Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Edge of Darkness

Thomas Craven has been pushed to the Edge of Darkness.  A dedicated Boston homicide detective, Craven, played by Mel Gibson, in his first lead since Signs in 2002, lives for little besides his daughter, who comes home for a visit.  Shortly after she arrives, she is gunned down on his doorstep.  Investigators assume Craven had been targeted by someone he had investigated, but Craven begins to wonder if in fact his daughter was the intended target after all.  As he digs into her past, he learns of her activism against a large corporation.  He suspects that they know something about her death, and ends up in a web of deceit involving his own department, corrupt politicians, and evil businessmen. 
As homicide detective Thomas Craven investigates the death of his activist daughter, he uncovers not only her secret life, but a corporate cover-up and government collusion that attracts an agent tasked with cleaning up the evidence.
This is a perfect Mel Gibson role: the grieving widower, the honest cop, the beacon of integrity, the passionate pursuer of justice in an unjust world.  Any parent can relate to his deeply felt grief over the loss of his daughter.  He finds a compassionate ear in an unlikely place: the mysterious British operative who is his hunter, informant, foe.  It's not giving anything away to say that ulitmately justice is done in a satisfying (though tragic) way.

I don't mind badmouting corrupt politicians; they're all corrupt, some more than others.  Ours is a sick political system rife with perverse incentives.  But I do get tired of the businessman as the enemy.  Granted, there are evil, corrupt businessmen; every walk of life is manned by fallen people who do bad things.  But rarely are business people portrayed as heros, as people who contribute to society by employing people, investing in their communities, and enriching people's lives.  Hollywood loves the evil businessman.  Edge of Darkness is an enjoyable movie but it feeds into the destructive anti-corporate, anti-business mentality.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Joneses

It's hard to come up with a memorable premise for a movie, even harder to make a great movie with a memorable premise.  The Joneses is a pretty good movie with a great premise, not great enough to make a great movie, but great enough that this is an enjoyable film.

The Jones seem to have everything: charming, handsome husband, beautiful, stylish wife, good-looking, smart kids.  They move into an upscale suburban neighborhood, making friends, getting into the best social circles.  They are the kind of people who draw others to themselves, and they always have the coolest, newest stuff.  Where they get their money isn't all that clear, but the way they live, and all the stuff they have, shows that they're definitely well-to-do.
Everybody wants what she has.
What the neighbors don't know is that the Joneses are part of a stealth marketing campaign.  Mrs. Jones wears a new pair of shoes, and all the ladies in the neighborhood want them.  Mr. Jones plays with a new kind of golf club, and everyone at the country club wants one.  The son has the hottest new gaming system, and his buddies want one, too.  The Joneses get all their stuff from their employer, who does real life product placement.  Even though the effect is overly farcical--I mean, are people really that easily swayed by what their friends have?--the point is well-made.  We are at the mercy of marketers and corporations, much more than we realize.  One has to make a deliberate effort not to be influence by the marketing that surrounds us every day. 

I have to wonder how much of this stealth marketing or real life product placement goes on.  I know of some examples, especially among teens and college kids, where products are provided free to some in hopes that they will influence others to buy.  But the scale of the placements in The Joneses seems unrealistic: they are too small a factor given too much credit for influencing sales.  I know it's a movie, but that goofiness detracted from the overall message of the movie.  Still, it's a fun flick, not a classic, but it will make you think next time some trend goes viral--What's really driving that product's popularity?

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Food, Inc. and We Feed the World

Both of these movies will make you think a little more about what you buy and what you eat.  That may or may not be a good thing.  Both of these movies take on the food industry, taking on factory farming and modern food production.  Food, Inc., and American production, is more alarmist and overstated, in typical American fashion, than We Feed the World, which is German.  The latter, more substantive and fair than Food, Inc., has more a documentary feel in its pacing and tone.  Both make me want to go to the farmers' market and quit eating meat.
[we_feed_the_world_01.png]
A huge amount of the world's food production, like this warehouse full of bread, is thrown away every year.
The message of these films is simple: modern food production sacrifices quality for quantity, industrializes natural processes, and removes us from our agricultural roots.  Both have eye-opening scenes from the poutltry industry.  With major fast-food restaurants using such a huge portion of the meat raised in the U.S., and with a very small number of companies, poultry farmers are beholden to the requirements of the fast-food industry.  Thus, even if you never eat fast food, your conusumption is determined, in part, by the fast-food industry.

Take chickens.  Large restaurant chain chicken buyers want chicken breasts of a specific size.  So chicken farmers breed chickens with large breasts and overall uniform size, and which grow quickly.  Their quick growth and disproportional body parts are so extreme that some can't even walk.  They are not so much beautiful members of the animal kingdom as factory produced commodities.  The eggs are hatched in large incubators, taken in boxes to the huge, crowded barns, where they are packed for their shortened lives to grow in absurdly cramped conditions. If they fall ill (which many do; infection spreads quickly in these conditions), they are shoveled up and carried away.  When they're full-grown, it's off to the slaughterhouse.  The footage from the chicken and beef slaughterhouses are incredible in their extreme automation (made possible my the uniform animal size) and disgusting in their, well, disgustingness.

Despite the horror shows these films feature, I think they overlook the practical, human side of the food industry.  Thomas Malthus and his followers predicted that we would not be able to feed the world, given population trends.  He didn't anticipate advances in agricultural technology, which has enabled the growth of food production worldwide to far exceed the needs of our population.  Like the producers of these films, I would prefer food grown naturally, animals raised and slaughtered humanely, and produce naturally ripened and eaten fresh.  But given our needs, that pastoral vision is impractical.  In order to feed a growing population, certain efficiencies have to be sought.  The division of labor and specilization have enabled us to reach a point where, unfortunately, a sizable percentage of food produced worldwide goes to waste.  Can we be more efficient in our distribution and more and improve prodution value?  Yes, always.  But I, for one, am thankful for the ever-increasing capacities of the food industry.

Bottom line, 2 stars a piece.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Zombieland

Zombieland is not a movie made with the Academy Awards in mind; I don't think you'll see these guys on Oscar night, at least not for this film.  But as zombie movies go, this one was kind of fun.  Saying that, though, makes me wonder, what's the appeal of zombie movies?  There's even a TV series about zombies now.  Why do people dress up like zombies?  It all seems dumb to me.  So, you ask, why am I even watching a movie about zombies.  I don't know.  I'm an incorrigible movie glutton, and when I see one that looks interesting, I'm on it.  This one seemed to have potential: a comedy about a handful of survivors in an America that has become infested with zombies.  
Woody Harrelson is a crazed zombie hunter who randomly teams up with Jesse Eisenberg, a sort of nerdy everyman.  They team up with a pair of sisters on a trek to find a zombie-free zone, killing zombies along the way.  There are some pretty funny parts, but in the best scene, they follow a map of the stars' homes in Hollywood and make there way to Bill Murray's house.  They find him there, where he appears to be a zombie.  He explains to a couple of his guests that he only wears the zombie makeup to fit in, that he's not a zombie at all.  The others don't get the message, though, and shoot him dead.  I know, it sounds goofy, but it's pretty funny.

I know zombie movies are meant to communicate some sort of statement about conformity, individualism, mortality, blah, blah.  But mostly they seem to dehumanize and demean humanity.  Do the people who made Zombieland care about any of that?  No.  It's just a crazy romp with the assumptions of zombie movies as the background.  So, some funny stuff here, but, unless you're a fan of zombie movie farces, you probably can spend your time better watching something else.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Okuribito (Departures)

I don't know whether I would call Departures a dark comedy, although it has those elements.  It's a more straightfoward drama with comedic moments, but the very subject matter forces the dark comedy label.  Whatever the label, Departures is an enjoyable, off-beat story.  Daigo plays the cello in an orchestra.  Alas, the orchestra's not making any money and must be disbanded.  Searching for a new job, Daigo sees an ad for "Departures," thinking he's applying for a job at a travel agency.  The company does prepare its clients for a journey, but not the type of journey Daigo has in mind. 

Even though he learns that the job actually is to prepare corpses for burial, Daigo, desperate for a job, decides to go on with it.  Perhaps in every culture such a role leans to some degree of social marginalization, but it's so much true in the small Japanese town here that Daigo doesn't tell his wife what he's doing, and his former friends shun him.  But Daigo presses on, recognizing the important role he plays in the families' time of need.  His boss and mentor teaches him the trade and helps him learn about life.

It sounds like an unlikely start for a great movie, but the acting is wonderful and the story, compelling.  I'm not the only one who thinks so; Departures is the winner of the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film.  Slow paced, avoiding convention, Departues is Oscar-worthy and worth the viewer's time.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Post Grad

Monday, November 8, 2010

W. and You're Welcome America: A Final Night with George W. Bush

I don't know why I bothered.  I'm a fan of political satire done well, but I should have known that Oliver Stone and Will Ferrell would take things too far in their depictions of George W. Bush.  Now don't get me wrong: I'm no big Bushie.  He's much too statist and too big a spender for my political taste.  But he's better than the alternative, especially the socialist in the White House now.  But Bush seems like a good guy, and there's much about him that I admire.  These 2 films would claim that their intent was to entertain, but clearly the agenda was greater: to perpetuate and promote liberal lies and to defame President Bush.

The only consolation I have is the limited reach of these movies.  You're Welcome America was a stage production which HBO aired.  It's out there on video, but I'm guessing not too many people saw it (although that's still too many).  W. was just not a very good movie.  I don't think it did too well at the box office.
Brolin in W.
Of the two Bushes, Ferrell is the best.  He has honed his Bush portrayal in years of "Saturday Night Live" skits, and I have to admit there are times when he does Bush better than Bush.  Josh Brolin plays W in W.  It's not a terrible portrayal, but just didn't work.  The whole movie's full of these characters who are just off!  Virtually every part is someone you've seen on the news and in the paper, and some of them are made up well to look the part, but the whole effect makes it seem like a bad SNL skit.  Richard Dreyfuss's Cheney is pretty convincing, though.
Ferrell in You're Welcome America
I think these 2 films shared their sources.  They have the same distortions and half-truths designed to discredit Bush and diminish his legacy.  I think of the question Bush asked about Iraq: Is the world better of with Sadam out of power?  Yes, of course.  The related question is, Is the world better of with Bush having served 2 terms?  As much as I wish his policies had been different, I have a hard time thinking of a Republican challenger to Bush who I would rather have seen in the White House, and I don't have a hard time at all preferring Bush to Gore or Kerry.  So the answer is most likely, yes, we are better off with Bush than we would have otherwise been.
Don't bother with these movies.  What I'd really like to see is similar treatment given to the incompetent, money-grabbing, self-righteous, big-government clown who succeeded Bush in the White House.  Now that would be good for a laugh.

Bottom line on both films: Yuck.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan

Did you know that Genghis Khan was really a lovable family man?  That he married his childhood sweetheart and was a hopeless romantic?  I guess my only perception of the man was that of a ruthless warrior and conqueror.  Mongol doesn't necessarily take issue with that very Western, stilted perception, but does attempt to humanize him, portraying his formative years.
I have absolutely no knowledge of Genghis Khan's life, so I don't have any idea if this movie is historically accurate.  I am assuming that the history has been thoroughly adapted, first, because we're talking about events that occured something like 700 years ago, and second, because it's really hard to fit a couple of decades of an important historical figure's life into 2 hours of film, especially when some of that time has to be taken up with elaborate, extensive, bloody battle scenes.  I was reminded of movies like Braveheart and Gladiator, where the protagonist fights oppressors and for the freedom of his people.  It just seemed funny to view Genghis Khan as the hero, given that his name is synonymous, from a Western perspective, with oppression.

Mongol has a very authentic feel, but, battle scenes aside, was pretty slow.  The sheer scale of the movie is impressive, though.  There are hundreds of people running around in some of these scenes!  Fierce mongolian horde, indeed!  The overall story arc is a gentle curve rather than a roller coaster, which may reflect history better but doesn't make for a very entertaining movie.  If this were on The History Channel it would fit right in.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Sin Nombre

I love a movie that shows another culture or people group from the inside.  Sin Nombre takes us into the lives of Honduran gang members and of illegal immigrants coming to the U.S.  I love the authenticity and emotion of Sin Nombre, but, as you might expect, it leans hard on melodrama and attempts a great deal of sympathy for the illegals.

Sarya, a Honduran teenager, is setting out for a new life in New Jersey.  She and her father and uncle ride the trains with hundreds of other immigrants, sitting on top of a cargo train for days.  They meet up with Casper, who's fleeing his gang.  After the gang leader tried to have his way with Casper's girlfriend and accidentally killed her, Casper betrayed a fellow gang member, killing him before he could have his way with Sarya.  Sarya and Casper team up as they head north on the trains with Casper's gang in hot pursuit.
Even though Sin Nombre is in Spanish and was filmed in Mexico, it was written and directed by Cary Fukunaga, an American. Fukunaga personally spent time riding the trains with real immigrants and hanging out with gang members; he even had a couple of them help him edit the script to ensure the realism of the dialogue.  As a result, parts of Sin Nombre have an almost documentary feel.  I got the feeling that even though the story is fictional, it portrays reality as many Mexicans and Central Americans experience it.
Reflecting the lives of the gang members it portrays and the plight of the immigrants it follows, Sin Nombre is a rather bleak movie with glimpses of hope.  Having been born and raised in the U.S., I can't relate to the hope Latin Americans have of a new life in the promised land north of the border in contrast to their home countries.  Sin Nombre brings us face-to-face with gang members and illegal immigrants as real people with hopes and dreams.  This is a movie worth watching, for sure.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Like Stars on Earth

Every now and then a movie from "Bollywood," the thriving Indian movie industry, trickles over here to the U.S.  I haven't seen many, but they're generally thoroughly enjoyable.  You can count on them being pretty clean, and they always include extended musical numbers, which may or may not fit with the story and tone of the rest of the movie.  A favorite of mine, Lagaan, tells the story of some Indians who feel oppressed by their British colonial rulers.  They challenge the British to a cricket match, wagering the tax the British want them to pay.  It's a great movie, with wonderful history and social commentary, but they interrupt the story frequently with big song and dance numbers.

The star of Lagaan, Aamir Khan, also directed and stars in Like Stars on Earth.  Khan, who has starred in dozens of Bollywood films, plays a fun-loving art teacher at the boarding school where Ishaan has been sent.  Ishaan has failed his classes and angered his demanding father by skipping classes and not attending to his studies.  I love this portrayal of the struggles of a dyslexic kid with ADHD.  He tries to read, but the words leap off the page and the letters get all jumbled up.  He is distracted by every little thing.  Under the art teacher's tutelage at the new school his artistic talent is revealed, leading to an overall maturing, success, and reconciliation with his father.
Like Stars on Earth is a fun movie, affirming of those kids among us who live and learn differently.  As the parent of some kids who don't fit the typical mold of the "good student," I appreciated the sensitivity and joy with which the movie portrayed not only Ishaan, with his ADHD, dyslexia, and free-spiritedness, but also the physically and mentally disabled children at the art teacher's other school.

Yes, there are some lengthy musical interludes that don't really drive the story, making the movie longer than it ought to be.  (Maybe that's when India moviegoers step out for popcorn, or whatver they eat during a movie.)  But Like Stars on Earth is still an enjoyable film.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Box

The premise for The Box sounds like something someone came up with staying up late with his college roommates: what if someone gave you a box, and in it there is a button that, if you push it, you will get a million dollars; the catch is that someone, somewhere, whom you don't know, will die.  What a wild and crazy moral dilemma!  Get me another beer!
It is conceivable that this type of dilemma could provide the basis for a good movie, but this wasn't it.  It started as a slightly compelling situation.  The happy couple is having financial troubles, and a mysterious stranger shows up with the box.  A million dollars just for pressing a button.  You know there's going to be some complication, but wondering how it will play out kept me interested.  Before long, though, it started spiraling into a barely cohesive sci-fi story about aliens judging the human race.  Yuck.

Overreaching and manipulative, The Box is one to be skipped.  Don't press the button.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Armored

Sometimes a movie comes along that is so bad that even when you know it's going to be a bad movie you're disappointed in how bad it is.  I knew from the previews that Armored would be an over-the-top shoot-em-up, but I thought the presence of Laurence Fishburne, Jean Reno, and Matt Dillon might raise the level a little.  It's not that their performances were that bad, or that the special effects were bad, but the overall dumbness level was too high.

The movie focuses on a crew who works for an armored truck service who devises a fool-proof plan to steal $42 million from the company and get away with it.  Of course we know that if the plan were really fool-proof, there would be no movie.  When things begin to go awry, the thieves turn on each other, and everything spirals out of control.  Dumbness on top of dumbness.
You have to admire some of the efforts here.  The chase scene with armored cars flying around the abandoned factory must have been quite a feat.  But wild, choreographed action sequences don't make up for a groan-inducing story and predictable plot.  You've been warned: if you choose to waste your time with this one, don't blame me.

Bottom line, 1 star.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Gigantic

Every now and then I watch a movie that just clicks.  This was one of them.  I really liked it.  First of all, it stars Zooey Deschanel.  She is the perfect super-cute, super-desirable girl for a romantic comedy.  (Same thing in (500) Days of Summer.  Like I said in that review, she will always be Trillian to me.)  Gigantic is definitely a romantic comedy, but so much better than the typical release in that genre.  Release?  Was this movie even released?  According to IMDB, it only played in a handful of theaters.  I guess it's not mainstream and stupid enough for the mass markets.

Brian (Paul Dano) has a boring job selling mattresses.  His dad and much older brothers are successful in their fields, but he doesn't have much passion for work.  He does have a passion for adopting a child from China, even though he's a single man in his 20s.  Then Happy (Deschanel) comes in to pick up a bed for her dad (John Goodman).  They chat, she falls asleep on a display bed, Brian falls in love.  They go through the typical "he gets the girl, loses the girl, maybe gets the girl" romantic comedy relationship curve, but the movie as a whole is good enough that I can forgive that. 
My favorite scene has Brian and his brothers hunting mushrooms in the woods with their dad, charmingly played by Ed Asner.  The conversation turns to Brian's hopes for adopting a child.  His dad offers some encouraging words: "I hope you get the kid. .. .. I think you'd be great at it.  You've got what it takes."  Brian asks, "What does it take?"  After a pause, Dad responds, "Well. .. . I haven't the foggiest idea to be truthful.  But, uh, uh listen.  Here we are, walking together in the woods, and if you can aspire to be walking in the woods with your kids after they've made it as far as we've made it then I think you've done the right thing."  I know there's a lot more to parenting than that, but I love this advice. 

On the negative side, the happy couple starts having sex immediately upon the acknowledgement of their feelings for each other.  It almost seems like people who make movies today can come up with no other way for couples to show their affection for one another.

All in all, this was a terrific movie.  The positive view of adoption, the lovable characters, the not-as-formulaic-as-most-romantic-comedies romance, and the quirky, hilarious dads made this one fun.  I recommend it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Gentlemen Broncos

A few years ago, Napoleon Dynamite hit a nerve with moviegoers, gaining a cult following no one really expected.  Writer/director Jared Hess followed up that success with Nacho Libre (which I have not seen) and now Gentlemen Broncos.  As a life-long sci-fi fan, I was interested in this movie about a teen-ager whose novel is ripped off by a famous writer.

Chevalier, a prolific and well-known fantasy/sci-fi author, has hit a crisis point in his career: he's run out of ideas and his publisher is breathing down his neck.  At a writing workshop, Benjamin submits a manuscript for Chevalier's evaluation.  Chevalier likes it so much he decides to coopt the story for himself, making a few changes and submitting it for publication.  Meanwhile, Benjamin's friend Lonnie decides to make a movie from the manuscript.  The movie flips around from this movie-within-the-movie, to Benjamin's distress at learning his idea has been stolen, to Chevalier's accusations of Lonnie's stealing the movie idea from him. 
The tone and humor of Gentlmen Broncos definitely fits in the Napoleon Dynamite mold: quirky characters, flat delivery, small-town folks, and teens struggling with their own awkwardness.  GB, however, has a more complete story than ND, in which any story was incidental.  Gentlemen Broncos is a dumb movie, but in a good way, not dumb as in stale, trite, or a waste of time, but dumb as in celebrating the dumb, funny, goofy, entertaining normalcy of normal, funny people.  This is not fast-talking, stand-up comedian comedy, but comedy on a human scale.  I like it.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

From Paris with Love

Guns.  Explosions.  Espionage.  Terrorists.  Drugs.  Chases.  Shootouts.  Betrayal.  Twists.

From Paris with Love was written by Luc Besson, who wrote Transporter, Taken, Bandidas, and other decent action flicks.  If you liked some of those movies (I did) you'll like this one.
James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) works in Paris as an aide to the U.S. ambassador.  He hopes to get into the spy game, doing small tasks for mysterious people--presumably CIA--who call him and send him on errands.  He gets called to pick up an agent and becomes embroiled in Charlie Wax's (John Travolta) wild, aggressive, unorthodox, and frequently violent methods of pursuing the bad guys and uncovering conspiracy.  The timid Reece isn't sure what to think of this brash operative, but plays a great straight man to Wax's antics.

If violence and bad language in movies offend you, well, you'll do yourself a favor by staying away.  But if you like fun, crazy, action movies with a pretty decent story, you'll enjoy From Paris with Love.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Unthinkable

Unthinkable is not a great movie, but you have to give it some credit for tackling tough questions in a suspenseful way without using a moral club or preaching at us.  Fans of Jack Bauer in 24 will recognize the dilemmas here, and anyone who has an interest in the U.S. military's treatment of "enemy combatants" will be on familiar ground.

The U.S. has a credible threat of the detonation of nuclear bombs in several locations.  The intelligence backs up the assertion, and a suspect is rounded up.  H (Samuel L. Jackson) is called in to help with the interrogation.  H battles the suspect, but the more intense battle is with Agent Helen Brody (Carrie-Ann Moss) who questions H's tactics and torture.  Together they deal with the question, is torture of one man justified if you can save the lives of others?  Is it permissible to do the unthinkable to one man (and maybe his family) if it means saving the lives of millions?  H turns out to be smarter and more restrained than you might think, and Brody's firm ethical foundation is shaken during the day.

This is a smart thriller, with some unexpected twists, and an ending that does not spoon feed the "right or wrong" answer to the viewer.  Production-wise, its quality was like a TV show, not as good as 24, in my opinion.  But the story and message was more nuanced than Jack Bauer's exploits.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars. 

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Das Weisse Band (The White Ribbon)

I really wanted to like this movie, a nominee for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  It's very "artsy," not just because it's black and white, but by nature of its slow pacing and cryptic plot.  I think sometimes I'm OK with a movie that does not have a clear resolution, or that has a lot of ambiguity, but this one left me dry.

That's not to say it's not a beautifully made film; it is!  The black and white looks beautiful, and the atmosphere--a rural, pre-WW1 German village--was perfect.  The characters were a little creepy.  Strange things have been happening in this quite village, not paranormal strange, just criminal strange: the doctor's horse is tripped by a wire, injuring the doctor; a disabled child is beaten and tortured; a barn is burned.  No motives, evidence, or answers present themselves, putting the townsfolk on edge.  The real reason and culprit aren't clearly revealed; the point is the impact the actions have on the people.

In a way, this is reminscent of a Coen brothers film, or others of that genre, those films that explore the human nature that lurks beneath the surface.  The normal-seeming, almost too-perfect people acting strangely, religious folks who turn out to be repressive, upstanding citizens who are really sleeping with the help, all fit in a Coen brothers type movie, with the setting being rural Germany rather than the suburbs of America.

I hate not to give this movie a great rating.  Critically acclaimed, Cannes winner, artsy black-and-white--but ultimately, not completely to my taste.  I will say it's a thought-provoking piece on the impact some escalating crimes can have on a peaceful town, and the moral breakdown that would permit them.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Toy Story 3

Pixar has for years set the standard for animated films.  Their story lines and flawless animation haven't failed to make a great movie yet.  I must admit, I was a little skeptical of Toy Story 3.  I enjoyed 1 and 2, but how much more can they milk these characters?  Well, the movie pleasantly surprised me.  I took Elliot to see it and we both laughed and laughed, and yes, maybe got choked up a bit.
Should they stay or should they go now?

Andy is going off to college, and his mom wants to clean out his room.  He can't bear to part with the toys we know and love from the other movies, but in a mix-up, they get donated to a day care center.  At first they think they're in toy heaven, but quickly realize their mistake when the little kids abuse and nearly destroy them.  When they protest their treatment to the teddy bear who rules the day care, they are jailed in cubby baskets.  Their loyalty and determination fuel a daring escape and reunion with Andy.
Beware the kindly pink teddy bear!

Toy Story 3 has terrific voice acting, the Pixar animation that is so good you don't notice it's animation, and a great story.  As with the other Pixar films, this is a movie grown-ups can love, even without the kids around.  But your kids will love it, too.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

War Games

The other day I was playing tic-tac-toe with Elliot and got the urge to watch War Games.  I don't know if this really launched Matthew Broderick's career, but it certainly gave it a boost.  The movie was huge when it was released in 1983, and it remains relevant and compelling today.
The story involves a military computer that runs war simulations.  It takes on a mind of its own and the U.S. military starts to believe the simulations are real, and the computer wants to initiate a launch of nuclear missles.  All of that was triggered by David (Broderick) hacking into computers looking for a video game company.  On David's shoulders rests the task of saving the world.  The technology is terribly dated, as you would expect; there have been tremendous changes in computer in the last 27 years.  But War Games broke new ground in its potrayal of the hacker culture.

I thought I would watch it with my kids.  I'm glad I didn't.  Even thought it stars a teen heartthrob of the day, it's really a movie for teens and adults.  The language and a few of the references deem it unsuitable for my kids.

Remember the scene where, in biology class, Broderick suggests that the origin of asexual reproduction came from the teacher's wife?  In my memory, I had pictured that in Ferris Beuler's Day Off, but it's actually in War Games.  Right actor, wrong character. 
The WOPR.  This was made of wood, painted to look like metal.
A special effects guy sat inside, controlling the display with an Apple II computer.

One other thing I didn't remember: In the first scene we see a shift change at a missle silo.  In the corridor outside the control room, we see a sign that says, "Anyone urinating in this area will be discharged."  Is that sign really found in military installations?  Is it necessary?  Has anyone ever been discharged for that offense?  Just wondering. . . .

This is a great movie.  I am biased because I saw it and loved it at an impressionable age, but I dare say it's a bona fide classic.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Adam

If you  have ever met someone with Asperger's sydrome, a form of autism, you may not have realized it.  They can be, in varying degrees, socially awkward, compulsive about sticking to routine, and obsessively interested in specific topics.  They can also be brilliant, prodigies in music, computer programming, or technical skills.  Adam featuers a character with Asperger's in a sympathetic, insightful portrayal of a young man at a time of crisis and transition.

Adam, a 29-year-old man, has lived with his father all his life in the same apartment.  Adam has a job, but his father helps support him and helps with his routines and unique needs.  When his father dies, Adam maintains his routine for a while.  Then he loses his job designing electronic toys; it seems he is very good at the technical applications, but not so good about staying within the requirements and budget for his projects.   Without his father's assistance, and without income from his job, he must quickly make some changes.
Amid this time of changes, a lovely young lady moves into his building.  She is not put off by his quirkiness, and they strike up a friendship that becomes a romance.  Whether the romance can last or is destined to fail is the story of the movie.  I won't spoil it for you, but I will say Adam has a happy ending.

There are some good laughs as Adam steps into unfamiliar circumstances, and moving scenes where he is pushed too far.  The comedy and the drama do not come across as overdone, but seem realistic and believable.  Pick up Adam.  It's not only a thorughly enjoyable human story, but it will change the way you look at Asperger's.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Boys are Back

I can't--don't want to--imagine a life where I'm left to raise my kids on my own.  The real-life Simon Carr, fictionalized in The Boys are Back as Joe Warr, faced the loss of his wife to cancer when his son was just 6.  (The comments herein refer to the movie; I have not read Carr's book on which the movie is based.)  Warr, an Australian sports writer, has taken his free-wheeling life for granted.  The loss of his wife hits him hard.  Not only does he decide to raise his 6-year-old son on his own, his teenage son from his first marriage comes to live with them as well.  Clive Owen plays the dad.  His performance, as well as both boys, are terrific.
At first Warr tries to replicate the order with which his late wife ran the household.  He quickly realizes that rules and discipline look different in the new scheme of things; he adopts a free-wheeling "just say yes" child-rearing philosophy.  Things get crazy, nearly spinning out of control, but the three men learn to live together and figure out how to make it work.

There are some touching scenes.  When Warr's wife died in his arms I could hardly stand it.  This is one of those realistic movies that draws you in and makes you think, "What if that happened in my family.  There's plenty of good, guys-having-fun humor, too.  Parents who prefer discipline and order in the home should stay away.  I don't know about the overall parenting model here, but I do know this: most of the time, it's better to say, "Sure why not!"  Messes can be cleaned up, stuff can be repaired, but memories of childhood last forever.  Enjoy this touching movie about treasuring your spouse, enjoying your kids and living a full life.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Silas Marner

Ben Kingsley is a great actor.  His performance in this 1985 BBC production of Silas Marner carries the film.  Overall, this is a great story, and the movie matches the pace and tone of the novel quite well, but, that said, the pace and tone of the book is slow and a little dark. So unless you're a fan of the book, or you like Masterpiece Theater-type movies, this may not be the movie for you.
I love the story: poor Marner, falsely accused of a crime and shunned by his community, moves away for a hermit's existence, committed to work and hoarding the proceeds of his work.  When a neighbor steals his gold and a little girl turns up on his hearth, his life is turned around.  This movie is faithful to Eliot's novel, but enjoyable on its own.  Just don't expect modern Hollywood fare.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Indigenes (Days of Glory)

Here's timely theme for us to consider: Muslim fighters fiighting a war on our side.  I know, it sounds crazy, but it's true.  There are Muslims in the U.S. military, of course, and some U.S. allies are Muslim nations.  But I never thought about Muslims fighting for the Allies in WW2.  Indigenes follows a group of Muslims from the French-colonial North Africa who were recruited to fight for France.  They fought valiantly, but suffered indignity and discrimination, not from their enemies but from the French themselves.
Like many good war movies, Indigenes has gripping, realistic fighting scenes, relatable characters with whom we can sympathize, and moral challenges.  The war really provides the backdrop for the Muslims' struggle for acceptance and equal treatment.  The great story and filmmaking won Indigenes an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year, and the great acting won the cast a Best Actor award at Cannes (Apparently it was awarded to the male ensemble cast.  I don't know how often that happens. . . .).

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Stoning of Saroya M.

This movie is shocking.  It's surreal to think that in modern times women may be stoned for adultery.  The Stoning of Saroya M. is based on the true story of Saroya, who lived in a village in Iran.  Her husband had tired of her, and kept a mistress, but Saroya would not agree to a divorce.  He falsely accused her of adultery, convinced others in the village to lie and corroborate his story, and had her tried and sentenced.  Saroya's husband and sons were among those who threw the stones.
The story was uncovered when Freidoune, a journalist, met Saroya's aunt, who bravely tells him the whole story.  Although she was helpless to prevent the horrible injustice, through Freidoune she exposed the villagers' crime.  Even though the very title of the movie gives away the ending, the tension throughout the film kept me on the edge of my seat and caused my blood to boil against the mindset, religion, and system which made the inevitable possible.

The powerful performances and the portrayal of life in Iran make this well worth seeing.

Bottom line, 3 stars

Postscript: Even though this movie is set in the 80s, and much has happened in that part of the world, stoning remains an issue.  I read in this morning's paper of a married man and his unmarried lover in northern Afghanistan stoned to death for adultery.  At least they were consistent and stoned the man and the woman, instead of just the woman.  This was officially condemned by the government, but it demontrates the Taliban's power and lack of commitment to human rights.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus

Some of my all-time favorite movies were directed by Terry Gilliam.  The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Brazil were brilliant.  I also enjoyed Time Bandits and Twelve Monkeys, and, of course, his Monty Python work is terrific.  So any time Gilliam comes up with something new, I get excited.  Of course, I am sometimes disappointed.  The Brothers Grimm was pretty good, The Fisher King was OK, but I loathed Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, perhaps his most imaginative work, and one of his boldest efforts, left me with mixed feelings.  As you would expect, if you know Gilliam's work, the movie is visually stunning, overloading the viewer with images.  The titular Imaginarium, actually the mind of Dr. Parnassus, through which people can experience their dreams, takes the form of a travelling sideshow act.  Dr. Parnassus, his daughter, and a couple of assistants travel around giving people the opportunity to have their dreams come true, even if for a few moments.

Along the way they pick up Tony, a drifter who they find hanging from a bridge.  Tony's role, mostly played by Heath Ledger, morphed into a face-shifting role when Ledger died during the filming.  Jude Law, Johnny Depp, and Colin Farrell each filled in on scenes that Ledger had not completed.  This does make for an interesting movie-making story, showing the adaptability of Gilliam and the cast to complete the project in the aftermath of Ledger's death.  But for the viewer, it makes a manic, confusing role even more confusing.

Imaginarium is, at times, fun to watch, but the story, in which Parnassus tries to win back his daughter, who he's about to lose in a bet with the devil, doesn't work well.  This is not Gilliam's worst movie, but it doesn't rank with his classics.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Sleuth (2007)

Wow, it's been a while since I've posted a movie review!  I had some publish while I was on vacation, but I haven't published one since we returned on July 26.  And I have a backlog of a dozen or so movies I haven't reviewed, so I'd better get busy.

I'll start with an easy movie to review: Sleuth.  Back in January I reviewed the original film version (here).  Both movies are based on the play by Anthony Shaffer.   The key attraction of this film is the casting.  IN the original film, a young Michael Caine played Milo, who was having an affair with Andrew's wife.  Andrew was played by acting legend Lawrence Olivier.  In this new version, the young Jude Law plays Milo, opposite Michael Caine, now an acting legend in his own right.  Both versions showcase two talented actors, but the new version is even less enjoyable than the first.
I know getting these two talents on the screen together in what is essentially a two-man show sounds good, but rather than an opportunity to shine as actors, the two compete as they mug for the camera.  The exaggerated performances and manic turns distract from what could be a decent, if a little twisted, thriller.

Like an overbearing companion at a dinner party, who, despite the quality of the fare, forces you to keep looking at your watch, these two forced me to wonder, how much longer can this movie go on?

Bottom line, 1 and 1/2 stars.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Monty Python: Almost the Truth

The Monty Python guys are brilliant first of all for their humor.  Their brand of original, intelligent yet silly, timeless humor has not and maybe cannot be duplicated.  But their other brilliance is their marketing.  From their earliest albums, they have managed to reproduce and repackage things many times to continue finding new audiences and feeding their always-growing audience's hunger for more Python.
They've aged well and are as funny as ever.

Almost the Truth is a rare opportunity not to hear new comedy from the British comedians, but to hear new perspectives and history about them.  This was produced as a documentary in 2009 for the Independent Film Channel.  It's long--6 hour-long episodes, plus extras--but any fan of Monty Python will love just about every minute.  Through interviews with the surviving members, behind-the-scenes clips from the Flying Circus show and their movies, and from interviews with other comedians and actors who MP influenced, we get a nice backdrop for appreciated MP and their impact.

A non-fan would be better off picking up a copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Live at Hollywood Bowl, or even episodes of Flying Circus for an introduction, but fans will not be disappointed in this documentary.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

A Serious Man

Some of my favorite movies have been made by the Coen brothers: Raising Arizona, The Hudsucker Proxy, O Brother, Where Art Thou?  These, along with Fargo and The Big Lebowski have stood the test of time and remain favorites, or at least cult classics.  So of their others haven't been too bad, but not as enjoyable for me.  Rank A Serious Man on the low end of the Coen scale.

College professor Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg) is having a rough week.  His children don't like him, his daughter wants a nose job, his son smokes pot, and his wife announces that she wants a divorce so she can marry Sy.  Larry, an observant Jew, seeks answers from his rabbis, but to no avail.  Nothing seems to be going right for him, but I don't really care.
Gopnik seeks answers to the big questions.

There is some characteristic Coen black humor here, and they cleverly recreate the cultural milieu of the American midwest in the 1960s.  There's a lot going on in the movie.  With all the social commentary and symbolism, the story takes a back seat.  This one is best viewed as an art film, where individual elements are more important than the whole.  The result is a serious disappointment.

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

If you've seen the preview for this movie, you know the whole story.  Richard Gere brings home a lost puppy he finds at the train station.  He grows attached, and his wife reluctantly agrees that they can keep him.  The dog follows him to the station every day, then comes back to the station at the end of the day to greet him as he gets off the commuter train.  Gere dies, but the dog still greets the train every day.  He does so for years, and becomes a fixtures in the little town.
Even knowing the story, and even though it's told in a white-washed, Hallmark movie-of-the-week way, Hachi is still a moving story.  It's based on the true story of a dog who continued coming to the train station in Tokyo for 9 years after his master's death.  A statue of Hachiko was erected in 1934 at the train station.
Predictable, yes.  Manipulative tear-jerker, yes.  Sappy, yes.  Thoroughly enjoyable and heart-warming, yes and yes.  I watched it with my boys, who weren't quite as impressed, but they liked it just the same.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Surrogates

I've said before that I'm a sucker for sci-fi, even the mainstream special effects blockbusters.  Sometimes they're terrific, sometimes a waste of money and time.  Surrogates may not live on as a classic, but I liked it.  It's thoughtful and well-done.

Like lots of sci-fi, Surrogates takes a current phenomenon, alternative identities taken on by people on the internet, and draws out a possible extension: human-looking robots who are controlled remotely by their owners.  These "surrogates" go to work, shop, socialize, live daily life, while the owners remain safely ensconced in their homes.  Many surrogates resemble their owners, if a younger, fitter, better looking version, but others are completely different.  Imagine how surprised that guy would be to find out that the good looking young lady he picked up at a bar is actually a surrogate for an overweight, middle-aged man!

There are a few humans who resist using surrogates; many live in a surrogate-free zone, and are fomenting rebellion against the surrogate society.  When FBI agent Tom Greer's (Bruce Willis) surrogate is killed, he gets an first-hand perspective on life as a "meat bag."  Someone has developed a weapon that, when used to kill a surrogate, kills its operator as well, shattering the illusion that life through a surrogate is safer.  Greer's task is to find out who developed the weapon and destroy it.

Much of Surrogates is standard sci-fi action film fare, but it does raise some interesting questions about humanity and identity.  The Prophet (Ving Rhames) lives in the surrogate-free ghetto, and speaks of a post-surrogate world.  He admonishes his followers, as well as the surrogate-operating public, to join him in restoring humanity: "When you sacrifice your own personal desires for a great cause, a greater good, you never die.  That is what it means to be human. . . . We sacrifice many modern pleasures and conveniences to feel truly connected.  Not with machines but with ourselves. . . . This is what gives life meaning."
"Getting your face done" takes on new meaning.

Surrogates raises the questions, Does technology make us more human or less?  Are there limits to the use of technology for social interaction?  Do technological innovations isolate us or bring us together?  The answers are unclear; most of us have experienced both the positive and negative expressions of technology and communication.  But I do appreciate the movie's basic point: there is no substitute for face-to-face, skin-to-skin contact and communication.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Book of Eli

Is the Bible a tool for manipulating and controlling people?  Or is it a civilizing, democratizing force?  The Book of Eli asks that question in the context of post-apocalyptic America, in which anarchy reigns and there is no remembered sense of morality, culture, or societal structure.  One man believes he holds the key to rebuilding civilization: Eli (Denzel Washington), armed with the sole remaining copy of the Bible.
It's crazy and absurd, in a way, but as we learn during the course of the movie, many people blamed Christianity for the war that led to nuclear annihilation.  As a result, Bibles were burned and religion was wiped out.  Eli has been carrying the Bible for 30 years, heading west.  (I know it's a big country, but it seems like he could have gotten there in less than 30 years. . . . Unless I'm too dense, we never really learn why it's taken him so long.)  In the course of his travels, he happens on a town ruled with an iron fist by Carnegie (Gary Oldman).  He has tried to rebuild a semblance of civilization, but through terror and vice, as a dictator, not through democratic, cooperative means.

Eli meets up with Solara (Mila Kunis), the daughter of Carnegie's concubine/slave.  She asks Eli, "Do you really read the same book every day?"  Eli unhesitatingly responds, "Without fail."  He quotes several scriptures on occasion.  You do have to admire his devotion to the Bible.  He reads and memorizes it daily, and he protects it from all comers, which are legion.  Eli's finely honed fighting skills leave any and all attackers dead or dying, such is his passion to continue his quest and protect the Bible.
Eli's face-off with Carnegie reveals Carnegie's motive for wanting to get his hands on the Bible.  "I know its power.  If you read it, so do you."  He appeals to Eli's desire to restart civilization, saying he needs the Bible to help him develop the town and enhance his leadership.  "Just staying alive is an act of faith. . . . But they don't understand that. . . . I don't have the right words to help them, but the book does.  Imagine how different, how righteous this little world could be if we had the right words for our faith.  It's not right to keep that book hidden away.  It's meant to be shared with others.  It's meant to be spread."  Amen to that last part!  But Eli easily sees through Carnegie's agenda (not hard to do since he's surrounded by henchmen poised to kill Eli!) and moves on.

Eli turns reflective after his final showdown with Carnegie's men.  "All the years I've been carrying it and reading it every day I got so caught up in keeping it safe I forgot to live by what I learned from it.  Just do for others more than you do for yourself."  An overly simplistic and theologically inaccurate summary of scripture, to be sure, but a nice reminder not to worship the book but to live in service to the author.  I was reminded of the Fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention.  They were so caught up in protecting the Bible from what they perceived as a liberal onslaught that they neglected to love their brothers and sisters in the convention, driving them away through deceptive and evil means.

I really liked this movie.  Aside from any theological or moral problems, the overarching theme of Eli's commitment to scripture made the movie for me.  Imagine if, unlikely as it may be, all Bibles were destroyed.  We could piece together what we've memorized, but to have the words on the page would be irreplaceable.  God has given us a tremendous gift in his written word.  Eli teaches us to treasure it.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Invention of Lying

For a funny movie that has the potential to tell a creative, profound moral lesson, The Invention of Lying stinks up its message and presents a simplistic, insulting criticism of Christianity--really, of any revelatory religion.

The set up is pretty brilliant, and the first part of the movie is very funny.  The setting is a world much like our own, excecpt  that no one has ever told a lie. The real humor comes from the fact that not only does no one tell a lie, but everyone says exactly what's on his or her mind.  When the main character Mark, played by Ricky Gervais, of The Office fame (he also co-wrote the screenplay), takes Anna out on a date, they can't help but be honest with one another.  The waiter, too: as he comes to take their order, he says, "I'm very embarassed to work here."  Anna orders the salad, "because I think I'm fat but I also think I deserve something that tastes good."  Mark, the fish tacos, "because I had them once and it's all I know."  When Anna's mom calls during dinner, she openly discusses her date: "No, not very attractive. . . . Kind of funny.  A bit fat.  Funny little snub nose.  No, I won't be sleeping with him tonight." 
We get an example of advertising, a Coke commercial.  "Hi, I'm Jim and I'm the spokesperson for the Coca-Cola company.  I'm here today to ask you to continue buying Coke. . . . It's basically just brown sugar water, we haven't changed the ingredients lately, so there's nothing new about it I can say.  We changed the can around a little bit. . . . It's Coke.  It's very famous.  I'm Jim, I work for Coke, and I'm asking you to not stop buying Coke."  Later we see an ad on the side of a bus: "Pepsi.  When they don't have Coke."  And how about this for honesty in signage: the nursing home where Mark's mom lives is called "A Sad Place for Hopeless Old People."

Mark works for Lecture Films: "We film someone telling you about things that happened."  That describes the whole of T.V.  There is no fiction, no movies as we know them.  Fiction, art, it's all lies.  Creativity is nonexistent.  Therein lies the first problem: the movie portrays all of life and culture as bland and uninteresting without the ability to lie. 
Mark, desperate for money, lies to a teller about his bank account balance--the first lie ever told!  Mark uses his new "power" to enrich himself, but he also uses it for good.  He gives some of his new wealth away, but he also uses what we would call white lies to encourage people, to give his suicidal neighbor hope, to bring young lovers together, and, most importantly, to give his dying mother something to look forward to.  She tells her son she's scared of dying, but Mark tells her he has a surprise for her, and goes on to describe what will happen after she dies.  "You're going to be young again, and you'll be able to run through the fields and dance and jump, and there will be no sadness, no pain, just love and laughing and happiness. . . . Everyone will live in giant mansions. . . . and it will last for an eternity."

The hospital staff overhears all of this.  Of course they've never heard anything like it and are filled with hope.  Word quickly spreads of Mark's revelations and crowds surround him, wanting to hear more.  He writes all night and emerges from his home, holding his revelations taped on two pizza boxes, looking like Moses holding the tablets of the Ten Commandments.  Mark attributes all he's learned to a "man in the sky" who rewards us according to how good we are, and if we do bad things we go to the worst place imaginable.

Of course all his fame and notoriety take its toll on Mark, especially since he's still the only one capable of lying, and is forced to keep that secret to himself.  The story from there isn't all that interesting.  I was uncomfortable with the portrayal of lying as a means to self-aggrandizement and the generally positive effects on Mark's life and others; there was no sense of the consequences of lying. 

I was more disturbed by the turn the movie took from a funny fantasy to a caustic mocking of Christianity.  I try to put myself in the shoes of a secular person, or someone who has a vague understanding of the Bible, and can imagine them thinking, Yeah, that sounds like Christianity, and it must be all made up by some guy.

Clearly this is a movie with an agenda.  They are not interested in provoking people to think; they are interested in knocking down people's beliefs.  I am not opposed to inviting discussion, challenging faith, examining belief.  But that's not what this movie does.  It's an all-out attack on Christianity. 

Bottom line, 1/2 star (for the funny parts)

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Gigante

Like many films from Film Movement, Gigante tells a simple story, eschewing Hollywood cliches, special effects, and sappiness.  The gigante in question in Gigante is Jara, a night security job at a supermarket in Montevideo.  Julia, one of the night cleaning ladies catches his eye.  As he sits at his video monitors, he becomes obsessed with her, watching her at her duties.  He even begins following her outside of work.
This sounds creepy, but Jara maintains his distance, and does not watch and follow in a leering, inappropriate way, but in a way that reflects his extreme shyness and discomfort with conversation.  When he sees Julia cleaning up an accidental mess on her aisle, and then notes that the supervisor is heading her way, he leaps to action, heading off the supervisor so that Julia has time to finish cleaning, avoiding the wrath of her boss.

Jara's shyness and simple crush on Julia, and Julia's corresponding coyness make the viewer hope they will get together.  They may not be the typical romantic comedy screen idols, and the story may not fit the typical mold, but Gigante's quiet, slow-paced storytelling will surely leave you smiling.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

As I've said before, I'm a sucker for sci-fi, so I had to see a blockbuster like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  This picks up shortly after Transformers with Sam going to college, and the Autobots working with the military in secret, battling the Decepticons.  Earth has become a battleground for the civil war of the Transformers.  If that has lost you so far, don't worry, you're not missing much.

There is a story here, with some background of the Transformers conflicts from their home world.  But the emphasis is on the fighting, chasing, exploding.  I have no concept of the technology, computing power, and artistry it takes to create the animated Transformers, and to integrate them so seamlessly with people, sets, landscapes, and explosions.  But all that is lost in the muddle of the presentation.  There is so much to see so fast that the human eye cannot possibly take it all in.
Can  you tell what's going on in this picture?

Some of my friends who loved the Transformers cartoon series really love these movies.  I never got into the cartoons.  Maybe they were after my time.  In any case, I enjoyed the movie for the visual treat that it is, but it's ultimately overblown and forgettable.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Flint Lockwood can't seem to fit in.  He's full of ideas, but all the ideas tend to get out of control.  When he invents a device to make food out of water, he thinks he's hit the jackpot.  The primary economy of the island village where he lives is sardines.  When the cannery closes down, hope is lost, but Flint believes he can save the town with his latest invention.

Of course things don't work out as planned.  The machine ends up in low orbit over the island, and as Flint enters requests from the control panel, the chosen food item rains from the sky!  For a while he's the most popular guy in town, and the town is on the verge of fame and fortune.  But, as usual, things go awry; falling food chaos ensues.
Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs is good, messy fun.  My kids loved it; there were plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and unexpected twists.  The visual style is colorful and arresting.  In theaters, this played in 3-D; it would have been fun to see.  Even on our old, flat TV, the animation looked terrific.

As you might guess from the topic, the danger of greed and gluttony was the big lesson from the movie.  We celebrate with Flint as his dreams seem to be coming true, but the consequences of excess are all around.  The mayor exemplifies greediness as he eats huge portions and quickly becomes so obese he can only get around on a scooter.  The town deploys a truck to take care of leftovers.  It just scoops them up and flings them into a big pile, Mount Leftovers, which turns out to be an unsustainable solution.  And as the machine accelerates its activity, Flint is forced to try to shut it down or destroy it, before the food weather system it creates takes over the world.

There's plenty to enjoy here for kids and adults alike.  The dialogue, fast-paced and witty, flies past fast enough that you might miss a few laughs, but it will keep you giggling all the way through.  And don't miss Mr. T's role as the vigilant town cop!

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Watchmen

I must say I was very much looking forward to seeing Watchmen.  I had never heard of or read the graphic novel, which is considered to be one of the greatest graphic novels ever, and is respected even outside of the usual comic circles.  I am a sucker for sci-fi/superhero movies, and this one looked pretty cool.  It was cool, but I was disappointed.

I almost hesitate to say something negative about a movie that was as painstakingly made as Watchmen seemed to be.  Accounts I've read talk about how faithful the filmmakers were to the original graphic novel, even using frames from the novel in storyboarding the film.  There were some changes made, as always happens when a movie, comic, or video game is made for the big screen.  But I think the graphic novel faithful, of whom there are many, were pleased with the results.
I was struck by the similarities to The Incredibles, which, since it came out after Watchmen was published, may have lifted some ideas.  Like The Incredibles, the Watchmen are former superheroes who have kept their identities secret after having been driven underground by an ungrateful public.  Unlike the Incredibles, the Watchmen are ordinary humans with no superpowers (with the exception of Mr. Manhattan, who attains superhuman powers due to a lab test accident).  They long to get back into the mix, and when some of the Watchmen are systematically killed, they regroup to uncover a plot.  The ringleader of the plot is a Watchman turned bad who has a secret base from which he is hatching a plot to become the most powerful man in the world. 

Despite all the parallels, Watchmen is a very different movie.  It's dark, violent, and definitely not for kids.  And it's very long.  The theatrical version was 2:42, I watched the director's cut, 3:06, and there's also an "ultimate cut," 3:35.  Sometimes a long movie is so great that when it's over it seems like it was shorter, or you want it to go on.  To me, Watchmen was way too long.  And boring.

That's not to say there weren't good parts.  Like I said, the movie was carefully crafted; almost every scene was eye-catching, artfully done, and full of so much detail that there's no way you can catch it all.  The fans that read and carefully reread the graphic novel will wear out their DVD player's remote pausing and replaying scenes to pick it all up. 
I liked the use of music in Watchmen.  A favorite composition of mine, Philip Glass's Koyaanisqatsi, provided the soundtrack for Mr. Manhattan's first manifestation (pictured above).  An original piece composed for this scene could not have been a better fit. 

Another element I noticed was references to The Man Who Fell to Earth, only because I recently watched it.  One brief scene showed the interior of Mr. Manhattan's apartment, clearly modeled after Newton's apartment, with the ping pong table, astroturf floor, and wallpaper that looks like woods.  In another scence, Ozymandias in front of some televisions recalls Newton's sitting in front of a bank of televisions (pictured here).  I know there were probably dozens more cultural references I missed, more scenes that will be carefully reviewed by the faithful.

As many cool, engaging, and thought-provoking elements Watchmen had, I still found it to be a bit of a bore.

Bottom line, 2 stars.