of the film, sorry, not today.

Last night I watched “My Fair Lady” on TCM as they were screening it in honor of it’s inclusion on the National Film Registry. I happened to be by myself, a scenario that is likely to be more common than I have any desire for. As almost all film lovers know, much like music or the scent of Grandma’s cooking, a film can trigger memories that are vivid and powerful, and that is what hit me last night.

In 1994, shortly after my Mother had passed away and my Father began living with us, “My Fair Lady” was restored and released in a limited number of theaters for a week or so. It might have been Mother’s Day weekend that we chose to go and see this, but I definitely remember the experience. My girls were Eight and Six, and we drove across the county of Los Angeles, to Century City (A place my youngest commuted to on a daily basis for the last year) to see this at the Century Plaza Theaters, which were the Fox Studio’s Premier Houses located in the Century Towers complex.

My wife and I delighted in how much the kids liked the movie, and as always, they wanted to dance under the screen while the credits rolled. I’d been sick with grief for several months, the circumstances of my Mom’s passing and my Father’s condition were putting me into a depressed state. This wonderful experience lifted my spirits and it was a turning point in my attitude for the rest of the year. As a family gift, I sprang for a Deluxe Box Laser Disc Release of the film, which was a beautiful Christmas reminder of the joy we’d experienced a few months earlier.

Last night’s accidental viewing of the film stirred a desire to look at the elements that were included in the box set, and I thought I would share a few pictures.

This is what the box looks like. Whale there is no beautiful artwork  to illustrate the film, the photo choices were grand, especially the focus on the gorgeous black and white number that Audrey Hepburn wore at the Ascot Race scene.

As usual with great packaging, the extras here were special, they included a book about the film, a CD of the Soundtrack, and a 70mm film frame from the movie that came from an original print. These were all carefully stored in a fitted section located under the three discs that contained the movie and a number of extras.

Also included was a portfolio of costume designs for many of the women’s gowns in the film. On the left you can see the two memorable outfits that Eliza wore at Ascot and at the Ball.

 

 

There is a program book included that details information about the film, the restoration and the history of the film. Somewhere in my collection, there is also a poster for this release, which was available to those who purchased this set, it is basically the same design as the cover of the box.

As I was watching this, I had some wistful moments and feared I might descend into another bout of grief, but as I thought more and more of our visit to a special film, and the pleasure I had from sharing it with two enthusiastic little girls and my wife who also found the whole experience delightful, I stopped tearing up and instead bathed in the warm glow of a family moment which helped me through despair twenty-four years ago. Last night, it worked a little more magic and instead of sadness, I feel uplifted today.  One step at a time, but this was a good step to take.

Elf 15th Anniversary

Frankly I’m not a big fan of Will Farrell. After the first five years of listening to him scream, I lost any sense that it was humorous. “Elf” came out right about the time I started feeling like this was too much. It did manage to channel that maniacal loud voice into something that was a little bit more charming and I remember having a pretty solid reaction to the film. Flash forward 15 years and I went to see it for a second time, this was also a regular theatrical screening, in acknowledgement of the Anniversary. I still enjoyed it, but there were moments that I wanted to look away.

The movie starts and ends with Bob Newhart so it has that going for it. I’ve always been a fan. It also features a supporting role from Mary Steenburgen, whom I’ve had a crush on since I first saw her in “Goin” South” in 1978. Finally, it also features Zooey Deschanel, right before she became America’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl of choice. She was much more subdued and she has a sweet, slightly flat singing voice that worked perfectly for what she was doing in this movie.

The parts that turned me off are mostly related to eating. The Coke chugging and belch are just annoying but the spaghetti with maple syrup was a bit too far and subsequently, the stakes get raised with added candy, chocolate and then hand shoveling it into one’s maw. Definitely not funny and more disgusting than some gore I’ve seen in a horror film. Just the thought of the gum scene makes my stomach turn. One other thing that did not work for me was Peter Dinklage going all Hulk Hogan on Buddy. Another scene that just misses for me entirely.

What does work however are Buddy’d antics in the mailroom, his rocket like arm in the snowball fight and the decorating he does. The Toy section at Gimbals was lovely, as was his Dad’s apartment after Buddy works it over. The relationship with James Caan feels like there is a scene missing but the emotional payoff at the end still worked for me. All of the cast singing “Here Comes Santa Claus” was just what I could use to help lift my Christmas spirits.

One other scene that works but will probably draw flack from the SJW out there. Buddy is so enamored of Jovie singing that he wanders into the ladies locker room. Not only is that a violation of her safe space, but the song she is singing and he joins in on is now notoriously labeled an ode to date rape. Sorry my friends, the song was perfect and the scene was really a sweet moment of innocence that was awkward because of society’s way of viewing the intrusion, rather than the guileless affection that Buddy is showing.  Over all a mixed experience for me, but I was glad to be out of the house for a couple of hours and it is a Christmas movie, so that helps.

Superman 40th Anniversary

It was 40 years ago this month that I trooped down to the Chinese Theater in Hollywood with my band of friends and my girl, to see this comic book movie. More than a decade before the launch of “Batman”, the D.C. Universe started with their most iconic hero. This was a highly anticipated film and we knew before we even saw it that there was going to be a sequel. This was the beginning of a comic book franchise that ends up setting a high standard with the opening two films and then trailed off with subsequent efforts. Regardless of how you feel about the revived D.C. films, the first two Christopher Reeve Superman films stand the test of time.

Unlike forty years ago, this trip to the theater was solo and on a Monday night of all times. The Fathom Event included an opening cartoon from Max Fleischer Studios, featuring an animated version of the Man of Steel. This efficient ten minute adventure looks like it was the template for the TV series to come. It certainly had all the tropes we expected including the opening narration. As it turns out it is available on YouTube so if you want to see it, gaze below.

With the appetizer out of the way, we are ready to begin our adventure. I have never made a secret of the fact that I am a nostalgia fan. Classic movies are one of my passions and one of the reasons is the period setting. “Superman” opens not with a pre-title adventure sequence like a James Bond film, but rather a simple curtain in black and white, being pulled open to reveal a movie screen, just like they used to do. The picture scrolls up like an old newsreel to the narration of a child reading the opening of what might be a comic book. Our viewpoint sweeps past a neoclassical skyscraper housing the Daily Planet, with a rotating globe on it’s peak. We zoom out into space and we finally see color, and the John Williams Theme that may be one of the greatest movie themes ever. It is synced with titles that were hugely innovative at the time.

http://www.artofthetitle.com/title/superman/

You can read about the titles and look at them at the above link.

Most of you I’m sure have seen the film, so this is not really intended as a full review. I just want to highlight a few of the pleasures of this 40 year old treasure. The whole sequence on Krypton is imaginative and futuristic in the way movies have always been. The budget and effects are certainly bigger than the serials of the past, but the aesthetic is very much the same. The sentencing of the three Kryptonian criminals serves as an Easter egg for the second film and we get to the earth story with just enough background to see how Kal-El ends up with his powers.  Glen Ford is only in two scenes but he is terrific in both of them. The Norman Rockwell Kansas grounds our strange visitor from another world, and his adopted father gives him the values that will guide him with as much influence as his biological father’s teachings will in the Fortress of Solitude section.

When Christopher Reeve finally emerges as the adult version of Superman, we get our first taste of flight in these movies. One of the advance tag lines was “You will believe a man can fly!”, well I did, and it was thrilling. The long action sequence where Clark turns into Superman, saves Lois and the President as well as a neighborhood cat is just nicely paced fun. The real treat starts however an hour into the film, when Gene Hackman shows up and proceeds to steal every bit of every scene he is in. Hackman walks off with the movie in an out sized portrayal of Lex Luthor. The fact that he is surrounded by a band of idiots adds some comedy fun without diminishing the threat that the villain presents.

The special effects in the climax are dated and modern audiences might laugh a bit, but if you are in the grip of the movie you will hardly notice those little things. The models, rear projection and practical effects work just fine at giving Superman a task that makes some demands on his abilities. Forget how implausible the reversal of time is and just enjoy the moments when Lois looks at Superman when she has been rescued and doesn’t even know it. This is another thread that leads us to the sequel. At the end of the credits, we are promised Superman II next year, boy do I hope that Fathom follows up on that forty year old promise.

Green Book

When I first saw the trailer and concept for this movie, I was tempted to refer to it as “Driving Mr. Daisy”. There are some parallels to the Oscar winning film of 1989, but the superficial comparisons stop pretty quickly. Although the racial component is certainly a key component in the film, “Green Book” explores the relationship between the main characters in a much more diverse manner. Viggo Mortensen plays a man on the fringes of society in the urban jungle of New York circa 1962, but in many ways he represents the whole country at a moment in time when the world might change. Mahershala Ali is more mainstream in the City, but even there he is a lonely figure, who is an imperfect vessel for a message of change, but one that he has decided to deliver.

The movie is a polemic waiting to happen but it steps back from being a political film at it’s core and instead focuses on the tentative friendship between the two men of such different backgrounds.  There is plenty of culture clash involved but it is not just the racial disparity of the Southern U.S. at this time. Both men are guilty of stereotyping and potentially violating the rules of the broader culture. As they negotiate around their differences, we see a more allegorical description of the U.S. and it’s racial issues. These comparisons are more subtle than you might have imagined but they can be pretty effective.

While both actors are at the top of their game, it is Mortensen who has the meatier role and the greatest opportunity to make an impression. His Italian-NY accent seems to have been home grown rather than artificially induced. His physique is not a result of make-up and fat suit but rather real heft and weariness. Tony Lip may be a bit of a galoot but he is not a dumb galoot. His story arc requires him to alter in minor ways over the course of the film. He has a couple of moments of epiphany, but those have more to do with his assessment of Doctor Don Shirley than any self recognition or awareness. Tony’s attitude toward black Americans is uniformed rather than malicious. The effect however can be just as devastating and that’s why it was so important for average Americans to see what they were doing to themselves and their fellow citizens. Mortensen expresses much of that dawning awareness with his eyes and face. Although Tony is hired muscle, he needs to learn to contain that power to appropriate circumstances.

The script is very amusing despite being weighed down by potentially solemn subject matter. Credited as the screenwriter along with director Peter Farrelly  and actor Brain Hayes Currie, is Nick Vallelonga, the son of the real Tony Lip. He pieced together this story from multiple interviews with his father and the real Don Shirley. Certainly there has been some liberty taken in making the story more charming, but that is a result of a conscious decision to make the film entertaining as well as important. My particular favorite touch concerns the letters that Tony writes home to his wife Dolores. The prompting he gets from Shirley makes the notes both romantic and funny. They also provide one more way for us to discover that a reasonably intelligent man can change himself in subtle ways to be better.

This is a crowd pleasing film which does not seem to be getting the traction with audiences that it deserves. Maybe there has not been enough praise from critics, or maybe the audience just thinks they have seen it all before. I hope that this small outpost of opinion can influence a few of you to take a trip to your local theater and see a film that will give you hope without condescending to you.

Movies I Want Everyone to See: Double Dipping with Musical films from the Oughts

josie_and_the_pussycatsmusic_and_lyrics

We are taking a slightly different journey this week with MIWETS (Yeah, not a great acronym). I would not really say the films I am going to focus on are guilty pleasures but many film fans might turn their noses up at such crassly commercial projects. One film exploits a TV show comic book legacy and the other one comes from one of the most resented genres among movie fans, the romantic comedy. I think each film actually has some merits that could be discussed in a passionate way because I have seen some hate for these films online. Neither film is essential, seminal or serious in any way. The two movies have one thing in common that moved me to pair them like this. Each one is a version of a nearly extinct form of film making, the original film musical.

It is true that we occasionally get a musical in an animated movie, or that a stage musical is adapted for the big screen. Those are rare enough however that even Disney cannot be counted upon for regular versions of this form. In the 1980’s, music videos were basically inserted into movies to make them musicals, think “Flashdance” or “Footloose”. They worked well enough to bring in the music but audiences not used to actors breaking out in song would probably not go for a modern version of fifties style musicals. The safe bet has been to put stage musicals on the screen. The two films I am focusing on here try to varying degrees to use the format of “An American in Paris” or “A Star is Born”. They take an original story that includes music and then adapt it to movie form. Both use a backstage perspective, so the songs are connected to public performances, and not just singing as the characters walk down the street. It is for the music and particularly the songs that I have included them in this series.

josie_and_the_pussycats_ver2The first film of today’s double feature is “Josie and the Pussycats” from 2001. Roger Ebert put it this way: “Josie and the Pussycats are not dumber than the Spice Girls, but they’re as dumb as the Spice Girls, which is dumb enough.” He gave the movie a half star. While I have always appreciated Ebert as a film critic, I have not always agreed with him and this is one of those times. At this point in his life I think he had finally disconnected from the audience relationship that had made his work with Gene Siskel so effective, and he simply spouted off on something he did not get. In his review he even gets picky about the term subliminal versus subaural, and he got that wrong also. Subliminal refers to consciousness which is the correct way in which it is used in the film, subaural is below the ear, and means nothing in this context.

The film is a cute girl-empowering satire on marketing. It is not about how a band is put together or even how it might become successful, it is about how that band might then be exploited to sell other stuff. Is the movie subtle? Hell no, it is obvious and goes for very big jokes, most of them visual. It is clear that the brands in the movie are being marketed in product placement as a way of mocking that placement. Lots of other films or Television shows would be viewed as cutting edge for the type of humor that is attempted here and for trying to reach the audience that the film is trying to appeal to.  I can accept that others may not like the humor or that the story is a bit obvious but I am defiant in my belief that the music in this film is worthy and that’s why I want people to see the movie.

I love a good title song, but a song that is part of the story and is integrated into the themes is the type of song I think makes a movie work as a musical experience.  “Josie and the Pussycats” has at least three great songs that make the story memorable.  Ebert wrote “The music is pretty bad. That’s surprising, since Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds is one of the producers, and knows his way around music. Maybe it’s supposed to sound like brainless pre-teen fodder, but it’s not good enough at being bad to be funny, and stops merely at the bad stage.” It’s silly to get into a debate with a dead man but come on, just saying it without explaining it is the worst appeal to authority there is. Ebert was not a music authority, and to be fair, neither am I but I’m willing to at least explain my position. To start let’s take “Pretend to be Nice”:

This song has a very appealing guitar lick, a fun chorus and a wicked hook that keeps pulling us in. Yes it is pop, but listen to the refrain “pretend to be nice” when sung by the lead in a mock low key sexy voice. There is real sarcasm there. It fits in as an example of the kind of song a girl band might be expected to play. It is smarter than any Spice Girls song and I think that undermined the belief that this movie was about bad music, it was about mocking bad music by taking it’s form and subverting it.

Example Number Two is “three small words”. This is an up tempo power pop song that gives the Pussycats the perfect opportunity to insert a performance based music video into the film. Look and listen:

Anyone who doesn’t appreciate that song just doesn’t understand that Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon.

The ultimate example of the musical bliss of “Josie and the Pussycats” however is not provided by the title group. Instead the greatest example of musical subversion is done by the Boy Band that the Pussycats are being used to replace in the movie. I think Ebert must have missed the lyrics or have been totally unfamiliar with the Backstreet Boys or *NSYNC. “DuJour”, provides the moment of musical genius early on in the film and if you listen to the song you will know how to listen to the songs in the rest of the movie. Here is the final nail in the coffin of the naysayers for this film:

“just cuz i slip in back doors,

well, that doesn’t make me, hey!”

That just summarizes the whole music scene of the early 2000s. Maybe it isn’t something everyone should see, but it certainly isn’t something that everyone should reject. I may come back and defend the story, actors and whole film in another place, but for now the focus is on the music and it works the way it is supposed to in the film.

After a brief intermission, it is time to move on to the second film in this musical extravaganza.

music_and_lyrics_ver2“Music and Lyrics” from 2007, is a much more conventional film. It is a romantic comedy that features music and both embraces and mocks the taste of popular culture. It features two of the most appealing stars of the last twenty years, Hugh Grant and Drew Barrymore, who between them have as many romcoms under their belts as anyone this side of Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. This movie was moderately successful at the box office and has almost certainly a bigger audience than the first movie and it also has some great music designed explicitly for the purpose of the story.

The setting of the love story here involves the accidental meeting of two people who have complementary artistic skills but conflicting social skills. No one will be surprised by the development of the love story, it has the usual cute meet, slow romance, complication and then satisfying resolution. So it is all formula, but it is a formula that works because of the extra ingredients that get ladled on top. To begin with, Grant plays a semi washed up pop star from the 1980s. If you can imagine Duran Duran and Wham having children, the result would probably be the fictional band “Pop”.  Here in the title sequence of” Music and Lyrics” is the video for their biggest imagined hit:

This is a pretty perfect spoof of 80s pop video. The little sideways booty snap would fit into almost any George Michael video of those times. The song is a lightweight confection that illustrates the weightlessness of music from that period. Even though it has no heft to it, there is still significance to it. People are moved by music and while we may not appreciate someone else’s taste in songs, to that person the song matters. That is shown in a couple of ways in this film. First through the hysterical behavior of middle aged women reliving their wild teen years at nostalgia performances by Grant’s character Alex Fletcher. Yet we also see that the music can be inspirational to the next generation when Cora Corman, a Britney Spears knock off hires Alex to pen a new tune for her because she was a fan of the video.

A short clip of her current music video tells us all we need to know about how deep she is:

The creative process is something that is hard to visualize on screen. Painters in films get montages of images swirling as they put their imagination on the canvas. Writers are usually depicted as reflecting on their “inner eye” and recalling the story they want to tell. In a romantic comedy about writing a pop song we get a nice sequence showing how a last minute demo track comes together as the two co-writers race against a deadline. Here is how it is envisioned in the film:

What you see is not a complete version of the song but the romantic comedy version of the creative process. It works at building character and also shows us how the two miss matched lovers are going to come together. I think it is a very effective sequence and it has the advantage of having something to do with the story. Later in the movie we will get a more complete version of the song that will help cement our happy ending and irritate all those who hate Romantic Comedies in the first place, but as a song, this piece of music works as it is intended.

There is one other link between these films. Many of the songs share a common composer; Adam Schlesinger. He is the genius behind the song that made “That Thing You Do” one of my “Perfect Films”. Probably best known for leading his band “Fountains of Wayne” onto the charts with “Stacy’s Mom”, Schlesinger has contributed to a number of songs in films and his work makes both of today’s movies something I want everyone to see. The songs are not simply pop music inserted into the closing credits, but they are integral parts of the movies that they come from. That seems like a better standard for a movie music award than how big the pop star is that wrote it.  If you can think of some songs from movies that drive the story, explain the characters or enliven the pace of the film, please share them. MIWETS is all about sharing the love.

Richard Kirkham is a lifelong movie enthusiast from Southern California. While embracing all genres of film making, he is especially moved to write about and share his memories of movies from his formative years, the glorious 1970s. His personal blog, featuring current film reviews as well as his Summers of the 1970s movie project, can be found at Kirkham A Movie A Day.