Sunday, June 24, 2007

Surf’s Up / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents:
Cody Maverick: Shia LaBeouf
The Geek: Jeff Bridges
Lani Aliikai: Zooey Deschanel
Chicken Joe: Jon Heder
Reggie Belafonte: James Woods
Tank Evans: Diedrich Bader

Sony Pictures Animation presents a film directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck. Written by Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer, and Joe Syracuse. Running time: 85 min. Rated PG (for mild language and some rude humor).

"Surf's Up", the new release from Sony Pictures Animation, combines the popular trends of family-oriented penguin adventures with the popular alternative sport of surfing. Upon the release of this unique “documentary”, A Penny in the Well was able to secure an interview with Edna Maverick, the mother of the movie’s subject penguin, Cody. Here is that interview in its entirety.

A Penny in the Well: Well, I have to admit this is the first time I’ve ever interviewed a penguin, but with the current trend in film toward documenting penguin society, I suppose this was inevitable. How did you feel about having a film crew come into the lives of your family to document your son Cody’s surprising rise to fame in the world of surfing?

Edna Maverick: Well, I always knew Cody would achieve great things. He was always different. I was a little disappointed with the way our community was portrayed in the film. As if no one supported my little baby in his ambitions to become a surfer as great as the Big Z. Come now, a mother who doesn’t believe in her own child? Really! It was more like a “mockumentary” than an actual documentary.

APITW: So life in your home town of Shiverpool is a little different than it is portrayed in the film?

EM: Oh, of course. Don’t let the name fool you. Shiverpool is a very warm place. They just came in to shoot on the days when the weather was at its worst. In fact they staged so much of the film, I sometimes thought my little Cody was in some sort of an episode of “The Real World”. You know the way they seemed to always had cameras where they couldn’t possibly have been, and those confessionals just made Cody’s older brother Glen look like a bully and a mooch. Everything was done for entertainment value. Sure, there are some pretty funny jokes about living only to catch fish and hatch eggs, but the life of a penguin isn’t really all about finding your heartsong and having an ongoing commentary by Morgan Freeman. We we’re just like anybody. We have fun.

APITW: Well, Cody certainly learns a lot about having fun in this movie, and in turn a good deal about how to live a good life.

EM: Yes, Some of the friends he meets may seem like misfits at first, but they really ended up having a good influence on my son. Chicken Joe seems the most misplaced, doesn’t he? Being the only chicken in a world populated by penguins. But he proved to be so loyal to my son, risking his life to look for Cody when he was lost in the jungle. Anybody with any sense would have lost their head when they came across that tribe of cannibal penguins, but Joe persevered through his own haze of ignorance. I think he may partake in that wacky weed, though. I don’t think I like that.

APITW: What about Lani and The Geek?

EM: Oh, yes, well The Geek saved my little boy’s life. I’ll never forget him for that. And he turned out to be such a good teacher, even though he lived like a recluse in the jungle and all. Ooooh, that Lani is a sweet one. And she saved my Cody’s life too, I guess, didn’t she? With those lifeguard skills of hers. She’s a keeper. But she needs to keep a better eye on the little ones, if you know what I mean.

APITW: But not everyone on Pen Gu Island, where Cody goes to participate in the Big Z Memorial Surfing Championship, had his best interests at heart, did they?

EM: Well, that Reggie Belafonte! Ooooh, he is a no good dirty promoter. Always looking for the buck no matter who he steps on, the weasel. (Editor’s Note: Reggie is actually an otter.) He wanted to turn that annual surfing championship into some sort of spectacle, the way he showed that tape of my poor Cody crashing over and over again. It’s just an example of the exploitative nature of the media! Ahem, yourself excluded, of course. And that beast Tank Evans, he’s not an athlete. He’s just a big bully! He should thank his lucky stars that someone like my boy is around to show him what a true sportsman is.

APITW: The surfing sequences were very spectacular. It seems the filmmakers must have studied other great surfing documentaries, like “Riding Giants” or “The Endless Summer”.

EW: Well, if you think so. I really wouldn’t know anything about all that.

APITW: Now, some people reading this may not realize that all I’m hearing from you is a series of clicks and squawks. Without the aid of a translator, I’d have no idea what you were saying. Why don’t you explain just how the filmmakers are getting around that problem in presenting this movie to human audiences?

EM: Well, as I understand it they’ve hired some famous movie stars to provide us all with English dialogue. They got that stoner Jeff Bridges (“The Big Lebowski”) to voice The Geek, which I suppose is appropriate. And that shark James Woods (CBS’s “Shark”) provides Reggie’s words, in another case of typecasting. That kid who played Napoleon Dynomite (Jon Heder) is Chicken Joe. I bet he hangs out with that Bridges fellow after hours. Oh, and they got that sweet, wide-eyed Zooey Deschanel (“Elf”) to provide a voice for Lani. I like her. I hear Shia LaBeouf’s (“Disturbia”) star is really beginning to rise in Hollywood, so I guess he was a good choice for my Cody. And I have no idea who that woman is they got for my voice (Dana Belben). I didn’t recognize her name. As long as they didn’t get that Morgan Freeman. He’s probably off playing God somewhere.

APITW: Now that all of the craziness of making the film is over, are you glad you allowed it?

EM: Well, I’m not going to be moving to Hollywood tomorrow if that’s what you mean. I mean it’s all so fake. Don’t think for a second that what you see in this movie has any basis in reality, but I’m glad for my little boy. And I’m proud of him. He makes for a pretty convincing movie star. And it’s good to see something on the big screen that didn’t just come out of a computer.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer / ** (PG)

Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic: Ioan Gruffudd
Sue Storm/Invisible Woman: Jessica Alba
Johnny Storm/Human Torch: Chris Evans
Ben Grimm/The Thing: Michael Chiklis
Victor Von Doom: Julian McMahon
Alicia Masters: Kerry Washington
Gen. Hager: Andre Braugher
The Silver Surfer: Doug Jones
Voice of The Silver Surfer: Lawrence Fishburne

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tim Story. Written by Don Payne and Mark Frost, based on comic book characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG (for sequences of action violence, some mild language and innuendo).

Once upon a time, super-scientist Reed Richards was supposed to marry his sweetheart Sue Storm. Many people were invited to their wedding, including Sue’s brother Johnny, Reed’s best friend Ben Grimm and his blind girlfriend Alicia, and several helicopters to bring the Manhattan rooftop ceremony to the rest of the world. You see, Richards, the Storm siblings and Mr. Grimm, better know as the Fantastic Four, are superhero celebrities.

What make these four so fantastic are their individual super powers, which they gained from cosmic rays while running experiments in space. Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis, FX’s “The Shield”) is the rock-like abomination known as The Thing. Johnny Storm (Chris Evans, “Cellular”) sometimes bursts into flame and flies, calling himself The Human Torch. Sue Storm (Jessica Alba, “Into the Blue”) can create powerful force fields and can turn herself invisible, explaining why she’s referred to as Invisible Woman. And although Richards (Ioan Gruffudd, “Amazing Grace”) can stretch his body like a giant rubber band, I have no idea how he earned the name Mr. Fantastic.

Unfortunately, the wedding plans are put on hold when the party is crashed by the mysterious cosmic being known only as The Silver Surfer. U.S. Army General Hager (Andre Braugher, “Poseidon”) wants the Fantastic Four to shut the Surfer down, because he seems to be destroying the entire planet. (I think old Silver Heels is just misunderstood.) And on top of it all, it appears that the super group’s arch nemesis and former colleague, Victor Von Doom (Julian McMahon, “Premonition”), is not as dead as the world once suspected. Could he be up to some dirty deeds, or has he reformed his evil ways?

The first “Fantastic Four” film was strictly amateur hour at the multiplex. It was cursed with bad writing and direction and acting that could not rise above the juvenile nature of the characters and their superpowers. This sequel shows some growth, but not much. There’s still a lot to learn before school is out for this superhero franchise. But it does have The Silver Surfer, a character that seems infinitely more mature than anyone else in this film and more than a little out of place.

I have to admit, I came in to this film with a heavy bias toward the Silver Surfer character. I was a big fan of his comic book adventures as a teenager. I also was never much of a fan of the Fantastic Four. I always felt their powers were a little goofy and much more of a gift to them, as opposed to other costumed heroes whose superpowers were as much a burden as a boon. The writers of this adventure, Don Payne (“My Super Ex-Girlfriend”) and Mark Frost (“The Greatest Game Ever Played”), do try to throw a bit of that burdensome angst into this story with the group’s exaggerated celebrity, but it never rings true.

In all honesty, after the grilling critics gave the first film, I had no intention of ever tuning in to any of this franchise’s episodes. But when I learned that The Silver Surfer would be introduced this time, I decided I should go back and check out the first film. I discovered that the critics were on target in citing that film’s failure, and I despaired that the Surfer’s treatment lay in the hands of the same filmmakers. But while little has been fixed on the Fantastic Four’s side of the business, the Surfer himself is harmed only by association, much like the way he is misunderstood as the herald of Galactus, The Devourer of Worlds.

The Surfer, with motion capture work by Doug Jones (“Hellboy”) and voice by Lawrence Fishburne (“The Matrix”), is only part of a larger picture. But the filmmakers do a capable job in conveying his scope and power. At one point, Johnny accuses the Surfer of being a “show off,” and director Tim Story (“Barbershop”) is right to show off what they have done with the Surfer here. The digital effects are perfectly designed to represent the Surfer in the alien and cosmic form he must in habit. Were the rest of the film handled with just a little more maturity, if not skill, he could have carried the whole thing.

But this is not “The Silver Surfer” (although rumor has it a solo film is in the works). It is the Fantastic Four that this film is all about. And within this group, we find an all too typical storyline of in-fighting and growing pains spurred on by a problem Johnny develops after his first encounter with the Surfer. It seems the Surfer has altered the stability of Johnny’s flaming ability and whenever he touches one of his teammates, they swap powers. The film squeezes every sight gag and awkward situation it can out of this predicament, and somehow never once elevates it above something resembling a junior high school prank. There are far too many attempts at laughs with these heroes and not nearly enough heroics.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on this group of minor league heroes because of the inclusion of The Silver Surfer. But the filmmakers seem to be reaching for some sort of legitimacy with his storyline that the rest of the film just doesn’t seem interested in. I don’t doubt that this movie will work just perfectly in the minds of twelve-year olds, but the target age the filmmakers seem to be shooting for is skewed just a little bit too young for my tastes.

Buy it: Fantastic Four DVDs

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Ocean’s Thirteen / **½ (PG-13)

Danny Ocean: George Clooney
Rusty Ryan: Brad Pitt
Linus Caldwell: Matt Damon
Willie Banks: Al Pacino
Abigail Sponder: Ellen Barkin
Terry Benedict: Andy Garcia
Reuben Tishkoff: Elliot Gould
Basher Tarr: Don Cheadle
Virgil Malloy: Casey Affleck
Turk Malloy: Scott Caan
Livingston Dell: Eddie Jemison
Frank Catton: Bernie Mac
Saul Bloom: Carl Reiner
The Amazing Yen: Shaobo Qin
Roman Nagel: Eddie Izzard

Warner Bros. and Village Roadshow Pictures present a film directed by Steven Soderbergh. Written by Brian Koppelman and David Levien, based on characters created by George Clayton Johnson and Jack Golden Russell. Running time: 122 min. Rated PG-13 (for brief sensuality).

OK, I’m going to be honest with you. I’m probably the only person in the world who liked “Ocean’s Twelve” better than the Steven Soderbergh remake of “Ocean’s Eleven”. And I certainly liked it better than the latest Danny Ocean con game, “Ocean’s Thirteen”. I know, I know. “Twelve” was hard to follow, as if the oblique plot were the point of the exercise rather than it existing as a simple entertainment. The general attitude toward all the “Ocean’s” films seems to be that they are just an excuse to watch George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Matt Damon all in the same place for two hours, which I suppose isn’t really a bad prospect. But it seems to me that “Eleven” and “Thirteen” are mostly about the gathering of these beautiful people. I prefer my confidence films to be more about the con than the cosmetics.

“Ocean’s Thirteen” finds Ocean (Clooney, “The Good German”) and his crew back in Las Vegas after one of their senior partners, Reuben Tishkoff (Elliott Gould, “The Long Goodbye”), is taken ill when he is cheated out of his shares in a new hotel casino by Willie Bank (Al Pacino, “Heat”), a four-time 5-Diamond hotel winner with a reputation for stabbing his business partners in the back. Bank is looking to make The Bank Casino his fifth 5-Diamond hotel. The Ocean’s Eleven team is looking for revenge.

The “Ocean’s” movies suffer from what I call the “Get Shorty” Effect, meaning that the heroes are so much smarter than the villains that there is no question as to who will prevail and therefore no tension to drive the story along. Soderbergh (“Out of Sight”) and his writers, Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Rounders”), throw in a lot of distracting details to keep the audience’s attention peaked, including dialogue about a drill that was used to dig the Chunnel “from the French side”, some failed ideas from Rusty (Brad Pitt, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”) and Linus (Matt Damon, “The Bourne Supremacy”) to make it seem as if they’re in too deep, a good laugh or two on Danny and Rusty involving Oprah Winfrey, and an extended sequence where Danny and Rusty explain their plan to Roman Nagel (Eddie Izzard, “My Super Ex-Girlfriend”), a confidence “fixer.”

The Malloy brothers, played by Casey Affleck (“The Last Kiss”) and Scott Caan (“Friends with Money”), add a good deal of humor to the proceedings when they incite a labor strike at a Mexican plastics factory that plays an integral part in Ocean’s plan to bring Bank down. Don Cheadle (“Hotel Rwanda”) gets a little more screen time in this one as Basher Tarr, with some soppy letters he writes to Rueben to pull him through and a flashy disguise as an Evil Kenivel-type motorcycle stuntman.

And Damon is allowed yet another chance to explore Linus’s awkwardness when he is chosen to work Bank’s right-hand woman, Abigail Sponder (Ellen Barkin, “Sea of Love”). The filmmakers show their flare for using hip slang by describing Sponder as a “cougar”, a term I only recently learned of myself. And let me tell you, if every cougar looked like Barkin does here, then young men everywhere would want one for themselves.

But in the end, “Ocean’s Thirteen” is just a little too dull to earn the style and class to which it aspires. Even Soderbergh’s retro editing style can’t pump enough sparks into this engine to keep it running for two hours. With its eye-candy cast and sparkling look, I’m sure that this franchise could make it through a dozen movies and still hold a solid audience base. But Clooney, for all his good looks and suave nature, is just too good at keeping his cool. When even the presence of Pacino as your adversary can’t shake your even-tempered flare, it may just be time to retire, because no one’s gonna beat you at what you’re the best at.

Buy it: Ocean's movies

Monday, June 04, 2007

Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee / *** (TV14)

Charles Eastman: Adam Beach
Sen. Henry Dawes: Aidan Quinn
Sitting Bull: August Schellenberg
Elaine Goodale: Anna Paquin
McLaughlin: J. K. Simmons
Red Cloud: Gordon Tootoosis
Gall: Eric Schweig
Wovoka/Jack Wilson: Wes Studi
Ohiyesa/Young Charles: Chevez Ezaneh

HBO Films presents a film directed by Yves Simoneau. Written by Daniel Giat, based on the book by Dee Brown. Running time: 132 min. Rated TV14 (for graphic violence, adult language, and adult content).

Watching the original HBO film “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee”, I found my thoughts continually drifting to our current situation in Iraq. Our “war on terrorism” is hardly the first time we have ventured into land occupied by a culture that we barely understand and tried to assimilate the people to our ideals “for their own good.” If anything, the Iraqis are at a greater advantage than the Native American tribes whose land the U.S. government outright took away before giving it back in a reservation program where various tribes were forced to sell their land back. Not only did the Native Americans consider land something that could not be “owned,” but they refused to change their ways of life even after the white man’s encroachment depleted their lands’ resources. At least the Iraqis simultaneously occupy and possess their lands and are actively trying to drive us from them.

“Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” is based on the 1971 book by Dee Brown, chronicling the death of the Sioux way of life. Beginning with the Sioux victory over Custer at Little Big Horn, director Yves Simoneau (“The 4400”) focuses on three main players in the relations between the U.S government and the Sioux nation: Sen. Henry Dawes (Aidan Quinn, “Empire Falls”), one of the driving forces of developing policy on Indian affairs; Charles Eastman (Adam Beach, “Flags of Our Fathers”), a Dartmouth-educated Sioux doctor used as an example for successful assimilation; and Sitting Bull (August Schellenberg, “The New World”), the tribal chiefs’ last standout against life under U.S. policy.

Beach’s Eastman carries the brunt of the film. As a young warrior (played at this age by Chevez Ezaneh, “Into the West”), he survives Little Big Horn to be taken from his tribe by his father, an assimilated Christian Native American. He faces prejudices early as he is forced to take a white name in order to participate in school room discussions. He excels in school and after his graduation from Dartmouth, is hand picked by Sen. Dawes as a living example of successful assimilation.

Eastman joins Dawes as an advocate for Indian affairs, and the two work together to return the land taken from the Sioux. Sen. Dawes’s methods, however, often involve coercion and rarely have the best interest of the Sioux at heart. A scene where Dawes talks Chief Red Cloud (Gordon Tootoosis, “The Edge”) into agreeing to move into the designated reservation agencies plays like a crime drama where the cops get a snitch to roll over on his pals.

While working with Dawes, Eastman meets Elaine Goodale (Anna Paquin, “X-Men” trilogy), a true advocate for Native American equality. After getting wise to Dawes’s methods, Eastman leaves Washington to be a doctor in the Sioux reservation agencies. Beach’s portrayal of Eastman is solemn. He successfully captures the way Eastman is torn between advancing his people into modern society and honoring their traditions and values. He speaks near the end of the film of wishing he had jumped from the train that took him from the Sioux when he was a child.

Running parallel to Eastman’s and Dawes’s struggle to assimilate the Native Americans into white society is Sitting Bull’s staunch resistance to the change the white man offers the Indian nations. At first, Sitting Bull fights the U.S. Army, but with the government’s superior artillery power, he soon finds himself moving his Lakota tribe into Canada. While the Canadian government is more accommodating to their traditions, the harsh winter soon sees most of Sitting Bull’s tribe abandoning him to go back to reservation life in the States.

There are no happy stories to be told here, but perhaps it is Sitting Bull’s that is the most disheartening. Shellenberg and the filmmakers don’t fall into the typical trap of presenting Sitting Bull as overly righteous. He is a man like any other, whose pride often gets in the way of his better judgment; but in the end, Sitting Bull is damned either way he chooses. When he relents and finally moves into the reservation, you can sense something has died in the entire Sioux nation. But when he again finds his voice to speak against the white man, it seems the massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 is the only possible outcome for two cultures that will never understand each other, with victory going to the ones that never even tried.

Perhaps our President feels since ignorance has worked for us in the past, it will always put us on top. Unfortunately, some people learn from the past. Some even learn from other’s pasts. This time around it seems a stubborn and ill-informed outlook will not yield the outcome our government so wantonly desires, even if it is “for their own good.”

Click on the blog post title for HBO schedule and subscription information.

Buy the book: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown