Friday, June 25, 2010

Penny Thoughts: June 18-24

The Messenger (2009) ***½
Director: Oren Moverman
Writers: Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi

It strikes me that an actor like Ben Foster will never get the credit he deserves. When Woody Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance here as an Army officer responsible for informing survivors about the death of their relatives in combat, there were some who asked where Foster’s lead actor nomination was, but there wasn’t an outcry. You didn’t see his name on many of the snubbed lists. But a movie like “The Messenger” relies so heavily on the performance of its lead that to overlook Foster’s work here is even more of a crime than overlooking his superb supporting work in “3:10 to Yuma” from a couple years back. It’s a story that doesn’t take sides. It isn’t political. It isn’t anti-war. It’s very much like another wonderful overlooked Iraq War related film, Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah”. Neither film is really about the Iraq War, but they use the war to tell a very interesting story of the people affected by it.

A Night in Casablanca (1946) ***
Director: Archie Mayo
Writers: Joseph Fields, Roland Kibbee, Frank Tashlin (uncredited)
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Sig Ruman, Lisette Verea

Conceived as a kind of spoof to “Casablanca”, the Marx Brother’s “A Night in Casablanca” follows the comedians to the famed city where Nazis have hidden loot from WWII in the Hotel Casablanca. In their mad cap, slapstick way the brothers’ Marx uncover the Nazis and thwart their plans to get away with the gold. While not the best of their movies, once Groucho finally enters the scene, the comedy begins to take off. Chico doesn’t seem to be given much to do here, but Groucho contributes some of his famous wordplay, and Harpo has some of his usually great silent comedy and a wonderful scene where he plays a harp. For those uninitiated into the comedy stylings of the Marx Brothers, this may not be the one to begin with, but it does make for some good light-hearted fun streaming on Netflix.

Law Abiding Citizen (2009) *½
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Regina Hall

I went into “Law Abiding Citizen” with low expectations, and they were met. I’ve been driven to see this movie, however, both by a friend of mind who also disliked it, but insisted I needed to watch it, and by it’s inclusion on Stephen King’s top ten movies of 2009 list. While I rarely agree with King’s top ten lists, he certainly has the most interesting lists out there. You won’t see many repeats from the critics’ lists on King’s top ten every year. You will find pulp and b-movies and movies that often only find their way into the Razzie Awards. I can see why King likes his b-movies, but it does astound me that he could so enjoy such bad storytelling when he’s so good at it.

Not only is there no one to route for in this movie—the Gerard Butler character is a vicious killer, and Jamie Foxx’s lawyer is a ladder climber with no concept of what justice really is—but the movie assumes its audience is dumber than its characters, and other than the Butler character, they don’t really set the bar too high. Example: there is a scene near then end of the film where Foxx’s lawyer and a cop go to a warehouse owned by the killer and break in after asking each other if they really want to violate this guy’s “civil rights”. Did it not occur to the filmmakers that any judge in Philadelphia would’ve given these guys a warrant instantly, since they were searching a property of a man that had already been convicted and was still managing to kill from inside the prison located right next to the property? A judge might have questioned how obvious it was that this property should’ve been searched long before this point. This film is sadly laughable.

Dreamscape (1984) **½
Director: Joseph Ruben
Writers: David Loughery, Chuck Russell, Joseph Ruben
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert, Cate Capshaw, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt

I thought this movie was an underrated gem throughout most of my adolescence, and in many ways it is. It is also horribly dated. It did not age well at all. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s new film “Inception” coming up soon, the subject of manipulating and participating in other people’s dreams seems just as fascinating now as it did 25 years ago. I think, however, unlike Nolan’s upcoming big budget, CGI heavy blockbuster, “Dreamscape” was a fairly low budget production when it was made. Dennis Quaid was still learning how to carry a movie on his own, having had a good deal of his early success in ensemble pieces. Max Von Sydow makes one of his rare non-villainous appearances in a sci-fi film. The movie really only uses the dream angle as a thriller plot device, and unfortunately the special effects leave a great deal to be desired.

The Usual Suspects (1995) ****
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Chaz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollack, Benicio Del Toro, Pete Postlethwaite, Giancarlo Esposito, Suzy Amis, Dan Hedaya

I still can’t for the life of me figure out why Roger Ebert was so unimpressed by this movie. I know he doesn’t like to be jerked around by the plot, and in the closing moments of this movie you realize that nothing you’ve seen can be trusted. But the whole thing is put together so well, and there’s good reason that everything turns out to be a lie. Plus, everyone who is good at lying knows that the key to a good lie is to include as much truth as possible. So, there are good chunks of the film that could very well be the truth.

This time around, I watched knowing full well the outcome, and it’s still a very entertaining picture. That is due to a combination of Singer’s stylistic direction and the cast’s wonderful performances. Chaz Palmenteri is so good as the cop who’s got it all figured out, that the audience has little choice but to believe him, falling into the same trap of illusion that is set for him. Gabriel Byrne is always such a solid actor; he lends his strength to the illusion here. And Kevin Spacey… interestingly, I think he won the Oscar for all the work he doesn’t do here, rather than what he does. You see his Verbal Kint, but you don’t see the other side; and I think it’s the audience’s impression of the other side that lends so much power to his performance.

Dark City: Director’s Cut (1998) ****
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O’Brian, Ian Richardson

I’m an incredible fan of this film. I’m sure I’ve talked before about its mashing of the comic book, sci-fi, and film noir genres. I’m sure I’ve beamed about its incredible production design and dramatic score. I’m sure I’ve expounded on its revelations on that great sci-fi theme of what makes us human. This time around I was surprised to realize just how much this criminally overlooked movie influenced cinema as a whole over the past decade. A year later would see the phenomenon of “The Matrix” with green highlighted cinematography and a comic book sensibility taken right from this movie. Another point in common would be their Australian filming location, an aspect also shared by George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels. Soon Australia would become a common studio-shooting locale for fantasy/sci-fi, effects heavy movies, like “Superman Returns”. The moody cinematography would also become a favorite of the new breed of filmmakers that dominated the ‘00s, such as Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson, and David Fincher. The high concept fantasy flick would become more popular during the following decade, when previously it could only find cult status on video. I don’t know whether “Dark City” was the last of the cult fantasies, or the first in the new breed of fantasy filmmaking.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jonah Hex / ** (PG-13)

Jonah Hex: Josh Brolin
Quentin Turnbald: John Malkovich
Lilah: Megan Fox
Burke: Michael Fassbender
Lieutenant Grass: Will Arnett
President Grant: Aidan Quinn

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Jimmy Hayward. Written by Neveldine & Taylor and William Farmer. Based on characters appearing in the DC Comics magazines by John Albano & Tony Dezungia. Running time: 81 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action, disturbing images and sexual content).

Guy 1:Hey! Did you hear that DC has adapted another one of their obscure comic book properties into a feature film?

Guy 2: Uh, no. What is it?

G1: “Jonah Hex”. He’s some old western paranormal hero from back in the 70s. He’s kinda like a Clint Eastwood character who can talk with the dead. Ring any bells?

G2: Uh, no. Who’s in it?

G1: Well, it’s got this great cast. Josh Brolin plays Jonah Hex…

G2: Who?

G1: You know. Josh Brolin. The guy in that Best Picture winner from the Coen Brothers from a couple of years back. That kinda western thingy with that psycho killer, who went around flipping coins and killing everyone with an air gun? But that wasn’t Brolin.

G2: Um, I still don’t know who you mean.

G1: Sean Astin’s big brother from “The Goonies”?

G2: Oh, yeah! I know that guy. Isn’t Barbara Streisand like his mother or something?

G1: Wha?! Really? Anyway, he’s in it with a big-ass scar on his face that was given to him by his arch nemesis, Quentin Turnbald. He’s played by John Malkovich. You know, that crazy guy?

G2: Yeah, that guy’s creepy. Everybody’s always doing impressions of him. Him and that Christopher Walken guy. I think he’s crazy too.

G1: Yeah. So anyway, also that chick from “Transformers” is in it.

G2: Megan Fox. She is hot!!!

G1: She’s even hotter here, ‘cause she’s playing this prostitute who wears all these half dresses so you can always see her legs in these sexy old timey whore stockings. And it looks like she’s always glistening with sweat. How do they do that anyway?

G2: Who cares? At least it’s not the rip off that “The A-Team” was, putting Jessica Biel in there with all those clothes on.

G1: Yeah. Thank God for that. Oh, and there’s this Irish guy in there with a bunch of tattoos on his face. That’s kinda cool. And I think the guy who plays the President is also an Irish guy, but he doesn’t speak Irish in the movie. He just speaks American, ‘cause he’s the President. And I think one of the bad guys was also a bad guy in that God-awful movie “Ghost Rider” with Nick Cage. Oh, and that bald black guy from the X-Filesy show on FOX now is in it too. He’s in those Caddy commercials too.

G2: So what’s it about?

G1: Alright. It’s a western, right? Taking place after that war where the south fought the north. But it’s not like a normal western, ‘cause it’s based on this comic book. It more like “Wild Wild West” except it doesn’t suck quite as bad. You know, there are all these James Bond gadgets used by the hero, except western style, like a double-barreled Gatling gun horse mount. Jonah Hex’s family was killed by this Turnbald guy, so he’s got it out for him. And Turnbald’s supposed to be dead, but he’s not. Instead he’s planning on either conquering or destroying the United States. I’m not really sure which. And…

G2: Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop there. Rewind for a second. I thought I heard you say it didn’t “suck quite as bad” as “Wild Wild West”. So, is it any good at all?

G1: Not really. No.

G2: Then why are you telling me about it?

G1: I dunno.

Jonah Hex | Movie Trailers

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Get Him to the Greek / *** (R)

Aaron Green: Jonah Hill
Aldous Snow: Russell Brand
Sergio Roma: Sean Combs
Daphne Binks: Elizabeth Moss
Jackie Q: Rose Byrne

Universal Pictures presents a film written and directed by Nicholas Stoller. Based on characters created by Jason Segel. Running time: 109 min. Rated R (for strong sexual content and drug use throughout, and pervasive language).

The movie “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” is an intelligent, if sometimes crude, adult romantic comedy. The best part of the movie is the off-the-wall performance by British comedian Russell Brand as the spacey rock star Aldous Snow. Now, we have “Get Him to the Greek”, which is not a sequel to “Marshall” so much as it is a spin-off.

The entire purpose of “Greek” is to give audiences more of Brand’s Aldus Snow, who was relegated to a supporting role in the previous film. It finds Snow as a rock star past his prime. After incredible early success, his career has fallen into ridicule thanks to an ill-advised concept album and a particularly offensive song, “African Child”. His marriage to pop diva Jackie Q (Rose Byrne, “Knowing”) has long since fallen apart, his drug addictions seem to have gotten the best of him and he stands on the brink of disappearing into obscurity. The opening scenes of the film, especially the music video of “African Child”, suggest a movie that will present a silly caricature of the eccentricities of celebrity, possibly a one joke movie. What results is very funny and somewhat deeper than expected.

Jonah Hill, meanwhile, does not reprise his role from “Marshall”, but instead plays Aaron Green, an intern for a music executive that charges his staff with the task of coming up with the next big event in the failing music industry. In a surprisingly effective comic turn, Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs plays the executive as a bit of a head case who uses his power of intimidation as a method of motivation, both for his staff and “the talent”. Hill comes up with the idea of an anniversary concert for one of Snow’s greatest live shows. The idea is initially rejected, but then the executive has second thoughts—this is probably just another tool in his intimidation game—and charges Hill with the much more difficult than it sounds task of getting Snow to the gig on time.

Hill is wonderfully cast because of his innate ability to look uncomfortable in just about any situation, even when he’s having a good time. He has three days to fly Snow from London to Los Angeles for the gig. Snow has brought the art form of procrastination to a new level of stupefaction with his constant partying and drug taking, and yet somehow it always looks to others as if it’s Aaron who’s got the problem. At the same time, Aaron is dealing with a falling out with his girlfriend, Daphne (Elizabeth Moss, TV’s “Mad Men”), a medical intern who gets no sleep and decides to move to Seattle without consulting Aaron. Hill’s discomfort throughout the movie is a cue to audience members who might be numb to Snow’s decadent lifestyle.

But once again it is Brand who surprises by not turning Snow into some slapstick joke of a character who just does all these crazy things to torture Aaron. Certainly there is a high degree of that, such as when he stops on the way to the airport to buy drugs and forces Aaron to place them in an area of embarrassment in order to get through security. Snow is also given a serious side when we see the strong sense of love he has for his son, who is in the custody of his ex-wife. Jackie Q is also not the witch you’d expect but continues a complicated relationship with Snow that shows they clearly still share love for each other.

Those elements, however, are part of the script by writer/director Nicholas Stoller. Brand also brings a great amount of depth to the character in his sympathetic performance. Brand’s rock star has something more lying beneath the surface, even when he’s embracing the most self-destructive elements of the celebrity lifestyle. Snow is not just a hard partying escapist. He’s also intelligent and charming. This lends the rock star a stronger reality, a reason for being famous beyond just being eccentric.

All this discussion of character and depth may give a false impression of the movie being some sort of serious study of what makes a celebrity tick. “Get Him to the Greek” is not an in depth analysis, though. In fact, it isn’t much of anything as a story. It’s basically the goof of a movie that it seems to be; it just has surprisingly strong leading characters and performances. Upon the evidence seen here, I can’t wait until Brand moves beyond these goofy movies and into more serious fare. I think he can make the leap. Not that he shouldn’t continue with comedy, because he’s funny as hell.

Get Him to the Greek | Movie Trailers

Friday, June 18, 2010

The A-Team / *** (PG-13)

Hannibal: Liam Neeson
Lt. Templeton “Faceman” Peck: Bradley Cooper
Charisa Sosa: Jessica Biel
B.A. Baracus: Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson
Murdock: Sharlto Copley
Lynch: Patrick Wilson
General Morrison: Gerald McRaney
Pike: Brian Bloom

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Joe Carnahan. Written by Carnahan & Brian Bloom and Skip Woods. Based on the television series created by Frank Lupo & Stephen J. Cannell. Running time: 118 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of action and violence throughout, language and smoking).

“Overblown is underrated.”
—Hannibal, “The A-Team” (2010)

I have to say, as a film critic in an age when we go to the cinema to witness alien robot races battling over the planet for who knows what purpose or cursed, motorcycle-riding superheroes with flaming skull heads, I don’t generally agree with Hannibal’s sentiment. The film version of the 80’s television show “The A-Team” certainly adheres to its own statement by being a balls out, overblown, ridiculous, absurd, explosion-filled, wacky action comedy that barely stops for a breath of air between its bloody hand-to-hand combat, highflying air scuttles, grave threats and snappy witticisms. And I’m almost ashamed to admit, I loved every minute of it.

I don’t think I would truly qualify as a “fan” of the television series, although I did watch it in my youth. I’ am sure that were I to pull up some episodes on You Tube today, I’d be greatly disappointed. I wouldn’t have been surprised had that been my reaction to the feature-length motion picture reboot. The movie is something wittier than the television show and something pumped up on action film steroids above what the TV show was. But, it captures the core characters of the show, possibly even better than the show itself did.

The A-Team is made up of four former Airborne Rangers. Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith is the leader, the man who always has a plan, a plan that is always unusual in its unique complexity and execution. Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck is the good-looking second, the gigolo who always ends up with the girl and often finds himself in the most awkward situations. Bosco B.A. Baracus is the muscle with oddly innocent weaknesses; in this particular case he’s an Airborne Ranger with a fear of flying. H. M. ”Howling Mad” Murdock is the team’s pilot, who seems to be a few sockets short of a complete ratchet set and, as explained in the film’s opening action sequence, is directly responsible for Bosco’s aerophobia. There are other characters in this movie, but it’s obvious that director Joe Carnahan (“Smokin’ Aces”) and his co-screenwriters Brian Bloom and Skip Woods don’t care about anybody else in this movie but The A-Team. This is particularly distressing in Bloom’s case since he actually plays one of the film’s underdeveloped villains.

Liam Neeson (“Taken”) takes the reins as the team’s leader, Hannibal, and brings his usual sturdy guidance to the role. He gives weight to Hannibal’s signature line, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Bradley Cooper proves what every fan of “Alias” already knew and all the fans of “The Hangover” are now realizing, that he can pull off an engaging action role with a comic edge about his dashing good looks. Mixed martial artist Quinton Jackson (“The Midnight Meat Train”) is the rare athlete that actually appears comfortable taking on a major role as the iconic B.A. Baracus, first popularized in the TV show by Mr. T. But it is South African actor Sharlto Copley who steals the show as the oddball Murdock. While Copley’s leading turn in last year’s sleeper hit “District 9” indicated a strong screen presence, there was no hint there of just how funny he could be in a big budget feature.

The action is often a little too over the top. The opening sequence features a helicopter chase with our heroes performing feats in a helicopter that couldn’t be accomplished by a yo-yo in a preeminent yo-yo master’s hands. And the finale really stretches the bounds of the notion that all these dominoes falling into place are actually part of the plan. The action editing also suffers greatly from the ubiquitous action ailment of quick cut editing. The editing is so fast and furious it’s impossible to tell just what is going on in most of the film’s fight sequences. It goes something like this: Oh, they’re fighting now. Now they’re done. Oh, big explosion!

However, the comedy somehow holds the whole thing together. Murdock and Baracus have a wonderful love/hate relationship. All four characters really play off each other like some sort of very strange, testosterone driven brotherhood. It’s a shame about the other characters. Jessica Biel (“Valentine’s Day”) is in it but she’s wearing so many clothes. I know that’s a terribly sexist point of view, but had the filmmakers actually given her something to do beyond being a mere plot device in one of the team’s plans, there might be more to say about her presence. Cooper is shirtless in many scenes and still contributes to the film’s success.

So “The A-Team” is certainly not going to mark a sea-change shift in the way we look at movies, most certainly not in the way we look at attractive female co-stars, but it does make for some good summer fun. I know I shouldn’t like this movie, but I had far too much fun watching it to say I can’t recommend it. A friend of mine who disagrees about “The A-Team” being worth the price of admission did have to agree with one thing I had to say about it, it is infinitely more entertaining than “Transformers”.

The A-Team | Movie Trailers

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Penny Thoughts: June 4-17

Quantum of Solace (2008) ****
Director: Marc Forester
Writers: Paul Haggis, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade
Starring: Daniel Craig, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Gemma Arterton, Jeffrey Wright

QoS never got the love that the James Bond reboot “Casino Royale” did, except from me. Upon my second viewing of it, I still feel justified in calling it the second best James Bond movie. It did not best CR. It seems it was mostly criticized for going the Jason Bourne trilogy route, but it has a much more intricate plot than Bourne to go along with its high-octane action. When viewing CR recently, I was surprised by how much slower it was than I remembered, not so with QoS. But QoS still touches upon all the James Bond franchise signatures, and director Marc Forester really flexes some superior direction muscles in many sequences.

Read my original review here.

Spartacus (1960) ***
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Dalton Trumbo, Howard Fast (novel)
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Laurence Olivier, Gene Simmons, Peter Ustinov, Charles Laughton, John Gavin

The historical epic has changed a great deal since their heyday. “Spartacus” is thought to be one of Hollywood’s pinnacles of its time, but time has not been kind to this too pretty look at the slave uprising against the Roman Empire lead by the slave-born Spartacus. The casual modern mannerisms and speech used throughout this epic are almost laughable by today’s standards. The battle is good for the time period, but doesn’t stand up to the more realistically choreographed fight sequences of today, and you’ve go to wonder whether property masters had ever actually seen real blood back then, way back in the 60s. Usually, I have a leniency toward older filmmaking, and overall this is an enjoyable movie, but there’s a reason modern audiences don’t catch on to the classics all that easily. The most interesting aspects of the movie are the political maneuverings between the Olivier and Laughton characters, which still have reflections in today’s politics.

Crazy Heart (2009) ***
Director: Scott Cooper
Writers: Scott Cooper, Thomas Cobb (novel), Stephen Bruton (songs), T Bone Burnett (songs)
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Jack Nation, Collin Farrell, Robert Duvall

“Crazy Heart” is a deserving performance for Jeff Bridges to win his overdue Oscar. It’s a good movie. It’s filled with wonderful music. It isn’t the most original exploration of a character I’ve seen, but it’s very well done my writer/director Scott Cooper. However, the movie didn’t thrill me half as much as the music. I could listen to Bridges and Collin Farrell put the country back into country music all night. I would’ve loved to see the entire concert where Bad opened for Tommy, and I sure hope Bad did join him on stage for those two songs instead of selling his CDs. It’d be a shame if he didn’t since their duet during Bad’s set was so good. And one other thing, Maggie Gyllenhaal just makes me smile.

Heavy Metal (1981) **½
Director: Gerald Potterton
Writers: Daniel Goldberg, Len Blum, Dan O’Bannon, Richard Corbin, Bernie Wrightson, Angus McKie, Jean Giraud
Starring: Rodger Bumpass, John Candy, Eugene Levy, Alice Playten, Harold Ramis, Richard Romanus, John Vernon, Jackie Burroughs

I’ve been listening to a lot of Cheap Trick lately, and it occurred to me that they had contributed two original songs to the “Heavy Metal” soundtrack. Well, obviously I needed to watch “Heavy Metal”. Now, I had purchased the DVD back when it was originally released in that format about ten years ago. As I recall I watched it then, and a couple times in the following years with affection for that nerdy, gamer fantasy universe of bucksome babes and barbarians and spaceships, just as I had when I was much younger. This time through, it all seemed very dated. One reason might be the terrible image and sound transfer that I had never really noticed in the early days of digital home entertainment, but is glaringly obvious today. Another reason might be the crude and often sloppy animation (even for the time in which it was released). They do a good job in alternating the visual style with each individual story segment, and some do look very good, but for the most part the visual quality is a muddy mess. I still like those bucksome babes, though.

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Penny Thoughts: May 21-June 3

Pink Cadillac (1989) **
Director: Buddy Van Horn
Writer: John Eskow
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bernadette Peters, Timothy Carhart, John Dennis Johnston, Michael Des Barres

I just can’t stop trying to figure the sequence of events that lead to Bernadette Peters being cast in this role opposite Eastwood. Was he a fan? She was a Broadway star, but never seemed to crack the Hollywood game. Did he see her in a show and say, “That’s my next leading lady”? He had a reputation for a while of dating his co-stars. Did they date? Or did this script land on her agent’s desk and he said, “Bernadette, here’s your trip to Hollywood.” If so, was he subsequently fired? I mean, the story behind her involvement is much more interesting than the movie itself. I would hope so anyway.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) ***½
Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robert Pattinson, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Stanislav Ianevski, Clémence Poésy, Miranda Richardson, David Tennant, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Robbie Coltrane, Frances de la Tour, Roger Lloyd Pack, Matthew Lewis, Katie Leung, Tom Felton, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Ralph Fiennes

Wow, it seems that mentionable cast list just grows and grows with each movie. In my ongoing revisitation of the Harry Potter film franchise, I am still astonished with how long the series retained such a high quality output. “Goblet of Fire” effectively closes the early years of Potter’s magic training and forces the entire series to grow up by containing the first death of a major character, although the word ‘major’ is debatable. It also sees the first flesh form of the series’ villain Lord Voldemort. The movie does a good job of getting across that this is all real now for Harry and company. Or as real as fantasy can get I suppose. As I recall the next couple of episodes are a let down compared to these first four, but we’ll get another look at them soon enough.

The Fountain (2006) ***½
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn

Thanks to WarnerBlu’s DVD/Bluray exchange program I’m revisiting some of my favorite Warner Bros. movies in glorious high definition for the first time. I was shocked that this movie didn’t get more praise when it was released in the fall of 2006. Certainly it isn’t a mass appeal movie, but it is a great example of what a visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is. With a much smaller budget than he originally intended, he made this beautiful movie about man’s obsession with eternal life, the struggle to cheat death. On top of that, it’s an emotionally powerful romance about a cancer research doctor who is desperately seeking a cure before his beloved wife succumbs to the disease.

Amelia (2009) **
Director: Mira Nair
Writers: Ron Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan, Susan Butler (book “East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart”), Mary S. Lovell (book “The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart”)
Starring: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston

If this film had been made in the 80s, it would have been praised as one of the most touching bio pics of its time. It has the same look and feel to it as those epic bio pics of the 80s, but it lacks the urgency that we’ve come to expect from such a picture today. It’s beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, but it’s a little dull. Much of the plot involves the romance between Earhart and her manager/husband (in that order) George Putnam, and a slight diversion from that with the more dashing Gene Vidal. It feels like the movie is searching for aspects to explore in Earhart’s life, rather than actually exploring aspects of her life.

Spaceballs (1987) ***
Director: Mel Brooks
Writers: Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan, Ronny Graham
Starring: Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, Rick Moranis, John Candy, Joan Rivers, George Wyner, Dick Van Patten, Mel Brooks

“Spaceballs” is certainly nowhere near as good as some of the spoofs to come out of the Mel Brooks canon, but it still contains some of the sharp wit of his earlier work. Unlike the best spoofs, the materials here is dated and a little too period specific to the sci-fi genre which it’s skewering to play well to modern audiences. However, for the viewer who was there as the genre reached its popularity, it still provides good laughs, mostly due to Rick Moranis’s performance as the pathetic villain Dark Helmet.

Stormchasers: IMAX (1995) ***
Director: Stephen Judson, Greg MacGillivray
Writer: Mark Olshaker
Narrator: Hal Holbrook
Featuring: Surindra Bhandari, Howard Bluestein, Robert Sheets

I used to love watching documentaries on overcast Saturday afternoons as a kid. This is a trait I seem to have passed on to my own children. Up until this week they have been able to take advantage of Netflix’s vast library of docs to stream instantly, but this week I got to join them. We watched two early IMAX docs. This one featured the beautiful IMAX cinematography, and turned out to be much more informative about storms than I had anticipated for a 38 minute IMAX documentary.

The Magic of Flight: IMAX (1996) ***
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Writer: Jack Stephens
Narrator: Tom Selleck

I grew up across the river from the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Our house was just a short distance from the end of one of the runways. The Blue Angels did a show there every year. When we were young our Dad, a former Marine fighter pilot, took us to the air shows in person, but even when we were older, we got a front row seat in our own front yard. Although this documentary does touch upon the flight of birds and a little history on the flight of man, its primary focus is on The Blue Angels’ pilots and their air show. It brought me back to those days of wonder as a child watching those aviators do their amazing stunts in those loud jets. Truly awe inspiring. I wish I could’ve seen this on an IMAX screen.

A History of Violence (2005) ***½
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: Josh Olson, John Wagner (graphic novel), Vincent Locke (graphic novel)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ashton Holmes, Ed Harris, William Hurt

David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” is an exercise in cinematic restraint. Adapted from a graphic novel by John Wagner and artist Vincent Locke, much of the film’s minimalism reminds me of those brave comic book writers who are willing to write pages of comic book panels without dialogue, turning the medium into a seemingly visual only one. What Croenberg realizes is that even without dialogue, cinema is never a strictly visual medium. He relies heavily on the performances by Mortensen, Bello, Harris, and Hurt to communicate vast histories of these characters without exposition. Mortensen’s performance is the most remarkable upon a second viewing. It’s easy to see why Cronenberg felt he needed Mortensen to make the even better film “Eastern Promises”.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) ****
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper

It’s easy to think that older films were all classics. This is not so. There are many old films that will never be remembered because they are bad, or worse mediocre. But it is the true classics like “Sunset Boulevard” that make it seem as if all those older films were great. This one makes it look so easy. William Holden with his calm demeanor even in the strangest of situations. Gloria Swanson playing an aging star of the silent era, who some say was modeled after her, and making it seem as if she was the greatest star of the talkies as well. Then there are all these other Hollywood greats playing themselves. And one thing Hollywood has always been good at is ridiculing itself. Despite the dark notes this film begins and ends on, there is a good deal of humor throughout. It all comes together to give the impression that they could do it all back then.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time / *** (PG-13)

Dastan: Jake Gyllenhaal
Tamina: Gemma Arterton
Nizam: Ben Kingsley
Sheik Amar: Alfred Molina
Seso: Steve Toussiant
Garsiv: Toby Kebbell
Tus: Richard Coyle
King Sharaman: Richard Pickup

Walt Disney Pictures and Jerry Bruckheimer Films present a film directed by Mike Newell. Written by Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard and Jordan Mechner. Based on the video game “Prince of Persia” created by Mechner. Running time: 116 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and action).

I love movies. This being the case, I often feel I mistake my joy in watching movies with the quality of the films themselves. This feeling usually comes over me when I’m sitting in a theater having a perfectly good time watching a movie I know most critics—or at least the ones I respect—felt was mediocre at best. That feeling came over me in the middle of watching Disney’s latest attempt at a sword and magic action adventure franchise “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time”. I thought at that moment that when I got home, I should check out what those critics had to say about why audiences should steer away from this movie. By the time the movie was over, I couldn’t have cared less what other critics felt. This is a fun movie.

Based on the popular video game “Prince of Persia”, this movie is that cinematic rarity of being a video game movie adaptation that is actually fun for audiences who don’t play video games. I don’t know anything about the video game, but the movie is a rousing adventure that sees the bonds of brotherhood both broken and bonded to make a kingdom stronger. It has high-energy action sequences, seductive leads, a twirling but cohesive plot line, some humor, and dazzling special effects. It’s everything you’d want in a summer time blockbuster.

Jake Gyllenhaal (“The Day After Tomorrow”) makes his claim as an action hero playing Prince Dastan, who was adopted as a child by King Sharaman off the streets when the king observed him fighting for what was right. As adults he and the king’s two biological sons lead the Persian army against the holy city of Alamut for allegedly supplying weapons to an enemy nation. Tus (Richard Coyle, “A Good Year”), the heir apparent, councels with his brothers before assaulting the city. Dastan desires a diplomatic approach, while Garsiv (Toby Kebbell, “RockNRolla”), Tus’s blood brother, seeks swift justice. Their Uncle Nazim (Ben Kingsley, “Shutter Island”) casts the final vote, assuring the brothers the city is supplying their enemies, which cannot be tolerated.

Garvis leads the attack on Alamut, but the cleverer Dastan disobeys orders and infiltrates the city first. This opening battle scene demonstrates director Mike Newell’s highly kinetic approach to action. In this scene, and just about every action sequence in the picture, Dastan performs a version of the modern action film trend of parkur, the art of using the geography and landscape surrounding the action for running and jumping to avoid and attack the enemy. This is the first film I’ve seen it in a film that hasn’t really brought much attention to the fact that this is parkur.

Once they’ve taken the city, Dastan discovers a strange dagger that the princess of the city, Tamina (Gemma Arterton, “Clash of the Titans”), seems very interested in protecting. The king, upon his arrival, chastises the brothers for not seeking a diplomatic solution, but accepts a gift from Dastan for gaining control over Alamut. The gift is poisoned, and Dastan is accused of murdering the king. He flees with Tamina and discovers the dagger holds a powerful secret.

There are several dazzling effects scenes to go along with credits-to-credits action. What separates this movie from many summer blockbusters, however, it that the plot and action support each other, rather than the plot only serving the action. Perhaps this should not be a surprise coming from a director like Newell, whose previous work is filled with dramas like “Enchanted April”. His one previous big budget credit is “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire”. Considering his work there and in this film, I’d say Hollywood might consider turning to him a little more often for their blockbuster fare.

“Prince of Persia” is by no means a masterpiece of cinema. It is, however, the best video game movie adaptation I’ve seen. On top of being an over the top action extravaganza, it is also a smart, plot driven movie and a whole lot of fun to boot. This one is great for kicking your feet up and shoving your hand into the popcorn bag for a big mouthful.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time | Movie Trailers

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Shrek Forever After / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Shrek: Mike Myers
Fiona: Cameron Diaz
Donkey: Eddie Murphy
Puss in Boots: Antonio Banderas
Rumpelstiltskin: Walt Dohrn
Brogan: Jon Hamm
Cookie: Craig Robinson
Gretched: Jane Lynch

DreamWorks Animation SKG presents a film directed by Mike Mitchell. Written by Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke. Running time: 93 min. Rated PG (for mild action, some rude humor and brief language).

The “Shrek” franchise of CGI animated features has provided hours of romping good times. It has never been a groundbreaking series. Some felt the irreverent take on classic fairy tales first encountered in the original “Shrek” was something spectacular. I’ve never thought any of the films were much more than clever parody, pop culture references, and enjoyable characters. Number four seems to be a good place to end. The previous sequels, “Shrek 2” and “Shrek the Third”, saw diminishing returns on cleverness and laughs. “Shrek Forever After” is the best since the first one. Going on further might be pushing it.

“Shrek Forever After” is the first in the series to break away from the theme of “being yourself,” although it doesn’t stray far. By following an “It’s a Wonderful Life” storyline, it allows Shrek to learn that everybody in his life plays a pretty big role in shaping who he is and his presence has shaped both what he loves and hates about his world. Most importantly, the things that he loves outweigh the things he doesn’t.

In the standard “Shrek” storybook introduction, we learn that before Shrek (voiced by Mike Myers, “Austin Powers”) had rescued Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz, “My Sister’s Keeper”) from the Dragon’s keep, Fiona’s parents, the King and Queen of Far Far Away, had been desperate to save her from her sentence there. They were in the process of employing the help of a trickster named Rumpelstiltskin to magically free her in exchange for their kingdom, but before they signed his contract, Fiona had been saved.

Rumpelstiltskin is ruined by his failure to gain the kingdom until he discovers Shrek in an overwhelmed state. Shrek tells the trickster about how much simpler life was when he was “just an ogre”. Rumpel sees an opportunity and offers Shrek a chance to be an ogre again, just for a day, in exchange for any other day in Shrek’s life. There are a few strings attached to the deal that ‘Stilts fails to point out, and after having a bit of fun scaring off peasants, like in the old days, Shrek realizes he’s been tricked. Somehow Rumpelstiltskin has become ruler of Far Far Away, none of Shrek’s friends know who he is, ogres are hunted and hated in the land, and Shrek must put everything right before the first light of the next day or he will cease to exist.

“Shrek Forever After” is probably the most adventurous of the series, concentrating less on poking fun at fairy tale traditions than on telling its story. The “Shrek” formula of eking out every fairy tale creature and spinning it in some clever spoof was becoming a bit tiresome with the third movie, and it’s a wise choice to focus in a different direction this time around. The cast of major characters involved in this plot is much smaller than the previous two films. Except for Rumpelstiltskin, there are few other characters introduced this time out and many from the past don’t return. This allows the writers to trim down on the subplots and focus their efforts more on the story at hand.

Donkey (Eddie Murphy, “Imagine That”) and Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas, “The Mask of Zorro”) return as the stalwart anchors in Shrek’s reality. As usual, they provide the majority of the movie’s laughs and strengthen their characters’ sense of camaraderie and chemistry. Puss, in the alternate universe that Shrek creates through his deal with Stilts, is now a fat feline who’s gotten a little soft around the edges… and round.

Although he’s not a major movie star, like the rest of the “Shrek” voice cast of characters, Walt Dohrn is the right choice to voice Rumpelstiltskin. Having been a storyboard artist and writer for some popular animated shows, he has experience in selling these characters to his directors. I read that director Mike Mitchell (“Greg the Bunny”) had a few stars read for the role, but nobody’s performance as Stilts had been as good as Dohrn’s storyboard presentation. Dohrn’s Stiltskin is something akin to an evil Pee Wee Herman, who has the ability to sound sincere and innocent with just a crack in the veneer every once and a while.

For an aging franchise, it’s nice to see a strong effort made to pick it up for its last lap. Any good runner knows you have to save a little speed for that last leg, and it seems the “Shrek” franchise has. It’s lost a little of its bite since the first installment, but that’s really what was beginning to wear for the series anyway. The filmmakers make some smart choices to focus on a fun, adventurous story above rehashing the same jokes and situations, and it all makes for one last raucous ride that everyone can enjoy. Don’t think you’ll never see any of these characters again, however, Puss gets his feature-length spin-off next.

Shrek Forever After | Movie Trailers