Sunday, February 10, 2013

To Rome, Sugarweenie!

     In today's post we cover a charming if flawed little comedy from an aging master and my current picks to win two Academy Awards:  Animated Feature and Documentary Feature.  It's gonna get a little saccharine in here before the post is through, but we'll ease you in with something semi-sweet...

  To Rome With Love - Well, I wasn't really expecting Woody Allen to pull off something as successful as Midnight in Paris two years in a row, and in all honesty, he didn't.  This is less one feature film than a collection of short films interwoven together with careful editing, but bearing no relation to each other except that they all occur in the city of Rome, Italy  and that themes of fame and infidelity run throughout.  I'm not sure that Woody was even trying to say anything to profound on the subjects.  The picture is really a light comedy.  I'm just going to review each vignette briefly, and then we'll average all the scores together.
      I guess we should start with the narrator character, although he's almost not worth mentioning. He was completely unneeded, added nothing to the film, and was actually quite annoying.  1 1/2 of 5 stars...
     One vignette involved a young Italian couple who come to the big city, both have little "adventures" without each other, then come back together and decide to move back to the small village they came from.  Penelope Cruz is able to elevate the quality of these segments a bit as a prostitute, but this story is a silly sex farce at best that presents an unusually realistic, if questionably optimistic, take on adultery.  Fortunately, this was my least favorite of the four story lines.  3 of 5 stars...
     Next up is a story line in which Alec Baldwin plays a man reliving his experiences from many years ago with Jesse Eisenberg playing the younger version of himself.  Baldwin seems a little stiff here, a little awkward, as does the plot device of his constant presence. Conversely, Eisenberg is excellent as the younger version of
Baldwin/surrogate Woody.  He doesn't try to imitate the director's standard delivery (as many others have done) but somehow gets the feel of it better than any other younger actor I have seen.  I would love to see him play lead in an Allen film.  3 1/2 of 5 stars.
    Of course, no one can do Woody as well as Woody, and his presence onscreen made the scenes that he was in a delight even if the premise of his story line was stolen from an old episode of The Flintstones.  Judy Davis is great as his wife and Mr. Allen saved all his best lines for their interactions.  "I can't unclench when flying.  I'm an atheist."  "That's right.  You have the only brain with 3 ids."  3 1/2 of 5 stars.
     My favorite vignette was the rumination on fame starring Roberto Benini.  Life is Beautiful is one of my all time favorite films, and I felt that this was the first time that I have seen some of the magic of his performance in that film recaptured.  Oh, and I agree Mr. Allen...The Tree of Life was much better than the King's Speech.  4 1/2 of 5 stars.
     Let's just say that this averages out to about...3 1/2 of 5 stars.

  Frankenweenie - In the short history of The Movie Frog I have poked gentle fun at Disney, it is true.  This year, however, they seem to have decided to take back the world of animation in a HUGE way, with three of the very best animated films of 2012:  Wreck-It Ralph, Paperman, and now Frankenweenie.  Of course, Frankenweenie is really a TIM BURTON picture that Disney produced, his stamp and style are all over the thing.  Still, one has to give the company credit for realizing what a mistake they made letting the director get away the first time.
     As for Burton, this is the best thing he's done since Sweeney Todd without question and is something of a return to form, although it remains to be seen if this will translate to a live action film or not.  I credit much of his success here to the fact that he finally made a movie based on his own original ideas, something he hasn't done since Corpse Bride (2005) and Big Fish (2003).  This constant "Burtonizing" of adapted concepts produces very uneven results.  Occasionally you get Sweeney, Batman, or Pee-Wee.  More often, you get Apes, Alice or Shadows.
     There are so many really nice touches in this film.  The constant homages to the classic Frankenstein films (and other classic horror movies) belie the film maker's great love for these early pictures and the genre.  They likely flew over the heads of most children (who ARE the film's primary target audience), but were much appreciated by this viewer.
     The picture is FUNNY, too.  The bit with the precognitive cat is great.  The first time Sparky drinks after he comes back almost made me wet my pants.  I don't want to give away ALL the best jokes, but there are many.
     Of course, it never hurts to have fantastic voice talent attached to a project like this, and this cast had it to spare.  Catherine O'Hare and Martin Short are predictably hilarious and versatile in multiple roles.  Martin Landau plays shades of Bela Lugosi in Ed Wood as the spooky science teacher.  Charlie Tahan (the ghost kid from Charlie St. Cloud) leads the cast ably as young Victor.  I've always found Atticus Shaffer to be the best thing about the TV show The Middle and he is PERFECT as Edgar "E" Gore.
     The greatest treat, though, is having Winona Ryder working again with the director who made her the first time.  It brought me back to the first magical glimpses of Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice...sigh...5 of 5 stars.

  Searching For Sugarman - This documentary is about Rodriguez, the great American singer/songwriter from the early seventies.  What?  You say you've never heard of him?  Neither had I.  Neither had  hardly anyone else in this country before this film was made.
      "So what?", you say. America, no one had heard of him, but he was a super-star in South Africa, one whose music helped to spark a protest movement against Apartheid.  Only he never knew it.  After two albums, he stopped recording.
     So begins the search for Rodriguez, a story with enough twists and turns to take you places you never expected by the time the journey is over.  The film gives you much to ruminate on.  It is an inspiring story of how a great artist's work will always find its intended audience, whether or not the artist even knows who they are.  While watching the film I couldn't help but marvel at how easily fate can be thwarted or altered, and how it often fights to reassert itself when the time is right.
     I risk breaking my own spoiler rule if I say too much more, but the film packs just as much emotion as thoughtfulness, aided superbly by the soundtrack of Rodriguez's music.  His work is haunting, powerful and poetic.  It is utilized brilliantly to underscore both the thematic and emotional significance of nearly every scene in the film.  I would have loved this picture simply for how it functioned as a video music album, but believe me, there's a lot more going on here.  5 of 5 stars.

Related Articles:  If It Ain't Wrecked (Wreck-It Ralph & Paperman reviews), Oscar Winners Predictions & Buzz: Toons of Any Length (Animated Feature & Animated Short), Docs of Any Length (Documentary Feature & Documentary Short)

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