Friday, March 26, 2010


One of the things I love about Moon is the simplicity of it.  According to the director, this movie was made for a mere (by Hollywood standards) five million dollars.  That's pretty amazing when you consider how much money is dumped into terrible movies these days.  Moon is simple in presentation and pace, but does not come off as cheap, second-rate, or dull.
The setting for Moon is a mining operation on the far side of the moon, which is manned by one operator, Sam Bell, on a 3-year contract.  We meet him when he is only 3 weeks away from returning to Earth.  While checking out an operation out on the surface, Sam wrecks his vehicle.  He wakes up back at the base, and there's another Sam.  Talk about an identity crisis.  I thought they would end up being adversaries--"There's only room for one Sam Bell on the moon!"  But they ended up working together to figure out what was going on.

Moon will remind the sci-fi movie lover of Stanley Kubrick's classic 2001.  The technology and style of the habitat are reminiscent of the ship in 2001, but the clearest parallel is GERTY, the computer who runs the station.  I thought Moon might follow 2001's sinister turn of HAL, but it didn't turn out like I expected.  Much of the movie's resolution defied my expectations, in very refreshing and interesting ways. 

Dollar for dollar, Moon has to be one of the greatest movies ever.  But even not considering the budget, this is a terrific movie.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Dark Matter

My last review (Nobel Son) was about a Nobel Prize winning professor.  Dark Matter follows the story of a Nobel Prize hopeful, a Chinese student studying cosmology in the U.S.  Liu Xing (Ye Liu) comes to the U.S. to study under Professor Reiser (Aidan Quinn).  His hopes are dashed when Reiser, who enviously recognizes Liu Xing's talent and genius, rejects his dissertation proposal.  It didn't help that the proposal would have been a leap ahead of Reiser's work.  Liu Xing is devastated, and cannot find a way to rebuild and move on, with tragic results.

Meryl Streep, the wife of a benefactor of the university where Reiser teaches, befriends the Chinese students, who meet at the church.  This part was pretty funny: An earnest pastor was attempting to share the word of God with these scientists, but they were far more interested in the snacks that had been prepared. Then when Streep shows up for the outing to an old west park of some kind, the preacher's words were long forgotten.  It made me wonder about American churches' outreach to international students.  One student who had been around a bit longer whispered to a new student about the many benefits of hanging around the church people.  Streep and the pastor seem naive but pure-hearted in their efforts.

I love the realism of this movie.  Besides the church scene, the movie gives a real sense of the struggles of these Chinese students adjusting to life in the U.S. while maintaining a connection to their home.  They discuss the lure of going to work in a high-paying corporate job versus the pursuit of pure science.  Liu Xing's letters home to Mom and Dad poignantly reveal his desire to succeed and make not only them but his homeland proud.

Streep's performance is fabulous, as you might expect, but Ye Liu's eclipes hers.

Bottom line, 2 1/2 stars.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Nobel Son

Some movies try to be too much.  Nobel Son tries to be comedy, suspense, drama, all wrapped up in one.  Actually, it is those things at different, unrelated times.  It was almost like one of those books in which each chapter is written by a different author with distinct styles, but they try to string along the same story.  So there are certainly entertaining elements to this movie, but it doesn't make a very good whole.

I find it interesting that there are so many big name stars in Nobel Son.  Danny DeVito has a small role.  Ted Danson has a blink-and-you-miss-it role.  Bill Pullman and Mary Steenburgen are in it.  Alan Rickman is the Nobel Prize winner.  With all this talent, I would have expected a better movie, although the acting isn't bad.

The story is pretty convoluted.  Alan Rickman, the famous, arrogant, womanizing professor, wins the Nobel Prize, and his less-than-motivated-in-his-studies son is kidnapped for ransom.  I'm not even sure it's worth going into more than that.  Let's just say there are too many unbelievable elements for it to be realistic, and the resolution is more twisted than you might expect. 

Bottom line, 1 1/2 stars.

Thursday, March 18, 2010


I had a friend who worked in "corporate espionage."  I'm not sure he called it that, but I remember him talking about sitting outside a competitor's facility counting cars to get a gauge on their activities.  He also talked about obtaining public records like shipping manifests to get an idea of their imports and exports.  I never pictured the kind of intense espionage and counter-espionage portrayed in Duplicity

I am a fan of competition.  Competition makes us better.  There can only be one runner of a race; all the competitors strive to run their best race in hopes of winning.  By the same token, there can only be one creator of the first definitive cure for baldness.  There may be scores of companies or researchers trying to find it, but there can only be one across that finish line first. Duplicity is the story of the cutthroat competition to be the first.  Two companies, whose CEOs hate each other, spy and counter-spy on each other, trying to be the first.  Each company has an eleborate, secretive, high-tech surveillance and investigative arm.
Can you tell these CEOs hate each other??

Clive Owen and Julie Roberts work for the respective companies, but Roberts is a double agent.  The product itself is not the main focus of Duplicity, it's Owen and Roberts' relationship--they met when he was with MI-6 and she was with the CIA--and their attempt to pull a con on their employers.  There are plenty of twists and turns, and it does get a bit confusing, but this is a very entertaining, engaging movie.  If you figure out what's going on before the end, you are smarter than I am.

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Inglourious Basterds

Quentin Tarantino's movies are not always perfect, but this one is.  Inglourious Basterds is one of the best, most entertaining movies I've seen in a long time.  Call it an alternative history of World War II, it focuses on a small band of American Jews who terrorize the Nazis in occupied France.  These are terrorists I can believe in, bringing down the baddest of the bad guys.  Their techniques may be violent and cruel, but they get results.

The danger of watching a movie like this is, even though you know the Nazis are the bad guys, you may find yourself rooting for the good guys' violent, cruel methods.  Then you have to think, isn't that how our enemies feel about us, and if they use violent, cruel methods against us, I would consider that morally wrong. . . . But then you think, this is just an awesome movie!  I'm not going to go scalp my enemies, I just love a great revenge fanatasy flick!  And what better revenge than a bunch of Jews killing Jew-killing Nazis!

Brad Pitt plays Lt. Aldo Raine, the leader of the Basterds.  He's actually probably not a Jew; he's a bootlegger from Appalachia.  He's hilarious, but brutal.  His nemesis, Col. Landa, the "Jew Hunter," plays the perfect wiley, charming Nazi officer.  Early in the movie, his men murder the family of Shoshanna Dreyfus,  who escapes to Paris and inadvertently becomes involved in the Basterds' plotting.  Each of these performances is fantastic.  In fact, Christoph Waltz won the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Col. Landa.  There's not a bad performance in this movie.

Like many of Tarantino's movies, Inglourious Basterds has some elements of homage to classic westerns and war movies, but the originality and creativity of the writing and production make the movie fresh and fun to watch.  I loved the Kill Bill movies, but I think Tarantino has outdone himself with this one.

Bottom line, 4 stars.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Like many fans of the 1999 classic Office Space, I was looking forward to Mike Judge's new movie.  I don't know about his other fans, but I for one was sorely disappointed.  Not that there's nothing funny here.  Not that the story is terrible.  It just left me with a bad taste in my mouth.

Joel, the founder of the extract company, is frustrated in his marriage, and is attracted to a new employee at the extract plant.  His drug pushing bartender best friend Dean convinces him that if his wife cheats on him, then he would have carte blanche to cheat on his wife.  As a matter of fact, Dean knows a male prostitute he can hire to seduce Joel's wife.  Feeling a bit creepy yet?  Joel's personal problems are only part of the story; he has to deal with labor disputes and a possible buyout as well.  But I was left not caring at all.

I won't waste your time telling you how it all turns out, and don't bother watching the movie to find out.  Judge tries to cobble together a happy ending, but I was just happy the movie was over.  Office Space was much better.  Even his dog of movie Idiocracy had enough brilliant social commentary to rate above Extract

Bottom line, 1 star.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Faith Like Potatoes

Anyone who's read this blog knows I don't know much about movies. I like them, but don't ask me about cinematography, film editing, costuming, scoring, or any of those things the Oscars are given for. But I do enjoy a good story. Faith Like Potatoes is great story. 

The story line is pretty simple: a struggling farmer, Angus Buchan, overworked, alienating his family, and despairing of life meets Jesus in a sudden salvation experience.  His life turns around, his farm thrives, and he becomes an evangelist in his spare time, leading hundreds to Christ and gaining fame for his faith.  If this were pure fiction I could dismiss it as too simplistic, like Facing the Giants.  In that movie, the football coach can't win a game, he's alienated from his wife, and he despairs of life.  But once he fully commits his life to Christ, his team wins the championship, his wife gets pregnant, and everything's right with the world.  It made for a great story, but the skeptic/realist in me thought it looked too easy, clean, and formulaic.  You don't have to be a Christian very long to learn that Christians don't always win the championships, that Christians deal with infertility, and that everything does not always work out.

I had some of the same feelings with Faith Like Potatoes, except that I knew it was based on a true story.  So I thought maybe they had cleaned it up and dramatized it for the movie.  Then I watched the "real story" documentary on the DVD, and realized that the true story of Buchan's life is at least as interesting, inspiring, and miraculous as the movie portrays.  He did pray for a woman who had been struck by lightning and was left for dead, and she was healed.  He did rent a huge soccer stadium so he could preach.  He did grow a healthy crop of potatoes during a drought.  He did start an orphanage on his farm.  He continues to live a life worthy of note, sacrificial, passionate for preaching the gospel and loving his neighbor.

While I do love stories like this, of lives miraculously changed by the grace of the gospel, and the impact one changed life can have on the world, I still struggle with the existential reality of many lives that remain unchanged.  The faithful parapalegic who will never walk, the faithful father who continually struggles with mental illness, the faithful mother who struggles with depression, the missionary who dies after a struggle with cancer: did these Christians have less faith than Buchan?  I know I will never know the answer.  I am not even sure I'll know the answer in heaven. 

I know the reality of the goodness of God.  I can celebrate and cry with joy when God works miracles in other people's lives.  I can mourn and cry with sadness, even anger, when healing, wellness, and happiness do not come in other people's lives.  In my own life, whether rejoicing or mourning, I have to remember the truth of God's word and the sovereignty of God.

From the perspective of a film critic, I don't know how this movie would rate.  Sappy?  Emotionally manipulative?  Poor character development?  I thought it was entertaining and well-done, beautifully filmed in a beautiful part of the world I've never seen first-hand.  From the perspective of a Christian, this movie moved me and led me to think about expressing my faith in my work, family, and community.  Even though the movie doesn't explicity present the gospel, a non-believer watching must face the question of the meaning of following Jesus and the power of God at work in the world and in people's lives. 

Bottom line, 4 stars.

Thursday, March 11, 2010


On a quiet morning in a small-town diner, a man walks in and begins shooting customers.  You never want to find yourself in this kind of scenario, but you may have thought, "How would I react?  What would I do?  How would I feel if I survived?"  Fragments explores the responses of several witnesses to such a shooting and follows their intertwining stories. 

The good thing about the movie is the feeling of seeing into the hearts of these characters.  They try to pick up their lives, but are deeply impacted by what they've been through.  The problem lies in the title: we only see fragments.  We don't get to know the characters well enough to understand their motives and reactions.  That does lend some mystery and wonder to the story, but it left me a bit unsatisfied.  I guess the filmmaker would like that: they wanted to leave us wanting to know more, rather than knowing too much and getting bored.

The reaction Anne, the little girl, was most interesting to me.  She hid under the table while the gunman shot and killed her dad.  She spoke out about her dad's bravery, and called on everyone who would listen to honor her dad and turn to God.  According to her mom, she had never gone to church much nor embraced religion, but now she was a little evangelist.  Late in the movie, more is revealed about the details of the frightening event, but it didn't seem to connect to her new found faith.

Ultimately, even though it was interesting to see the psychological reactions of each character, we never know enough about the characters for the responses to be meaningful.  Not a bad movie, but too fragmented for me.

Bottom line, 2 stars.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Cove

As anyone knows, humans are the third most intelligent species on Earth, following mice and dolphins. (Source: Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.)  The Cove makes no reference to HHGTTG, but I think the activists featured in this jaw-dropping documentary would clearly rank dolphins above the fishermen of Taiji, Japan and the Japanese whaling commission.

The Cove exposes the brutal killing of dolphins herded into a cove in Taiji.  Buyers from dolphin parks around the world come here to buy the stars of their shows.  The ones not selected are then slaughtered and sold for meat.  I'm no environmentalist or animal rights activist; in fact, I am highly suspicious of any of that ilk.  But the brutal, senseless slaughter of the dolphins portrayed in this movie is enough to get any decent person fired up.

The water in the cove is red with the blood of the slaughtered dolphins.

The prime mover of Taiji activism, Richard O'Barry, states that he has been working for years to rectify a problem he helped create.  As the dolphin trainer for the TV show Flipper, O'Barry pioneered dolphin training techniques and helped fuel a the popularity of dolphin shows.  After a few years with the show, and after he, as he described it, held one of his dolphins in his arms as she committed suicide, he dedicated his life to freeing dolphins held in captivity.

O'Barry teams up with the filmmakers to expose the killing in the cove.  The Japanese do everything they can to stop them, tailing them in unmarked cars and intimidating them as they film and take pictures.  But using special-ops techniques and high-tech cameras and concealment, they gather video and audio evidence to indict the dolphin killers.  And using Michael Moore-style guerrilla journalism, the confront officials and fishermen about the practice.

The film is well done, and the topic is moving for anyone with the smallest soft spot for these majestic, friendly sea creatures.  Watching this film, you can't help but hope the dolphin killing industry will be shut down, and you may never want to go to Sea World again.

Bottom line, 3 1/2 stars.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)

A few weeks ago I watched the 1974 version of The Taking of Pelham 123, and blogged about it here.  In many cases, remakes of old movies disappoint.  In this case, without taking away from the 1974 version, this new version takes the story and makes it bigger, deeper, more exciting, and more complex.  I won't say better; it's a different movie, a different era, and a different style.  The claustrophobic minimalism of the 1974 version made it a different kind of treat than the more standard action/thriller style of the new version.
 The guts of the story remain the same, but the stakes--and the adrenalin level--are higher.  In the bad guy's corner, it's all Travolta.  The other members of his gang are little more than placeholders, and Travolta's over the top as the disgruntled former stockbroker who feels like he got a bad deal from the system.  Unlike Matthau's character, Denzel Washington isn't a transit cop, but a dispatcher.  He had worked his way up in the transit organization, but was demoted on suspicion of his taking a bribe from a supplier.  The troubled past of both men come together as they are slowly revealed in the story.

I must say the new version is more exciting than the old one, but I almost prefer the old version's understated suspense.  And I certainly prefer Matthua's discovery of the last bad guy at the end. 

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

X-Men Origins: Wolverine

Movies based on comic books have to be a tough sell.  There's a ready-made audience of fans, who are sure to buy tickets, but they're tough critics, jumping all over the film makers for any deviation from the source material.  On the other hand, you have the general audience, most of whom do not read the comic books, but enjoy a good action movie.  As one of the latter group, I would say Wolverine satisfies the sci-fi/action movie fan, but I can't pass judgement on how the X-Men comics fan would react.

Wolverine faces off with his brother.

As the full title suggests, Wolverine provides the back story for Wolverine, the X-Men comics character.  We learn why he has no memory of becoming Wolverine, why he's named Wolverine, and why he has those metal spikes that pop out of his hands.  Comic fans already know all this, I guess, and the general viewer couldn't care less, but nevertheless, it's a pretty good tale of sibling rivalry, love found and lost, and revenge.

As you would expect from a Marvel/X-Men movie, the special effects are superb and the action is over the top.  Good fun.  Oh, and now we know the real cause of the Three Mile Island disaster!

Bottom line, 3 stars.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Planet 51

Saturday afternoon I took Elliot, Zippy, and Chloe to see Planet 51.  I invited Elliot to write a guest review, but he declined.  The boys loved it, but it was too long and too loud for Chloe.  After about 40 minutes, she grew more restless than usual, kicking the chairs in front of us, swinging her arms, hitting me, hitting herself.  I finally took her to the back, where she spent a good 20-30 minutes opening and closing the door.  She loves that slow close on the hydraulic hinges.  We got to come back in for the last 10-15 minutes.

Like any good kids movie, there is plenty here for the adult viewer to enjoy, especially if the adult has been a fan of sci-fi movies.  I probably missed a bunch of movie references, but I know there were references, visual or otherwise, to E.T, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, Terminator, Star Wars, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 2001, and plenty others.  Oh, and Singing in the Rain

The setting is a planet which seems a lot like an idealistic portrayal of 1950s America, where movies about alien invasions are all the rage.  When an astronaut from Earth lands, alien invasion hysteria sets in.  Turns out everyone on Earth thought the planet was uninhabited.  Rover, the rover, loves rocks, collecting them at every opportunity.  At one point the astronaut, Captain Baker (voice by Dwayne Johnson), bops Rover on the head, "A planet full of life and you only send us pictures of rocks!"

There are plenty of other laugh out loud moments and clever bits in Planet 51.  One of the boys favorites occurred when Captain Baker's friends rescued him from nearly getting his brain taken out by the Planet 51 scientists.  He got up from the table, and his sheet dropped away, revealing his naked body.  All of them stared wide-eyed at his tenders (as my boys call it), until one says, "That's a funny place for an antenna."  (Zippy has delighted in recreating that scene for me, thankfully not in public--yet.)

My bottom line, 3 stars.  The boys' bottom line, a hearty 4 stars.  Chloe's bottom line, Get me outta here!