Wednesday, March 31, 2010

How to Train Your Dragon / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Hiccup: Jay Baruchel
Stoik: Gerard Butler
Gobber: Craig Ferguson
Astrid: America Ferrera
Snotlout: Jonah Hill
Fishlegs: Christopher Mintz-Plasse
Tuffnut: T.J. Miller
Ruffnut: Kristen Wiig

DreamWorks Animation and Paramount Pictures present a film directed by Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders. Written by Adam F. Goldberg & Peter Tolan and DeBlois & Sanders. Based on the book by Cressida Cowell. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG (for sequences of intense action and some scary images, and brief mild language).

It strikes me that there is a plethora of sources out there in this day and age for children’s literature inspired movies. Perhaps this was always the case; but it seems that the first generation to be exposed to films with the technology to fully explore fantasy universes may now be responsible for an explosion of fantasy children’s books. This in turn has led to a bevy of new films based on those books.

“How to Train Your Dragon” is the latest CGI conjuration to come from recent popular children’s literature. British author Cressida Cowell created the series of books “translated from Old Norse” supposedly written by a young Viking named Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III. Hiccup is the hero of these books, which began with his first heroic acts in “How to Train Your Dragon”.

In the story Hiccup is not your average Viking. He’s not big and burly. He has no penchant for killing dragons, which raid his seaside village on a nightly basis. Although, Hiccup’s father (Gerard Butler, “300”) is the leader of his clan, no one has much respect for Hiccup, his father included. This is because when Hiccup tries to help in fending off the dragons, he usually ends up burning down a greater portion of the village than the dragon’s breath.

But, Hiccup wants to contribute. He’s an inventor. During a dragon attack one night, he tests one of his inventions on what he thinks is the mysteriously, elusive dragon known as the Night Fury. To his surprise, the trap works; but when he goes to kill the wounded dragon, Hiccup finds he can’t. Instead he befriends the dragon, naming him Toothless; because the dragon is able to retract his teeth, making his mouth all gums. Hiccup finds the Vikings don’t really understand the dragons at all.

Jay Baruchel (“Tropic Thunder”) provides the voice of Hiccup, both in dialogue and through narration. Baruchel is a surprisingly strong choice for the vocal role. His narration is done with impeccable inflection and gets the audience acutely involved in his tale. His dialogue is filled with the awkwardness that must come from experience as an outsider. His work here goes a long way toward selling the fantasy of this Viking world as if dragons and the terror they bring with them are as much a way of life as lockers and text books are to real teenagers.

Of course, Hiccup cannot let his Viking clan know of his friendship with a dragon. He must also prove himself during dragon survival school. He uses his new found knowledge of dragons to rise to the top of his class while never hurting a dragon. The only problem—the head of the class gets the first kill. What will Hiccup do?

There isn’t really a lot of new material here. You’ve got your typical outsider teen hero who must find his place in the world before he can be of any use to himself or society as a whole. That society doesn’t understand said hero, but ultimately all works itself out. Pretty standard animated fare; but it is done very well here by veteran Disney helmers Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois (the team who brought us “Lilo & Stitch”). The animation, done with superb quality, had me marveling at the detail of its wizardry.

I can’t find much to knock about “How to Train Your Dragon”, and I don’t really want to. It’s an enjoyable showcase of beautiful CGI animation and fun family action. For all it lacks in originality, it makes up for with charm, whit and its extremely likable lead. The dragons are awesomely rendered, and I liked that the filmmakers resisted the temptation to make them more than mere animals. “How to Train Your Dragon” is everything it should be, nothing more, nothing less.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Mar. 19-25

Capitalism: A Love Story (2009) ***
Director/Writer: Michael Moore

Michael Moore loves his country. Anyone who doesn’t understand that doesn’t understand freedom, what this country is supposed to be about. Yes, his movies are agenda driven. Yes, he employs tactics that distort the big picture. That makes him guilty of nothing our own government is not guilty of, and calling them out on it is his American right. I fear that apathy is beginning to set its sights on Moore’s ravings however; but it’s hard to deny the horror at learning that some corporations are beginning to purchase life insurance policies on their employees. Something is deeply wrong with a corporate environment that values its workforce more dead than alive.

I Met the Walrus (2007) ****
Director/Writer: Josh Raskin
Starring: Jerry Levitan, John Lennon

This wonderfully imaginative animated interview with John Lennon conducted by a high school kid was nominated for a Best Animated Short Oscar a couple of years back. This five-minute film captures the essence of John Lennon through simple animation that resembles the “Yellow Submarine” animation. Moreover, the animation perfectly captures Lennon’s own philosophies on the world and how it works, making the images a perfect companion to his very words in the interview.

Watch it.

Star Trek: Insurrection (1998) ***
Director: Jonathan Frakes
Writers: Michael Piller, Rick Berman
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Mirina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, F. Murray Abraham, Donna Murphy, Anthony Zerbe, Gregg Henry

While this seems like perhaps the most innocuous of the “Star Trek” films, it perhaps best preserves the spirit of the television series. It plays like an extended television episode, but it also explores all the best aspects of the “Star Trek” science fiction edict. It deals directly with the “prime directive” of the Starfleet Command, which is not to interfere with the alien cultures they find during their space exploration. The story deals with cultural relocation and elimination, issues this very nation has struggled greatly with during its relatively short lifespan. My affection for this episode of the franchise grows every time I view it. It is a quintessentially “Star Trek” story.

The Invention of Lying (2009) ***½
Directors/Writers: Ricky Gervais, Matthew Robinson
Starring: Ricky Gervais, Jennifer Garner, Louis C.K., Jonah Hill, Rob Lowe, Fionnula Flanagan

“The Invention of Lying” is a brilliant fable about an essential human need that we often try to stifle as an ‘evil’. Filmmakers Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson seem to believe that lying is necessary to our humanity, and they make a pretty solid argument for their case here. It is an indelibly charming movie that sees Gervais, in an alternate world to ours, as the first person ever to tell a lie. Gervais and Robinson do an amazing job of depicting just how cruel of world of truths can be and how kind and humane lies can comfort us in times of need. They do this with witty comedy and warmth. Gervais seems to have gathered all the Hollywood stars whom he didn’t have a chance to get on his BBC television show “Extras” to fill out endless cameos, which makes for a fun ‘spot the star’ game as well.

The Red Balloon (1956) ****
Director/Writer: Albert Lamorisse
Starring: Pascal Lamorisse

Not knowing the plot of “The Red Balloon” but rather its reputation as an award winning French film of the mid 50’s, I had in mind a serious movie about the hard but good life of a Parisian boy who finds his joy in the simple object of a red balloon. Imagine my surprise when I realized the balloon is no mere object of joy for the boy but an actual interactive friend. Until the moment when the balloon starts following, obeying, and playing with the boy, I was thinking this was a well-made movie, reflective of the time in which it was filmed. Once the balloon started behaving on its own, I was lost in their story. How heartbreaking when the balloon gets captured by a gang of boys who want only to destroy it, and what a magical ending. I’m all verklempt over a balloon.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cop Out / * (R)

Jimmy Monroe: Bruce Willis
Paul Hodges: Tracy Morgan
Poh Boy: Guillermo Díaz
Gabriela: Ana de la Reguera
Hunsaker: Kevin Pollak
Barry Mangold: Adam Brody
Debbie: Rashida Jones
Dave: Seann William Scott

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Kevin Smith. Written by Robb Cullen and Mark Cullen. Running time: 107 min. Rated R (for pervasive language including sexual references, violence and brief sexuality).

After I get home from watching a film in the theater, I sit down at my computer and go to to look up the credits. I do this mostly for spelling purposes, not because I can’t remember who’s in the movie or whom they played. With “Cop Out”, I had no idea who the characters were. I just couldn’t care to listen to their names during the film. I found it hard to care about much of anything in “Cop Out”. The filmmakers didn’t seem to, why should I?

Oooh. I just realized I am smacking the hell out of these keys as a write. It’s like I’m angry at this movie. So, I guess I do care. I care that it should’ve been a good movie. It’s a buddy cop picture, an overdone but fairly reliable genre. It was directed by Kevin Smith, one of the best in the business when it comes to exploring male relationships in a comic light. It stars Bruce Willis in the type of role he became famous for and Tracy Morgan, whose goofiness on “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” has catapulted him to the top of the comedian pile. It has a good comedic supporting cast in Kevin Pollak, Adam Brody, Rashida Jones, and Seann William Scott. So what the hell happened?

Willis and Morgan play veteran police detective partners who blow a stake out and get booted off the force. This is a problem for Willis’s Jimmy Monroe, since his daughter is getting married in one month’s time, and without his salary he can’t foot the $48,000 bill for the wedding and might have to allow her stepfather (Smith veteran Jason Lee in a cameo) to pay for it. Was Jimmy going to make that much money in a month’s time on the force?

Meanwhile, Morgan’s childlike Paul Hodges suspects his wife (Rashida Jones, “Parks and Recreation”) is cheating on him and tries to catch her in the act, never a smart move. In fact, Paul is such an imbecile I find it hard to believe he could qualify to be a security guard at a community swimming pool let alone an NYPD detective. Morgan basically plays the same character here that made him famous on SNL and “30 Rock”, a freak whose world outlook is so self-centered and out of touch with reality he could never perform effectively as a detective or in just about any other profession outside of entertainment.

So Jimmy wants to sell a valuable vintage baseball card to pay for his daughter’s wedding. While he’s having it appraised, the novelty shop is held up and the card stolen. As detectives, Jimmy and Paul are able to do their own recovery work, although their police work mostly consists of instinctively knowing where to be at the right time. They track down the thief, who is played by Seann William Scott (“The Rundown”) an even stranger guy than Paul and who seems to randomly practice the rooftop jumping sport of parkour. Somehow this gets them mixed up with the Mexican crime syndicate, but really, none of this matters.

Smith (“Clerks”, “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) has come under some fire because this is the first film he’s directed from a script he didn’t write. He’s been accused of selling out to the Hollywood machine, an accusation he has correctly deflected. What astounds me, however, is how he (and Willis) could’ve chosen such a poor script. The screenplay by Robb and Mark Cullen, with whom Smith worked on the failed cable pilot “Manchild”, is flatter than flat. The jokes are uninspired and the action is strictly small time.

There are some scenes of dialogue, mostly between Morgan and Scott, that have fun running around in insults; but a buddy cop movie should rely less on immature dialogue than it does on plot. The plot in this film is strictly low rent. At one point a major character is killed, and it’s treated as if someone’s gun jammed, but that didn’t really matter because he had another gun anyway. What was the point of the death? Why was that character even there to die in such an insignificant manner?

I laughed out loud only once during “Cop Out”. That was during the opening sequence when Paul is interrogating a perp by using famous movie quotations. At one point he quotes a line from “Die Hard” and the Bruce Willis character claims he’d never seen that movie. So there you go. There’s your laugh. I just saved you ten bucks.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Mar. 12-18

Frantic (1988) ***
Director: Roman Polanski
Writers: Roman Polanski, Gérard Brach
Starring: Harrison Ford, Emmanuelle Seigner, Betty Buckley, Gérard Klein, Patrice Melennec, John Mahoney, Jimmy Ray Weeks

Roman Polanski’s attempt at a Hitchcockian thriller isn’t really much like Hitch, except for that rooftop scene; but it isn’t bad either. Polanski concentrates more on the isolated hero theme that dominates most of his films, while Hitch’s thrillers were always more claustrophobic. Many were disappointed at the time, but the film ages well and acts as a great example of Harrison Ford’s underappreciated acting skills.

Ponyo (2009) ****
Director/Writer: Hayao Miyazaki
Starring: Frankie Jonas, Noah Cyrus, Tina Fey, Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Matt Damon, Betty White, Lily Tomlin, Cloris Leachman

I am probably more in love with the films of Hayao Miyazaki than I am even with Pixar. It’s no surprise, though, that Pixar head guru John Lasseter champions Miyazaki’s films. The main difference between Pixar and Miyazaki lies in the commitment to what type of fantasy audiences will accept. Pixar’s doesn’t stray too far from what we recognize in our own world, while Miyazaki’s mind is willing to entertain any sort of alien idea and image that might come wandering along. What both film haven’s have in common, however, is their strict and microscopic observance of human nature and behavior.

Terminator Salvation: The Machinima Series (2009) **
Director: Tor Helmstein, Ian Kirby
Writer: Andy Shapiro
Starring: Moon Bloodgood, Cam Clarke

Video game animation has come a long way. This Web series of six ten-minute animated episodes was made using video game animation characters and settings. It looks good for a video game. It looks like crap for a movie, however. This companion piece to the latest Terminator sequel has a satisfactory storyline. It’s too bad they didn’t want to shell out the money for real animation.

Terminator Salvation (2009) ***
Director: McG
Writers: John D. Brancato, Michael Ferris
Starring: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Moon Bloodgood, Bryce Dallas Howard, Common, Michael Ironside, Helena Bonham Carter

Upon a second viewing, it’s quite surprising how good this entry into the franchise is, considering it comes from a director that actually chooses to be known as McG. I’m especially impressed by what a good casting choice Anton Yelchin was for the young Kyle Reese, whom all the action of the film centers around. Read my original review here.

The Princess Bride (1987) ****
Director: Rob Reiner
Writer: William Goldman
Starring: Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, Chris Sarandon, Mandy Patinkin, Andre the Giant, Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Carol Kane, Peter Cook, Mel Smith, Fred Savage, Peter Falk

The charm of this film never ceases to amaze me. I recently read three introductions to the book by William Goldman. The intros are nearly as entertaining as the story itself, but there is something very basic to the story—something that drove Goldman to search out and adapt the story by S. Morgenstern from when his father read it to him in much the same circumstance that is depicted in his screeplay—that speaks universally to tale seekers. Aren’t we all tale seekers? It has so many elements that became cliché long before Goldman gave the world of Florin new life in his book and this film, and yet under the direction of Rob Reiner they seem fresh and fun, even after the 20th viewing (that’s a rough estimate).

Up in the Air (2009) ***½
Director: Jason Reitman
Writers: Jason Reitman, Sheldon Turner, Walter Kirn (novel)
Starring: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman, Amy Morton, Melanie Lynskey, Danny McBride

Jason Reitman’s third time at bat isn’t as impressive as his first two movies. It doesn’t take the same risks as “Thank You For Smoking” or “Juno”, but it’s still an incredibly well crafted film that fits in well with our current economic crisis. Some of the plot’s developments are not as surprising as they should be, but it does have the guts not to let George Clooney’s hero off easy in the end. It’s an enjoyable comedy and a good character study of a man that has sold a bill of goods to himself about a lifestyle that is far from the typical American dream and yet well in tune with our societal obsession with the acquisition of symbols of status.

Kelly’s Heroes (1970) ***½
Director: Brian G. Hutton
Writer: Troy Kennedy-Martin
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas, Donald Sutherland, Don Rickles, Carroll O’Connor

“Kelly’s Heroes” is one of the quirkiest and most wonderful WWII movies around. To think you could make an anti-authority war flick/heist flick and still have it work as a war picture. It isn’t completely serious, but it never succumbs to camp. You’ve got comedians working with action stars and they all fit right into the WWII setting. And then there’s Donald Sutherland with the world’s first flower power tank commander, and he sells it. This movie would make a wonderful companion piece to the George Clooney war/heist flick “Three Kings”.

Hunger (2008) ****
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: Enda Walsh, Steve McQueen
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Stuart Graham, Liam Cunningham, Brian Milligan

This is the second British prison film I’ve seen in the past month. Like the more outrageous “Bronson”, this film is driven by the experience of prison more so than by dialogue. That is the extent of what it shares with “Bronson”, however. “Hunger” goes deeper and much more seriously into the prison experience, dealing with Britain’s policy of not recognizing political crimes differently than other criminal acts. Of course, this was not actually the case as the political prisoners were brutalized in ways the general prison population was not for their refusal to be recognized as anything but political prisoners. Artist Steve McQueen, in his debut directorial effort, does an amazing job immersing the audience in the prison experience for IRA member Bobby Sands, who would eventually lead a hunger strike that would finally see to changes in the British policies. Michael Fassbender’s performance and physical transformation as Sands is nothing short of amazing.

The Great Waldo Pepper (1975) ***½
Director: George Roy Hill
Writers: William Goldman, George Roy Hill
Starring: Robert Redford, Bo Svenson, Bo Brundin, Susan Sarandon, Geoffrey Lewis, Edward Herrmann, Philip Bruns, Margot Kidder

As I get older, I find myself more and more enamored of the cinema of the ‘70s. Even a fairly innocuous story like that of “The Great Waldo Pepper” has more depth and character in it than 70% of what we get fed by the studios these days. With it’s ending and a good many of the plot’s interior developments, no studio would have even looked at this film today. It reminds me a great deal of Clint Eastwood’s oft-overlooked, warm-hearted movie “Bronco Billy”—one of my favorites of his—with it’s unconventional hero who pushes on in a career that has passed its prime, still striving to bring some dignity to a world that has forgotten much of its gifts. And oh my goodness, look at the talent gathered together for “Pepper”, of course there’s Redford and Bo Svenson in a sweet role like I’ve never seen him, the young Susan Sarandon and an even younger Margot Kidder, George Roy Hill directing, William Goldman writing, Edith Head costumes, Henry Bumstead production design, photography by Robert Surtees, and music by Henry Mancini. Wow, what a great little movie.

Astro Boy (2009) **½
Director: David Bowers
Writers: Timothy Harris, David Bowers, Tezuka Osamu (comic series)
Starring: Freddie Highmore, Kristen Bell, Nicolas Cage, Donald Sutherland, Bill Nighy, Eugene Levy, Nathan Lane.

“Astro Boy” is a little too innocent to be intense and a little too intense to be innocent. It is a spectacular looking movie that can’t decide whether it’s for kids or teens and seems to be aimed just a hair too young for adults. It tells one of the most popular stories of animated films, that of the adolescent trying to find his place in the world and learning to accept who he is in the process. It never really brings much of anything new to this concept, but not for want of trying. The closing action sequence is the least schizophrenic of the film and creates a solid ending for a movie that seems to be going through the same growth hiccups as its main character.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Alice In Wonderland / *** (PG)

Alice: Mia Wasikowska
Mad Hatter: Johnny Depp
Red Queen: Helena Bonham Carter
Stayne–Knave of Hearts: Crispin Glover
White Queen: Anne Hathaway
Tweedledum/Tweedledee: Matt Lucas

With the voices of:
Cheshire Cat: Stephen Fry
White Rabbit: Michael Sheen
Blue Caterpillar: Alan Rickman
Dormouse: Barbara Windsor
Bayard: Timothy Spall
Jabberwocky: Christopher Lee

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Tim Burton. Written by Linda Woolverton. Based on the books “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll. Running time: 108 min. Rated PG (for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar).

I’m sitting here trying to decide from which direction to come at this movie. People—critics and fans—are saying “Alice in Wonderland” is the perfect fit for director Tim Burton. Others are saying that the ending is formulaic and makes this a fairly generic flick for Burton. Both of these statements are correct, but I suspect these experts on Burton’s career and films are missing the point of what a movie like “Alice in Wonderland” is about.

Yes, it is the story of an oddball misfit who finds herself in a world where the word ‘misfit’ is an understatement, just what Burton has been ordering up since “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. Yes, it is also a 3D and CGI extravaganza of good versus evil that succumbs to the cliché of the big final battle, just what Disney ordered up when they decided join the reboot business of producing this remake/sequel to their animated classic. Does Tim Burton relinquish his credibility and artistic integrity to make such a venture for the House of Mouse? No, he does his job and delivers.

“Alice in Wonderland” is pure—possibly drug-enhanced—entertainment. It isn’t deep, but it’s fun; and Burton’s version of Wonderland is genuinely imaginative in a way only Burton can be. Once again we follow Alice down that rabbit hole, only this time Alice is grown up and escaping the banality of an arranged marriage in an aristocratic society. Once in Wonderland, or Underland as its inhabitants are so anxious to correct for Alice, she finds she doesn’t remember being there before, but instead believes it’s one of her recurring childhood dreams. Because of her age and her belief it’s all a dream, the inhabitants question whether or not she’s the real Alice. This is a problem because they need Alice to take up the vorpal sword against the Red Queen’s champion, The Jabberwocky, and restore the White Queen to power.

The Red Queen, as portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter (“Sweeney Todd”), is a CGI enhanced, large-headed monster of a ruler, who screams “Off with their heads!” at the slightest hint of dissention. Many critics are saying Carter steals the show; but the show itself is such a spectacle, it’s hard to say any one point of the star is shinier than another. Johnny Depp (“Sleepy Hollow”) also sparks and flashes as the Mad Hatter, alternating between a fairly meek and fragile personality and another dark warrior figure who doesn’t seem to fit well in the Hatter’s clothing, but Depp pulls it off with a commanding brogue.

Fittingly, it’s Mia Wasikowska (HBO’s “In Treatment”) who turns in the most impressive performance as Alice. The role is a challenge, since Alice is somewhat of a blank slate at the start of the film, not really knowing quite who she is for all the control other people seem to have over her life. Ironically, it is her destiny—a fate over which she has no control—in Underland that helps her find her own voice and strength.

Yet, depth of character and story are not really what “Wonderland” is about. It’s a visual smorgasbord, a world that you’d almost rather explore for yourself than follow its storyline. Burton has always had a strong visual sense for creating fantastical and whimsical images and worlds. Here it’s his primary purpose. While that may not please some of his critics who want him to imbue more than whimsy into this story, it seems a worthwhile endeavor in itself. Underland is gloriously fun to look at and is only enhanced by the 3D format in which it plays in many theaters.

Penny Thoughts: Mar. 5-11

Star Trek: First Contact (1996) ***½
Director: Jonathan Frakes
Writers: Bannon Braga, Ronald D. Moore, Rick Berman
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Jonathan Frakes, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Marina Sirtis, Gates McFadden, Alfre Woodard, James Cromwell, Alice Krige

Well, The Next Generation crew got it right the second time around. They turned in the best of the TNG movies with their sophomore effort, with a compelling story, a creepy and engaging villain, a good amount of action to go along with the dialogue, some good sci-fi social and human commentary, some great guest stars allowed to bring their usual level of greatness to the series, all while adding an enlightening chapter to the entire “Star Trek” mythology.

(500) Days of Summer (2009) ***½
Director: Marc Webb
Writers: Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Webber
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Zooey Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend, Chloe Moretz, Matthew Gray Gubler, Clark Gregg

The narrator warns this movie isn’t a love story. I suppose it’s more like a love footnote or cross-reference. It has many elements of a love story, but it’s about failing at love. It’s very clever and observantly written. I felt our hero was a little daft in the film’s closing moments and the writing could’ve handled his refusal to see the obvious conclusion in front of his eyes, but all in all, an excellent non-love story about the nature of love.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007) ***½
Director: Andrew Dominik
Writers: Andrew Dominik, Ron Hansen (novel)
Starring: Casey Affleck, Brad Pitt, Sam Rockwell, Jeremy Renner, Paul Schneider, Garrett Dillahunt, Mary-Louise Parker, Sam Shepard, Zooey Deschanel

There are no horse chases, only one minor shoot out, and only one robbery in which the James Brothers seem to be disappointed. In fact, the movie isn’t really about Jesse James at all, but rather his late career shadow Robert Ford. But the title is fitting in the way it places the spotlight on James rather than Ford. This is the most contemplative western I’ve seen; and I can’t imagine it’s widely loved by western fans. Yet it’s a great character study of Ford and James. James is shown to be just as small a man as Ford at times; and in the end Ford may even seem more deserving of James’s fame, because unlike James, he grows.

Pandorum (2009) **½
Director: Christian Alvart
Writers: Travis Malloy, Christian Alvart
Starring: Ben Foster, Dennis Quaid, Antje Traue, Cam Gigandet, Chung Le, Eddie Rouse

You know I tend to like movies similar in tone this one, that dark “Alien” sci-fi feel. But there was something about “Pandorum” that just didn’t set right with me. I can’t really talk about it without spoiling the ending, but I’m not a fan of spoiler warnings, so I’ll just say this space doom flick had an opportunity to take its conclusions to such a dark place I can’t think of any other pictures that have done it. Such a move would’ve been incredibly brave by the filmmakers, but they went in a more traditional direction. I enjoyed the journey, but the conclusion really wouldn’t have affected that either way. I just wanted something I hadn’t seen before this time; and I almost got it.

Plastic Bag (2009) ****
Director: Ramin Bahrani
Writers: Ramin Bahrani, Jenni Jenkins
Starring: Werner Herzog

I think perhaps Bahrani and Herzog are the only filmmakers who could possibly make a movie about mankind’s struggle for purpose starring only a plastic bag. Brilliant.

Watch it.

Strange Days (2009) ***
Director: Kathryn Bigelow
Writers: James Cameron, Jay Cocks
Starring: Ralph Fiennes, Angela Bassett, Juliet Lewis, Tom Sizemore, Michael Wincott, Vincent D’Onofrio, Glenn Plummer, William Fincher

It’s strange how with some movies you can perceive them differently upon each viewing. The first time I saw James Cameron’s and Kathryn Bigelow’s “Strange Days” I saw it as a minor sci-fi/crime story; it’s most basic level. The second time I saw it, it seemed a little more profound, an exploration of how our paranoia feeds off the unknown and how those fears can explain so many of our societal flaws. Upon my most recent and third viewing, the profundity didn’t seem quite so deep as the second time, and while it was still a basic sci-fi/crime story, the romance came more to the forefront. This time its most prominent element seemed to be the hero’s inability to let go of his old flame and see the most beautiful, powerful and attractive partner sitting right next to him. Truth is Angela Bassett is totally hot and kicks some major ass.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Feb. 26-Mar. 4

Star Trek: Generations (1994) **
Director: David Carson
Writers: Ronald D. Moore, Brannon Braga, Rick Berman
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Jonathan Frakes, Brent Spiner, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Malcolm McDowell, James Doohan, Walter Koenig, William Shatner, Whoopi Goldberg

“The Next Generation” cast of the “Star Trek” gets their big screen launch off to an uneven start. Tying the two casts together, the filmmakers provided a storyline that allowed the two Enterprise captains to interact together, but unfortunately the story is one of the weaker ones of the franchise. Malcolm McDowell provides a villain well enough, although his character is given little depth. But the biggest problem with this first film for the new crew is that it relies too heavily on what has already developed in the television series. We are never really introduced to the characters of the new crew; and as such, their behaviors seem more contrived for humor than existing as fully developed personalities working towards similar goals.

The Damned United (2009) ***½
Director: Tom Hooper
Writer: Peter Morgan, David Peace (novel)
Starring: Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, Colm Meaney, Henry Goodman, Maurice Roëves, Jim Broadbent

“The Damned United” is the most claustrophobic sports movie I’ve ever seen. It follows the short-lived tenure of Brian Clough, “Englands greatest manager”, in 1974 as the manager of then England’s greatest soccer team, the Leeds United. It spends the entire movie inside Clough’s obsessed head. That combined with the dreary Yorkshire climate and the fact that director Tom Hooper cleverly chooses to show very little of the actual games makes this an intensely focused study of Clough’s destructively obsessive nature. His close relationship with his estranged assistant Peter Taylor also plays like some sort of plutonic love story.

Logorama (2009) ****
Directors/Writers: François Alaux, Harve de Cercy, Ludovic Houplain
Starring: Bob Stephenson, Sherman Augustus, Aja Evans, Joel Michaely, Matt Winston, Andrew Kevin Walker, David Fincher

Starting out like “Pulp Fiction” and ending up like “2012”, this Oscar nominated animated short is one of the more original cartoons I’ve seen, its story told using only corporate logos for the landscape and characters. I don’t know if it is intended as some sort of critique of our corporate dominated consumerist society, or if it is just some sort of goof; but it’s definitely not for children.

Watch it.

Surrogates (2009) **
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Writers: Michael Ferris, John Brancato, Robert Venditti (graphic novel), Brett Weldele (graphic novel)
Starring: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames

I think the reason this film came through fairly unscathed by critics in the fall is because it clocks in under an hour and a half. Had it been longer, more would’ve complained. It gets better toward then end, but its plot about a future where most people use a surrogate robot to interact with the rest of the world requires a good deal of fuzzy sci-fi math to set itself up. The filmmakers are wise to gloss over the set up; but unfortunately the concept behind the surrogates requires thought, so their fudging is pretty obvious.

49th Parallel (1941) ***½
Director: Michael Powell
Writers: Emeric Pressberger, Rodney Ackland
Starring: Eric Portman, Raymond Lovell, Niall MacGinnis, Peter Moore, John Chandos, Basil Appleby, Laurence Olivier, Finlay Currie, Ley On, Anton Walbrook, Glynis Johns, Leslie Howard, Raymond Massey, Theodore Salt

I’ve still got Olympic fever. In tribute to Canada’s hosting role this year, I’ve watched the classic war film “49th Parallel”, which in an opening title card is dedicated to the people of Canada for their help in the Allied forces during WWII. The movie bravely follows the antagonists, a small group of Nazi U-Boat crewmen stranded in the most polite country around after their sub is sunk in Hudson Bay. As they try to escape Canada and capture they encounter a string of good citizens, played by many acting legends, who can’t help but make many of the Nazi’s think twice about their ideology. The script does a good job of highlighting the reasons why democracy is the best way of life; and Powell’s direction keeps the tensions high while making the Canadian way of life seem idyllic.

Whiteout (2009) **½
Director: Dominic Sena
Writers: Jon Hoeber, Erich Hoeber, Chad Hayes, Carey W. Hayes, Greg Rucka (graphic novel), Steve Lieber (graphic novel)
Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Gabriel Macht, Columbus Short, Alex O’Loughlin, Shawn Doyle, Tom Skerritt

I am just a sucker for a good winter-based thriller. And this one had me for a long time. It worked on me. Then in the waning moments director Dominic Sena dropped the ball and not only let the audience catch up, but let us get bored by how ahead we are. It’s too bad too, because they did such a good job keeping two possible suspects or more going the whole time. I still love feeling cold when I’m watching a thriller, though. Brrrrr!

Monday, March 01, 2010

Shutter Island / ***½ (R)

Edward Daniels: Leonardo DiCaprio
Chuck Aule: Mark Ruffalo
Dr. Cawley: Ben Kingsley
Dr. Naehring: Max Von Sydow
Delores: Michelle Williams
Rachel: Emily Mortimer
Dr. Solando: Patricia Clarkson
George Noyce: Jackie Earle Haley
Warden: Ted Levine
Deputy Warden MacPherson: John Carroll Lynch
Laeddis: Elias Koteas

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Martin Scorsese. Written by Laeta Kalogridis. Based on the novel by Dennis Lehane. Running time: 138 min. Rated R (for disturbing violent content, language and some nudity).

I’ve never referred to the production photos I use in my posts before, but I want you to look at the face of Leonardo DiCaprio in this picture. Look at his eyes; at the bubbling tension beneath his skin, at the naked energy he is putting out there in this photo. This is not your average modern actor. DiCaprio is more like the acting legends of American cinema from before the time the French New Wave affected the attitudes of all American actors into some thing more natural and understated. DiCaprio is more like a young Marlon Brando, a brash James Stewart, or a raw Henry Fonda. He is a classic film star.

This makes him perfect for Martin Scorsese’s new thriller “Shutter Island”, a classic thriller if Hollywood ever saw one. It’s a shame he didn’t choose to shoot this in the black and white of its 1954 setting. From the first dramatic chords of the soundtrack—not a traditional score, but rather found tracks compiled by a longtime friend of Scorsese, Robbie Robertson of The Band fame—you know that this will not be your typical quick cut, jump and shock thriller. The overblown chords of Krzysztof Penderecki’s “Symphony #3” evoke the thundering scores of the late Bernard Herrmann and make it clear that nothing is as it seems in this story.

DiCaprio plays Federal Marshall Teddy Daniels, assigned to a hospital prison for the criminally insane, Boston’s Shutter Island Ashecliffe Hospital, to apprehend an escaped patient who “evaporated straight through the walls.” His attentive new partner Chuck Aule is well handled by Mark Ruffalo (“The Brothers Bloom”). As would be expected in any thriller, the hospital’s head of psychiatry, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley, “The Wackness”), is less than forthcoming with some important information concerning the patient’s escape and the hospital’s practices. The chief of medicine, Dr. Naehring (Max Von Sydow, “Minority Report”), offers ominous suggestions as an aging man of German descent, the perfect age for a Nazi that might have used Jews for medical experimentation.

It isn’t long before the marshals and the audience begin to think the two men will never leave the island. To reveal any more of the film’s plot would be a crime against it. However, one of my few problems with the movie is that its ending is fairly inevitable. But even if you’ve seen enough plots set inside an insane asylum to know where it’s going, it’s the film’s luscious journey to get there that makes it enjoyable.

Scorsese’s production is luscious to say the least. The island setting is just the type of improbable trap setting that fueled many classic Hollywood thrillers. He explores every inch of this island, never limiting his locations by its setting. There are the lavish rooms of the hospital’s administrative facilities, the cold institution of the main hospital, the dungeons of the old civil war fort that houses the most dangerous inmates, the island’s many abandoned structures, the old hospital cemetery, the treacherous cliffs out of some sort of Hitchcockian crisis of conscience story, and the secretive lighthouse. Scorsese combines the gothic with both the institution of the hospital and the nature of the island wonderfully. Much of the film takes place during a nor’easter that is much more satisfactorily depicted than the stage-confined hurricane sequence of his “Cape Fear” remake.

Perhaps the most vivid sequences of the movie are Daniels’s dreams/flashbacks. He dreams and flashes on memories from two moments in his life. He remembers being part of the liberation of the concentration camp in Dachau. These play like typical movie flashbacks. The setting is gloomy and dark; the images are slow in order to depict every detail. There are frightening images he keeps returning to, including the blood of a German officer who botched a suicide and the bodies of a mother and daughter frozen in the cold German winter.

His dreams are focused on his wife Dolores (Michelle Williams, “Brokeback Mountain”), who died in a tragic accident a couple years earlier. These dreams are rich with color; the suggestion of a happier life Daniels will never have the chance to know. The dreams are also shrouded in the task he must fulfill on the island. Despite his struggle to hold onto the life he never lived with his wife, the madness and darkness of Shutter Island pushes its way in, and the dreams begin to speak to him and guide him in his investigation. But what do his memories of the war and of his wife have to do with what is happening at the hospital? Is Dolores really speaking to Teddy from the afterlife?

In the final moments of “Shutter Island” Daniels poses a question, “Which would be worse, to live as a monster, or die a good man?” Perhaps Scorsese is using Daniels to speak for the cinema of thrillers in general. So many of today’s suspense and horror directors are more interested in the monster, the shock, the gore. Gone are the truly cinematic aspects of the thriller such as atmosphere, character, and pacing. “Shutter Island” is Scorsese’s tribute to the classic thriller; and like the classic thriller, it is not the end result of the thrill that Scorsese is interested in embarking on with his audience, but the journey to get there.