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Captain Canada's Movie Rodeo

Image copyright Academy Awards

Image copyright Academy Awards

Seth MacFarlane is hosting the Academy Awards?

I’m actually pretty okay with that.

I’m not a huge fan of his work. I can take his shows in small doses (although I think The Cleveland Show is one of the worst things I’ve ever seen on television), and I liked Ted, but I’m still a little baffled by the level of success he’s reached. How many channels are running Family Guy these days (not to mention Netflix and Hulu Plus)? It’s hard to believe that this is the same guy who couldn’t keep Family Guy on the air a little over a decade ago. If it’s true that living well is the best revenge, then MacFarlane must be having a hell of a good time. It must be difficult to hate his entire creative body of work, everything to do with his brand of humor, and navigate television without running into him. The guy is seemingly everywhere now.

I don’t hate his entire body of work or sense of humor.  I just get extremely tired of it after a while. And for every episode of Family Guy or American Dad that I find myself enjoying, there’s a great deal of material that strikes me as so desperate to be funny or edgy that it’s kind of pathetic. The formula for comedy with MacFarlane only goes but so far with me. After a while it all just kind of blurs together.

But I do think he’s capable of being pretty funny. He made for an excellent SNL host at the start of the current season, and I wasn’t really surprised. His TV shows might be hit or miss with me, but the actual man himself can come across as very charming, funny and seamless in either combining or moving back and forth between those two. Those are two pretty good qualities to look for an Oscar host. Spontaneity is another good trait, and MacFarlane seems to have a knack for that as well.

What I guess it comes down to is whether you put up with him at all. If you can’t you’re probably wishing Eddie Murphy might reconsider, Hugh Jackman might come back (he did a much better job than I ever would have guessed), or that Ricky Gervais will move up from his Golden Globes assignment.

Or you’re still hoping for The Muppets.

I get why MacFarlane was chosen for the gig. The Oscars have a relevancy crisis for years now, and that’s seen changes in the format, and weird gambles on effective, affable hosts. Can Seth MacFarlane give the Oscars a boost? Can he bring in people who could give a damn about a bunch of little gold statues? I have no idea. I watch the Oscars every year regardless. It’s a habit that I usually have no logic behind. I’ll watch this year, and I’ll probably only be interested in one or two categories. Seth MacFarlane hosting will either be a good way to pass the time, or yet another setback for an awards show that a lot of people seem to only tune into for the fashion report. Either way I like him just enough to think it could actually be a good thing. I really do think MacFarlane’s charm and humor, not to mention his almost encyclopedic knowledge of movie musicals (and musical numbers usually play into the show in some way), will make for something that’s at least worth being curious about.

At least we don’t have to worry about the stoned-off-his-ass James Franco and poor, bewildered Anne Hathaway being invited back.

The Dark Knight Returns: Part One (2012): A-

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been waiting for a long time for this. Say what you want about Frank Miller’s politics, personality or body of work over the last ten or so years, but I’ll rate The Dark Knight Returns as one of the greatest comic books of all time. Batman is my favorite super hero for the storytelling potential he still invites, over seventy years after his creation. What Miller (and Lynn Varney) did in 1986 with Batman, Gotham City and the rest of its heroes and monsters is a concept of The Dark Knight that influenced countless versions of the character afterwards. It’s also a rich, complex story with art to match. Miller has always put a cinematic touch to his stories and art. That’s probably why so many of his properties have been adapted into. Some of them, like Sin City, have been wonderful, but The Dark Knight Returns is the one that I’ve always wanted to see realized on the screen the most. When it was finally coming our way, when pictures and a trailer popped up, I didn’t entertain the slightest notion that I was going to be disappointed. I looked at the familiar story of an aging Batman coming out of retirement to take on old enemies (Two-Face) and new ones (a gang of psychopaths known as The Mutants), take on a new, female Robin, and try to bring the peace to Gotham City he couldn’t bring to it in his prime. I looked at what promised to be an impressive voice cast, an animation style and direction that looked to be tirelessly faithful to the source material and a team behind it responsible for some DC Comics’ most successful animated triumphs. I looked at all of this and imagined for The Dark Knight Returns: Part One the best possible outcome. Even with this much optimism I was still overjoyed at the first of two feature-length installments succeeding in every way. It’s great if you’ve read the comic book, but it’s not a fundamental part of appreciating this for its powerful story, great voice work (Robocop’s Peter Weller gives Bruce Wayne and Batman a grey, growling tone perfectly suited to the character’s age and look), and a cliffhanger that makes me glad the story has been split up into two films. The Dark Knight Returns is an epic Batman story that deserves to be told with the greatest care possible. The Dark Knight Returns: Part One gets us started. When the second film comes out next year, and when it’s combined with the first part, I’m confident that it will be something as rich and good as anything done in a live-action setting. A classic comic book now has the groundwork for a classic animated film.

Dredd (2012): B

I haven’t read a ton of Judge Dredd comics, but I know the series well enough to know it’s not the most sophisticated comic book in the world. That isn’t meant to be taken as an insult. The comic book is a lot of big, ugly fun, and it’s kind of ridiculous that it’s never been given a worthy shoot-em-up spectacular. As much fun as 1995’s Judge Dredd is an exercise in grand, hilarious stupidity, let’s just go ahead and pretend it doesn’t exist. Let’s instead start fresh with Dredd, which puts the excellent Karl Urban under the helmet, and sets him and his partner (Olivia Thirby) loose in a hostile skyscraper, roughly about the same size as that of a small city. Let’s keep the story simple, and focus on nothing more elaborate than Dredd’s stoic efforts to bring down a scarred, maniacal drug dealer (Lena Headly never fails to deliver). Anything else would have just muddied up a perfectly good excuse to enjoy ninety minutes of crazed violence, amusing one-liners and action sequences that rarely disappoint. That is, unless you see it in 2D as I did, then some of the movie’s biggest “wow” moments are just going to look weird. I can’t imagine a large group of people having the highest possible hopes for Dredd. I didn’t. I hoped for something that wasn’t going to be a complete waste of ten bucks, and I came away with something a little bit better than that. Dredd is enough unpretentious pleasure to inspire hope of a sequel. This is an old action-movie formula, but Dredd proves old formulas are not necessarily obsolete formulas.

Dodes’ka-Den (1970): C+

Dodes’ka-Den was Akira Kurosawa’s first color film, but it’s not his best one. It’s not the greatest place in the world to start for new visitors to Kurosawa’s extraordinary filmography. If this is where you start then you may not understand what all the fuss is about a man who’s considered to be one of the most important, influential filmmakers of all time. Dodes’ka-Den (which means “Clickety-Clack “) maintains Kursoawa’s trademark of finding great, moving beauty in every single scene, even in a setting as grim as the slums where the movie takes place. Only a handful of Kurosawa’s films were made in color. All of them point to this being a shame. Dodes’ka-Den never bores in its cinematography, but it does lose something in the story and characters. Kurosawa was adept at handling multiple characters and story arcs. Unfortunately in this case it doesn’t quite work as well as it would elsewhere. There are some excellent characters and lives on display in this loose collection of stories centered on an impoverished town (Yoshitaka Zuxhi shines in particular, as a mentally handicapped young man who pretends to drive a train through the area every day) built out of a garbage dump. There are also a number of characters who fail to connect, and as a result their stories tend to get in the way of the movie’s better parts. Perhaps it’s not fair to say that with someone like Kurosawa, it’s a little easier to notice when Dodes’ka-Den isn’t on par with something like Seven Samurai. It’s difficult not to. Dodes’ka-Den is worth watching for a lot of reasons. It’s just not worth being a starting point for Kurosawa beginners. Come back to it a little later, and you’re likely to enjoy most of its squalor, unfortunate characters and tragic outcomes.

J. Edgar (2011): C-

One of the great knocks against Clint Eastwood’s attempt at capturing one of the most complex figures in American history is the makeup. Leonard DiCaprio is one of the strongest things going for J. Edgar. In fact there are long periods of time in J. Edgar when he’s the only thing keeping the movie going. He plays J. Edgar Hoover as an ambitious, morally-vigilant figure just barely able to keep his demons and impulses from destroying his life and career. It might have all just been a lot of Oscar bait, but it’s still a great performance that further shows DiCaprio’s range. The problem with J. Edgar doesn’t lay with DiCaprio, or really, with any of the cast, particularly Armie Hammer as Hoover’s longtime associate (and as the movie and history itself implies much more than that) Clyde Tolson. The problem isn’t even the makeup. I didn’t think it was as bad as some seem to believe. What keeps J. Edgar from achieving greatness, which by all accounts it should have found, is everything else to do with it. The most disappointing biopics are the ones that just don’t seem to find a rhythm. Eastwood tries to pack a lot of Hoover’s life into this, and the result is something so uneven that it feels like several different movies spliced together to recreate one life. As good as DiCaprio is he seems lost in trying to create a concrete, definitive portrayal. It’s not his fault. All he’s trying to do is create a different version of Hoover for each story J. Edgar tries to tell. Had J. Edgar narrowed its focus a little (some of the best scenes in the movie, for example, involve the relationship between Hoover and Tolson), it might have been one of Eastwood’s best. What we get instead though is a movie that’s just an unfortunate, occasionally engrossing mess.

Romeo is Bleeding (1993): D+

From the dirty, isolated coffee shop where everything begins to the courthouse steps where the final moments of the story unfold, Romeo is Bleeding is one tribute after another to the noir classics of the 40’s and 50’s. Like a lot of tributes to yesteryear cinema made with more modern sensibilities, Romeo is Bleeding doesn’t really deserve a place at the same table as the films it emulates. It does promise and deliver a fantastic performance by Gary Oldman. That alone makes Romeo is Bleeding worth a look. He knows how to play a character sinking further and further into troubles of his own creation, and his chemistry with Romeo is Bleeding’s resident femme fatale (Lena Olin does well with traits like batshit-crazy and extremely dangerous) survives predictable plot twists and dull, unnecessary violence. Gary Oldman fans will have a great time. Noir purists have a lot of better movies to choose from. Everyone else should just listen to the Tom Waits song the movie got its title from, and call it a day.