Monday, October 14, 2013

"Oz," "Ted," and "The Hobbit"

I caught up on some films this weekend, and interestingly all three films featured - and relied on - heavy use of computer effects to create not just special effects but also actual characters.

I found "Oz The Great and Powerful" a nice example of director Sam Raimi's work.  Many of his films seem to feature an under-achiever who is expected to step-up his game and become the hero the other characters need to survive; "Spider-Man" especially comes to mind.  "Oz" is no different, as James Franco plays a Kansas con-man whisked away to Oz, where he is mistaken as a great Wizard who will save the good people from the wicked witch (and her increasingly more powerful sister).  Oz must first convince himself he can be that savior, helped along by Glinda the good witch and an assortment of interesting sidekicks.  

Sam Raimi has his stamp all over the look of the film, from the compositing and layering of images to the framing of action sequences.  It feels like a Raimi film - I even thought of "Darkman" while watching certain sequences.  And because it's a Raimi film I got carried away by the energy of the storytelling, and over-the-top performances, even if it did become a bit cliched near the end.  

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" doesn't have the gravitas of "Lord of the Rings."  Bilbo goes along on a quest as something of an unwanted side-kick.  The dwarfs he's tagging along with don't think he's much of an asset as he can't fight.  Of course he eventually gets the Ring from Golum, a blade that glows around Orcs, etc. and he saves the dwarf king and saves the day, setting up the second film. 

It was fun!  I watched it with my 6 year-old and he was engrossed in the battles, the scenery and Bilbo's journey.  In a lot of ways this felt like part of a serial.  There's little overly dramatic or complicated about this tale, but the adventure makes it a fun experience.

"Ted" is basically a "Family Guy" episode with different characters.  It became unexpectedly sappy at the end, as the magical bear tries to patch up the relationship between his "boy," Mark Wahlberg, and his girlfriend, Mila Kunis (who interestingly plays the Wicked Witch of the West in "Oz").  I laughed hysterically at the Sam Jones "Flash Gordon" bits.  The rest of the gags were hit or miss, like much of "Family Guy." 

What these films all have in common (besides Ms. Kunis in two of the three) is fully formed, computer generated characters.  "Oz" featured a computer generated talking glass doll, a wisecracking flying monkey, and a Wicked Witch; "The Hobbit" has trolls and orcs; and "Ted" has a wisecracking teddy bear.  The Wicked Witch had the toughest time of portraying real emotion, I think, because it's trying to incorporate Ms. Kunis' actual emotions.  It's still easier to create an animated character, like a teddy bear of porcelain doll, that we can connect with than it is to create a "realistic" person - like the witch - that is completely realistic.  The evil White Orc in "The Hobbit" sneers and snarls, but he isn't really human. 

Other attempts at animated main characters haven't fared well, but I expect to see it soon.  A full cast of computer generated characters that look "real" probably isn't too far away.  But looking at these three films it's clear that films can succeed with these "fake" characters as long as there's real emotion.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Sophia Loren

Sophia Loren, "The Pride and the Passion," 1957.
Sophia Loren plays a Spanish peasant fighting against Napoleonic French occupiers in this odd historical drama.  Cary Grant is an English sailor helping the Spanish in their war against the French; his mission is to move a giant canon to a fortress town so he can blow up the walls and help the Spanish take back the city.  The leader of the Spanish peasant forces is played by Frank Sinatra - I guess his New Jersey-Italian heritage made him "ethnic" enough to play a Spaniard.  He and Loren are involved at the start of the film, but perhaps it's just the cause that keeps them together.  Loren falls in love with Grant, of course; but when he offers to protect her when the battle begins - she can stay with him at the canon, while the peasant army fights the French soldiers - she chooses instead to fight alongside Sinatra.

It's an interesting film, the kind that doesn't get made much anymore.  It's a footnote to history turned into a big budget feature film, with a romance crafted out of thin air to attract some stars and create some melodrama.  I miss these types of films!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

"Notorious," 1946

Alfred Hitchcock's "Notorious" is one of the films that cemented my love of classic cinema, that made me a true cinephile, along with "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and "Casablanca."

Ingrid Bergman, "Notorious," 1946.
What fascinated me about "Notorious," which takes place immediately after World War Two, was the complexity of the characters.  Ingrid Bergman plays a German-American woman whose father, at the beginning of the film, is convicted of wartime crimes against the United States.  She has a reputation of being a party girl, which may be exaggerated, and of being a heavy drinker.  Already she's a complicated character.  When OSS agent Cary Grant  recruits her for a secret mission in South America, the details of which he doesn't yet know, he immediately falls for her beauty, but is wary of her reputation.  Again, complicated.  Their romance, if there will be one, won't be easy.
Cary Grant, "Notorious," 1946.
Eventually it's revealed that her mission is to seduce Claude Rains, a Nazi industrialist living in exile, and happens to be an old friend of her deceased father.  Grant's superiors suspect Rains and his friends of being up to no good, and they need Bergman to get close to him to find out.  This strains her budding relationship with Grant, and it's only made worse when Rains asks Bergman to marry him.

The plot involving the Nazis is really just a MacGuffin.  (It turns outRains and other Germans are perhaps trying to create an atomic bomb, mining Uranium and hiding the ore in wine bottles in Rains' basement.)  What's important is Bergman's love for Grant, and his love for her in return.  But how can he love her when she is with another man - even if it's "just a job?"

Like I said, complicated, especially for 1946.  I credit much of this to Ben Hecht's superb script.   He also wrote "Spellbound" for Hitchcock is listed as an uncredited writer on many of Hitch's films. 

Grant eventually rescues Bergman from Rains, who discovers she is an agent and slowly poisons her.  There is a great scene at the end of the film where Grant is carrying Bergman down a staircase and Rains, afraid his co-conspirators will find out she is a spy, "helps" Grant down the stairs and out the door.  But at the car, Grant shuts Rains out, leaving him alone to his certain doom.  It's the prefect ending to a film where the intentions of the characters are so complicated.