guppy's film reviews

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Corpse Bride

Year: 2005
Director: Tim Burton
Notable Actors: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Albert Finney
Score: B+
Summary: A technically impressive, entertaining ride, but a little light on substance.


Corpse Bride is Tim Burton's most recent film. It is made completely in stop-time animation; the actors provide voicework only. The end result is a technically jawdropping movie that's a lot of fun, but is a little on the lightweight side. The trailers were virtually inescapable, even for me, and I almost never watch TV, so it's likely that most readers are already aware of the general story. For those who aren't, it's about the love life of Victor Van Dort and his arranged marriage. The Van Dort family is new money; they have their newfound fortune, but no status. The Everglot family, on the other hand, is in exactly the opposite position: longtime high rollers who have fallen on hard times. So their parents arrange for their children, Victor and Victoria, to wed. But Victor gets cold feet when it's time to follow through, and runs off -- and through a bizarre coincidence, ends up accidentally putting the wedding ring on the finger of the corpse of a dead girl, who reanimates and holds him to his "proposal." Vincent is, of course, left in the middle of a rather bizarre love triangle.

The animation is leaps and bounds ahead of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Burton's other stop-time feature (to be fair, that one was really directed by Henry Selick; Burton wrote the script, though, and I believe he had some substantial creative input). The animation is about as smooth as you could ever hope stop-time would be, and the visual style is wonderful to watch. It's pretty much what you'd expect from Burton: a dark palette and lots of sharply angular features. The story, similarly, is classic macabre Burton.

The music is courtesy of longtime Burton collaborator Danny Elfman, and it's his usual style. I happen to like Elfman's work, so this is good for me.

Since the film is stop-motion, the actors are voice-work only. There's nothing to complain about here; everyone turned in solid performances, though none particularly stand out. The characters themselves are something of a mixed bag. I don't feel strongly about most of the main characters, really; they're not bad, but they're upstaged by the large cast of colorful minor characters in the Land of the Dead. The exception is Emily, the Corpse Bride, who is a pretty neat character to watch.

My only real complaint with Corpse Bride, as I said, is the substance. It's a very short film, clocking in at 76 minutes, and even that seems a little long given that the story is pretty simplistic. I was never bored, but it did seem like a couple of scenes repeated themselves, mostly of Emily worrying about what to do about the situation.

I recommend Corpse Bride to most viewers, especially fans of Burton or other morbid films, like Beetlejuice and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Be forewarned, though, that it's a short, fun romp rather than a complex story.


Year: 1974
Director: Roman Polanski
Notable Actors: Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, John Huston, Roman Polanski
Score: B+
Summary: Very good post-noir with some big names. Occasionally drags due to extreme length.


Chinatown is a reasonably well-known post-noir -- that is, a film noir made and set after the "classic" noir era. It boasts some big names (including Jack Nicholson), strong style and one of the twistiest plots around. It opens with private detective J.J. Gittes's (Jack Nicholson) preliminary investigation of an adultery case, but quickly expands into a much bigger investigation, the details of which I'd rather not spoil.

Overall, I like Chinatown a lot. My favorite thing about it is that it doesn't hold your hand very much. For example, in one scene, a character places a pocketwatch underneath the tire of the car whose owner he is tracking, so that it breaks and indicates when the owner drove off. That's never explained; you just see the watch being placed, and the character checking it later. I prefer that to the alternative of forced explanatory dialogue, but you've got to be awake to follow along.

The plot has more twists and turns than you can shake a stick at. This is mostly good, since I didn't see most of them coming. The downside is that it takes almost two and a half hours to unfold, and at times you feel it. I thought the movie was going to end two or three times before it actually did, and while I enjoyed the twists, it went on a little long.

That's just the way it is, though. None of it is wasted time; there's just a lot of story to tell. So don't let the length put you off -- just make sure that you're in the mood for a longer film, and that you have the time.

Oddly enough, the one actor whose performance I wasn't so crazy about was Nicholson's. He does a creditable job, but his dialogue sounds forced; it feels almost like he isn't comfortable with the phrasing of some of his lines. If you liked his other earlier work, this shouldn't present too much of a problem, as it tends to exhibit the same characteristics. Also, Chinatown suffers from that "washed-out" look that is so common in films of that era, and you'll have to get past that to enjoy the film.

Overall, Chinatown is an excellent, intriguing film with a couple of problems. Even with those problems, I still recommend it. And I'm not alone -- it pops up on a lot of film buffs' favorite films lists. It's worth pretty much everyone's time to see it at least once, and I suspect many will find themselves rewatching it occasionally.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Big Fish

Year: 2003
Director: Tim Burton
Notable Actors: Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, Billy Crudup, Steve Buscemi, Danny DeVito
Score: A
Summary: Fun and touching film, part adventure and part shaggy dog story. Something for everyone; highly recommended.


Big Fish is one of those rare films that succesfully crosses several genre boundaries. There are essentially two stories going on at once. The first is the frame story; this is composed mostly of interactions between Ed Bloom, Sr. (Albert Finney) and his son, Ed Bloom, Jr. (Billy Crudup). Crudup is fed up with what he sees as his father's tendency to exaggerate his stories. They have a fight and don't speak again until Finney becomes very sick. The bulk of the story, however, is told through a sequence of flashbacks representing the stories the older Bloom tells his family while ill.

These stories are, allegedly, the life and times of Edward Bloom, Sr., who claims they are true; his son is skeptical. They are generally larger-than-life; they range from a story about a witch in the swamp to serving in Vietnam. It's this flashback mechanism that is able to give Big Fish its incredible range -- because these flashbacks are spanning years and years, it's easy to have a variety of stories to tell.

Although Ed Bloom, Sr. is played by Albert Finney, you won't see him in the flashbacks; Ewan McGregor represents the younger Ed Bloom. The film sports a large cast of characters from all periods; most are not major players, but viewers will almost certainly develop favorites. There are bit roles for a few famous actors, including Danny DeVito and Steve Buscemi.

It's hard to know what to say other than, "I like this movie a lot and you should go see it." The stories are interesting, and are short and fast-paced enough that the next one begins before the viewer has time to become bored with any particular setting. Each story has its own miniature cast of characters, most of whom are fascinating. The frame story is touching, though with the exception of the final scene it's not as engrossing as the flashbacks. The film absolutely exudes personality.

I don't really have much in the way of negatives to bring up about Big Fish. I guess it's not going to go down in Oscar history, but that's largely because it doesn't fit the rather formulaic Oscar mold -- as progressive as the Academy likes to think it is, it really tends to reward the same sorts of films over and over again, and its tastes tend to be rather stiff, eschewing the more "fun" sorts of films.

I like this movie a lot and you should go see it. I bought the DVD after seeing it, and put it in my DVD player to test the disc; I ended up watching the whole thing. See this movie if you like fun.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Boondock Saints, The

Year: 1999
Director:Troy Duffy
Notable Actors: Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery
Score: B
Summary: A decent but severely overrated vigilante flick.


It's often said that no one is lukewarm about The Boondock Saints -- you either love it or hate it. For many people this is the case; I'm not one of them. I think it's a watchable film, even an enjoyable one, but in my opinion the firestorm on both sides is unwarranted.

The basic premise is fairly simple. Two brothers, Connor and Murphy McManus (Sean Patrick Flanery and Norman Reedus, respectively), kill a couple of Russian mafiosos in a fight they didn't start. After being let off the hook for the murders, they decide that their calling is to embark on a spree of vigilante justice. Agent Paul Smecker (Willem Dafoe) is assigned to track down the McManus brothers after the local authorities fail to do so; however, as he investigates the trail of bodies, he struggles to decide whether or not what the brothers are doing is wrong.

The end product is an enjoyable watch, but far from the messiah of filmmaking it's sometimes made out to be. The movie was shot on a budget of about $7 million, and Willem Dafoe is really the only big name involved. The acting is somewhat inconsistent, but overall it's not hard to become immersed.

The acting is only part of the story, though. Good actors can only do so much if the script and the directing aren't up to par, and both have their weak moments. The infamous line, "There was a firefight!" is one of the most absurdly delivered lines I've ever seen. The line itself is no great shakes anyway (unless you're asking one of Boondock's many defenders), and Duffy has Dafoe deliver it in the hammiest, most ridiculous way I can imagine. No one really talks that way.

Another popular reference is a recurring racist joke. The joke isn't really particularly funny, it doesn't get any better when it's told more than once, and there isn't much reason for it to be there in the first place.

There are a few more well-known points that I think are overemphasized by Boondock's fans, but there's no need to go through and list them all.

What Boondock does have going for it is its action scenes. Mostly very violent, the shootings and gunfights are flashy and attention-grabbing; they recycle a lot of recently popularized techniques, but that really only matters to film snobs, not the general public. It's also got a recurring device or two that works well, most notably the brothers' now-famous prayer.

Boondock hasn't always had an easy time of it. It was pulled from theaters almost immediately after release in the wake of the Columbine school shootings, though I can't for the life of me figure out why, as all it really has in common with the shootings is the involvement of guns; it was only on DVD that it made its resurgence.

Many people really, really like The Boondock Saints. I'm not telling them they shouldn't enjoy it, and I'm not telling them that it's a bad movie. But several people have told me that it's the best film they've ever seen, and I think that either this is not a rational opinion for them to hold, or that they haven't seen very many good movies. Boondock is an enjoyable popcorn flick, but I don't get the obsession with it.