Monday, November 29, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 / *** (PG-13)

Harry Potter: Daniel Radcliffe
Hermione Granger: Emma Watson
Ron Weasley: Rupert Grint
Lord Voldemort: Ralph Fiennes
Bellatrix Lestrange: Helena Bonham Carter
Voice of Dobby: Toby Jones

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by David Yates. Written by Steve Kloves. Based on the novel by J.K. Rowling. Running time: 146 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense action violence, frightening images, and brief sensuality).

I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1” since seeing it. This introspection is not a surprise considering the direction the film takes. For the first time in this seven-film franchise, it seems its main trio of characters actually stop long enough to contemplate the full gravity of what is happening to them and around them. This is not what I expected from the penultimate episode of one of the most exciting franchises to find its way to the silver screen.

“The Deathly Hallows” is a dark, slow and brooding film. I don’t mean that as a criticism against it, however. For the first time since the first two movies in the series the filmmakers take the time necessary to establish the scope and seriousness of what the three main characters have gotten themselves into. Since they’re all grown up this time, the magnitude is more profoundly felt.

In many ways, this movie is more focused and intimate than any other Potter film. Although there are appearances by almost all of the adult cast members that have populated the franchise throughout its run, the supporting roles are much more abbreviated this time out. We get to spend a lot more time with just the three primary heroes, Harry, Hermione, and Ron. This is a pleasure, since we’ve watched these actors mature on screen from roughly the same ages as their characters. Only now do we really get to see them sink their teeth into these roles. Rupert Grint (“Driving Lessons”) gets a bit shortchanged here, as the plot is always abusing poor Ron.

At the opening of the film, the death of Professor Dumbledore (Michael Gambon, “The Book of Eli”) from the previous film has all the heroes on edge. There doesn’t seem to be much holding the powers of darkness at bay anymore and soon even the Ministry of Magic is taken over by Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes, “Clash of the Titans”). It doesn’t take long for Voldemort and his Death Eaters to find Harry and do some major damage to the ranks of good guys. Out of fear that more people will perish in Voldemort’s search to destroy Harry, the trio of heroes sets off to find the horcrux pieces they need to destroy Voldemort. Their adventure is bleak and nearly fruitless.

The photography by first time Potter cinematographer Eduardo Serra (“Blood Diamond”) sets the tone of the film in cold blues and overcast winter wilderness landscapes. The feeling of despair and helplessness is as inescapable for the audience as it is for the characters. Third time Potter director David Yates (“State of Play” BBC mini-series) slows the pace down to a crawl. I realized after it was over that rarely has so little occurred during a nearly three-hour film. Yet, I think this was Yates’s point. It isn’t just that the dark forces have risen to power that threatens our heroes, but the fact that nothing they try to do is successful. It’s like one of those weeks we’ve all experienced where we feel we’ve spent the whole week spinning our wheels and accomplishing nothing. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this feeling captured so well cinematically before, certainly not in a popular action/adventure series.

I imagine that many fans of the film franchise will be disappointed in this depressing entry into the series. It is, however, quite a treat to finally get into the heads of the characters. Harry and Hermione, especially, get some well-deserved screen time and emotional structuring here. At several points throughout the series Dumbledore has said to Harry that it’s unfair that so much responsibility be placed on the young man. The first part of “The Deathly Hallows” shows us exactly what Dumbledore meant with his empathetic words. I never had any doubt before that everything would turn out all right for Harry in the end. Now, I’m not so sure. Here’s hoping that somehow, the good guys can win again.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Nov. 19-25

Shadows (1959) ***½
Director/Writer: John Casavetes
Starring: Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldino, Hugh Hurd, Anthony Ray, Dennis Sallas, Tom Allen, David Pikitolow, Rupert Crosse, Davey Jones

John Casavetes’s directorial debut “Shadows” is obviously a movie that was way ahead of its time. Embracing the ideals of the French New Wave, Casavetes made an improvised movie about young adults in New York that doesn’t really tell any particular story so much as just looks at the lifestyles of these beatniks. It also tackles some pretty strong racial issues ahead of the civil rights movement. Casavete’s work and this movie in particular seems to have had a great influence on the work of directing giant Martin Scorsese, whose own directorial debut “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” is made with the same spirit and even a very similar opening scene.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) **
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Chris Columbus, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (characters)
Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward, Anthony Higgins, Susan Fleetwood, Freddie Jones

“Young Sherlock Holmes” was one of those many mid 80s movies that jumped on the bandwagon of depicting child adventurers, ala “The Goonies”. In this case, the child adventurers are the boarding school aged Sherlock Holmes and James Watson. This original story does a good job of capturing the same logical approach to slightly supernatural material that marked most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own writings about his famous detective. Unfortunately, the film is poorly paced. It never seems to find its stride as it runs on idle for far too long.

Barry Levinson, under the production guidance of Steven Spielberg, does not have the knack for compelling adventure like Spielberg. The young actors are obviously gifted, but they never really let themselves go in their characters. This drains much of the energy of the film. There are some good features, including some impressive special effects provided by the then unknown animation division of Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar. But beyond its technical achievements, there’s little of significance to be culled from this pack runner.

GlodenEye (1995) ***
Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: Jeffery Caine, Bruce Feirstein, Michael France, Ian Fleming (characters)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane, Gottfried John, Alan Cumming, Tchéky Karyo, Desmond Llewelyn, Samantha Bond

The first mission for Pierce Brosnan as 007 (and for director Martin Campbell) is more impressive than I remembered, yet still not nearly as impressive as Campbell’s “Casino Royale”. I was shocked to realize how far into the movie you get before they give you any sort of exposition at all. The don’t even really tell you just who this James Bond guy is and they certainly don’t queue you in as to what’s going on. The film reaches the 36 minute mark before the audience is even told just what this guy is who shoots guns, explodes weapons compounds, races hot women in fast cars, plays baccarat, and runs onto naval vessels without so much as an identification. Certainly anyone familiar with the Bond character doesn’t question what is going on, but really, beyond Bond’s previous exploits there are no solid clues given as to just what is going on in this movie for a good 40 minutes. I liked that.

From Paris With Love (2010) *
Director: Pierre Morel
Writers: Adi Hasak, Luc Besson
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, John Travolta, Kasi Smutniak, Richard Durden

John Travolta sure is one crazy bald badasssss. Wow! What an absurdly stupid movie!

Crazed Fruit (1956) ****
Director: Kô Nakahira
Writer: Shintarô Ishihara
Starring: Masahiko Tsugawa, Yûjirô Ishihara, Mie Kitahara, Masumi Okada

“Crazed Fruit” is an overlooked gem that examines the disenfranchised youth of post-WWII Japan. There is some wonderful social commentary contained within this surprising thriller that tests the bounds of loyalty and betrayal in a love triangle involving two brothers. The disillusioned youth culture portrayed in the film can apply to many generations of youth that feel they know everything and nobody understands them. I suspect many of the characters here grew up a little in the years following this story to become the captains of industry that would lead Japan to the top of the technological industry that would mark the country’s electronic dominance in the 80s. Of course, a couple of them don’t.

The Karate Kid (2010) ***
Director: Harald Zwart
Writers: Christopher Murphey, Robert Mark Kamen (1984 screenplay)
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang

I watched the new version of “The Karate Kid” with my boys. I was just a boy when I saw the original. It’s a long movie with a lot more drama than action. I didn’t know how it would go over, especially with the youngest whose first question about any movie is, “Is there fighting in it?” If not, he’s generally not interested. The oldest will watch pretty much anything, but with all of Netflix streaming at the flick of his Wii remote, it can sometimes be difficult to convince him to watch something that isn’t animated.

To my joy, they were enthralled. I was too, for the most part. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a remake that seemed more natural than this one. It’s fairly true to the original, it just spans it’s scope a little further by displacing the single mother and her child from Detroit to China instead of New Jersey to California. This switch is fitting, as the world has grown more global in the past twenty years. Jackie Chan is a good choice for the mentor to the boy; and the truth is, it doesn’t really matter that it should be titled “The Kung Fu Kid”. The message is the same.

Merry Madagascar (2009) ***
Director: David Soren
Writers: Tom McGrath, Eric Darnell, David Soren
Starring: Ben Stiller, Crhis Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Carl Reiner, Danny Jacobs, Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Willow Smith, Nina Dobrev, Jim Cummings

So, we’ve eaten the turkey, and now, it’s time to start with the Holiday movies. Thanks to NBC, we got things rolling with a couple of animated specials. Like the new Halloween trend of turning popular feature film franchises into holiday specials, this has worked well for the Christmas season. This Madagascar special first aired last year, and despite the fact that my children have this on DVD, we couldn’t let it air on TV without watching it. It was cute last year. It’s cute this year. That’s really about all there is to say about it. Those penguins are still funny.

Kung Fu Panda Holiday (2010) ***
Director: Tim Johnson
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie

The first new entry to this year’s batch of holiday specials comes from the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, which makes its second theatrical entry next summer. This ‘holiday special,’ which is not just a term of political correctness since the ancient Chinese setting really negates any sort of Christmas connection, does a good job of reminding audiences how charming the characters of the panda Po and his inexplicably duck father are. It’s a little surprising to see that big guns Dustin Huffman and Angelina Jolie returned their voices to the fairly small roles of their characters here. I was unable to obtain a full credits list, so I’m not sure how many original cast members returned; but they all sounded the same.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Nov. 12-18

Alice in Wonderland (2010) ***
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Linda Wooverton, Lewis Carroll (books)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall

A second viewing only confirms my original thoughts on Tim Burton’s vibrant adaptation/sequel of the classic Disney cartoon chronicling the Lewis Carol stories from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. The opening sequence in which Alice, at age 19, is asked for her hand in marriage seem much richer than the first time through because of my knowledge of the adventure on which she was about to embark. Wonderland, or Underland as it is called in this movie, is just as magical in two dimensions as it is in three. And the climactic battle, which inexplicably turns this metaphor of our transition from childhood into adulthood into an action flick for a few minutes, is still the weak point in the film.

The Swarm (1978) *
Director: Irwin Allen
Writers: Sterling Silliphant, Arthur Herzog Jr. (novel)
Starring: Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Widmark, Bradford Dillman, Richard Chamberlin, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke Astin, Slim Pickens, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda

There’s this great video going around the web right now with British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing impersonations of Michael Caine. This inspired me to put as many of Caine’s movies in my instant queue at Netflix as they had available. There were surprisingly little available considering just how many movies Caine has done during his long and fruitful career.

Caine’s done his share of duds, and this Irwin Allen disaster flick is one of them.  The disaster flick was all the rage throughout the 70s, but as the decade came to an end, they seemed to be running out of disaster ideas, resulting in this bloated bomb about a swarm of killer bees that attack a Texas town. I don’t know how they got all the great actors they have here to agree to be in a movie this bad. There are complete storylines abandoned halfway through the movie and for all the great actors involved, the performances, Caine included, are terrible.

Leaves of Grass (2010) **½
Director/Writer: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Edward Norton, Tim Blake Nelson, Susand Sarandon, Keri Russell, Melanie Lynskey, Josh Pais, Richard Dreyfuss

During my year-end wrap up last year, I said of “Adventureland”, that the filmmakers realized that a stoner movie needed to be laid back, intelligent, and funny. Well, Tim Blake Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass” is too intelligent for it’s own good, and too serious to allow the funny parts to breathe. It’s smart enough to understand that the criminal side of marijuana production can be dangerous, but not smart enough to realize that exploring that is more disturbing than entertaining.

I love how philosophical, and even theological, this movie is about our human nature, but the violence that pops up in the second half of the movie is too much for the comedy and intellectualism to survive. It isn’t brainless violence. It’s motivated and makes sense in the context of the story, but it’s just too much of a bummer, man.

Inglorious Bastards (1978) **½
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Writers: Sandro Continenza, Sergio Grieco, Romano Migliorini, Laura Toscano, Franco Marotta
Starring: Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten, Fred Williamson, Michael Pergolani, Jackie Basehart, Michel Constantin, Debra Berger, Raimond Harmstorf, Ian Bannen

So before Quentin Tarantino made his masterpiece “Ingourious Basterds”, there was an Italian-made WWII flick about rouge American soldiers on a special mission called “Inglorious Bastards”. The two flicks aren’t really related beyond the fact that Tarantino was enough of a fan of the first film to steal its title with some slight spelling alterations. He also placed a couple of its stars in cameo roles in his film.

The 70s film is an odd take on the WWII special mission flick that follows a small group of court marshaled American soldiers who escape and plan on crossing the Swiss border before they get wrapped up in a French Resistance plot to steal a Nazi weapon being transported on a train. It’s made with stranger Italian filmmaking notions than most American WWII films, an idea that is best examplified during a scene where a group of skinny dipping female Germans attack the Americans with machine guns.

Much of the filmmaking is awkward and the acting is pretty poor, but I liked the way nothing went as planned for this rouges gallery of soldiers. Its unique take on the war flick is a refreshing change from the norm, but an acquired taste at best.

Out of Sight (2010) ****
Director: Ya-Ting Yu
Writers: Ya-Ting Yu, Ya-Hsuan Yeh, Ling Chung

There’s something just so fresh and free about Anime. Through Roger Ebert’s blog I discovered this wonderful five-minute animated short by three National Taiwan University of Arts students. It’s about a blind girl who loses her Seeing Eye dog and how she finds her way from there. The word ‘magical’ is so often associated with movies that it’s lost some of it’s power, but this movie takes that magical notion of movies quite literally. It will make you feel good.

True Romance (1993) ***½
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinochet, Saul Rubinek, Michael Rapaport, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Samuel L. Jackson

I’ve never been much of a fan of the films of Tony Scott, which is kind of interesting considering that his brother, Ridley, is one of my favorite directors. But Tony has made a few great films. “Unstoppable” is his most recent, and possibly his best. I contribute the success of his other two great movies mostly to the screenplays.

Quentin Tarantino wrote “True Romance” before his breakthrough success “Pulp Fiction”. Despite its glossy direction by Scott, it’s filled with signatures of Tarantino. It has Tarantino’s incredible knack for dialogue, exemplified best by the scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, which happens to be one of my favorite scenes of all time. It has his obsession with pop culture and is filled with characters who constantly reference different areas of pop culture, including countless references to movies and comic books. Anytime there’s a TV in the background, it’s playing one of Tarantino’s favorite exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s. And, it includes Tarantino’s moral code of having even his heroes pay for their crimes to some degree. The original ending of the film had Christian Slater’s character dying in the big shootout. While this would’ve adhered to Tarantino’s moral code, Scott chose the right ending.

The submarine thriller “Crimson Tide” is Scott’s other noteworthy film. It should also be noted that Scott had a veritable who’s who of top Hollywood screenwriters contribute rewrites and punch ups for the mutiny flick, including pop culture dialogue added by Tarantino.

Silver Streak (1976) ***
Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Colin Higgins
Starring: Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, Ray Walston, Richard Kiel, Scatman Cruthers, Lucille Benson

I’ve always been a big fan of “Silver Streak”. Of course, the pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor is a thing of genius. It was always a big debate which of their collaborations was the best. “Silver Streak” was always my favorite. I understand why many people might choose “Stir Crazy”, since it funnier and Pryor doesn’t show up until about the halfway point of “Streak”. While “Streak” wasn’t the funniest of their films, it isn’t intended as a flat out comedy. I think that’s what I always liked about it. It encompasses more than one genre—comedy, mystery, romance, thriller. Heck, it even fits into the subgenre of the runaway train picture.

Sadly, this screening comes about a week after the passing of actress Jill Clayburgh. “Silver Streak” is the film I knew her best from, but her body of work spanned four decades. Her most impressive and memorable role, however, came just two years after “Streak” in Paul Mazursky’s celebrated film “An Unmarried Woman”, about a Manhattan divorcee who struggles with her new identity after her husband of 16 years leaves her for a younger woman.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2010) ****
Director: Juan José Campanella
Writers: Eduardo Sacheri (also novel), Juan José Capanella
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Fancella, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Carla Quevedo

What is the trick to a good twist ending? I think it might be a combination of two elements. First, the twist needs to be something the audience can’t see coming. All too often filmmakers believe this is all that is necessary. Second, it must be something fully supported, and even highlighted in retrospect, by major story elements that came before it. “The Secret in Their Eyes” is a movie that does the twist ending correctly. It even adds a third element, a false twist that doesn’t satisfy the first two elements coming immediately before the real twist is revealed.

But to categorize “The Secret in Their Eyes” as simply a movie with a twist is to do the movie an injustice. It exists as a great film even without it’s twist ending. It’s a wonderfully realized character drama about a close group of colleagues and how they depend on each other as saviors and unrequited lovers that each needs and is to one another. This is packaged in an engrossing legal drama with some thriller elements mixed in. I suppose being a great movie besides having a twist ending is another element necessary for a great twist ending.

Temple Grandin (2010) ****
Director: Mick Jackson
Writers: Christopher Monger, Merritt Johnson, Temple Grandin (books “Emergence” & “Thinking in Pictures”), Margaret Scarciano (book “Emergence”)
Starring: Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara

I want a squeeze machine of my own. If this movie weren’t so good, I might just leave the review at that one line, but the filmmakers deserve more praise than that.

I was absolutely fascinated by this movie. I’ve seen “Rainman”. Until now, that was the extent of my knowledge on autism. The notions in that film are probably just as misguided as the doctor’s who originally diagnosed Temple as autistic. Mick Jackson’s direction does an amazing job of visualizing how Temple’s autism works. The performances by Claire Danes and Julia Ormond, as Temple and her mother respectively, are powerful and perfect. The writing draws you in to everything this bold film has to cover. I even cared about how ranchers handle cows, something that’s never even crossed my mind in more than ten years living and working around cattle farms and feed houses. Just in terms of understanding people that seem different to the norm, this film is a must see. I hope it’s taught in schools. Understanding is the great gift we have as humans. It’s too bad we’re so bad at it as a herd. This is a movie that can teach us understanding of how we work, as well as how cattle work.

Agora (2010) ***
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Writers: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gill
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Rupert Evans, Sami Samir, Michael Lonsdale

“Agora” is a thinking man’s historical costume epic. It has more brains than your average sand and sandal picture. Throughout most of it those brains point out just how brainless man has been (and still is for the most part) when it comes to religious fanaticism. The violence all these people justify inflicting on others in the name of their Gods is sickening. Rachel Weisz’s librarian and scientist is a breath of fresh air amongst the growing religious animosity around her. Of course, they’re just going to have to victimize her for that. She’s so uninterested in the religion-based politics unfolding around her, it might be easy to say that she brings her fate upon herself. Easy for those who really are responsible for her fate to say, anyway. 

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Megamind / *** (PG)

Featuring the voice talents of:
Megamind: Will Ferrell
Roxanne Ritchi: Tina Fey
Minion: David Cross
Tighten: Jonah Hill
Metro Man: Brad Pitt

DreamWorks Animation SKG presents a film directed by Tom McGrath. Written by Alan J. Schoolcraft and Brent Simons. Running time: 96 min. Rated PG (for action and some language).

Earlier this year I reviewed the movie “Despicable Me”. It was about a super villain who ended up being pretty good at heart. I enjoyed it, but I may have been too easy on it. It was cute. It was fun. But, it really seemed to just be going through the CGI family animation motions. Now, comes “Megamind” in that Hollywood tradition of giving audiences two tastes—from a different studio, of course—of the same basic premise. However, “Megamind” seems to tap into something that “Despicable Me” was lacking. They both have heart, but “Megamind” also seems to contain a big heaping dollop of humanity.

The titular Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell, “The Other Guys”) is a super villain to Metro City’s champion Metro Man (Brad Pitt, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”). This is his story. Much like Superman, Megamind is sent by his parents to Earth from another planet when he is an infant. Along the way, another baby, who will grow up to be Metro Man, knocks him off course, and their destinies as arch rivals are set. It is during their budding rivalry when we see the film’s first hints of its humanity. Megamind’s failures in childhood are funny, but they’re also a little sad. This element of depth brings the material closer to the audience and allows us to connect more with Megamind’s story.

In adulthood, Megamind’s rivalry with Metro Man has blossomed into all the typical superhero/villain patterns that are well known to us through countless movies and comic books. Megamind kidnaps the same victim every time—hapless reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tine Fey, “30 Rock”). Roxanne has gotten so used to the routine that she feels no fear in any of Megamind’s overly complex traps. She takes great pleasure in pointing out to the not-so-master villain that Metro Man always thwarts his schemes. But what would happen if somehow Megamind won, just once?

The crux of Megamind’s story is the answer to that question, because if the villain ever defeats the hero, then their story is over. The villain fights to the death while the hero always lets the villain live to return another day. Right? The success of the movie lies with that one broken rule of the superhero/villain dichotomy. If the villain wins, then he’s got nothing left to live for. Since Megamind has no one to try to defeat anymore, he begins to feel and yearn for other things again.

After his inadvertent win, Megamind is lost without a nemesis. His lifelong sidekick, Minion (David Cross, “Kung Fu Panda”), a fish for whom Megamind has constructed a robot gorilla body, tries desperately to keep his friend in the criminal mind. The two concoct a plan to make their own superhero by injecting Roxanne’s cameraman with Metro Man’s DNA transforming him into Tighten (Jonah Hill, “Horton Hears a Who”). Like all of Megamind’s plans, this one backfires, as Tighten seems more inclined to evil than good. Meanwhile, Megamind slides further from villainy as he begins to fall in love with Roxanne.

Director Tom McGrath (“Madagascar”) and his screenwriters have a great deal of fun flipping the notions of good guys and bad guys. It appears as if Megamind was possibly never meant to be a criminal, which might explain why he was so terrible at being bad in the first place. They also add a lot of little comedy details that are never explained, such as Megamind’s habit of mispronouncing certain words. They poke fun at many superhero movie icons and conventions, including Marlon Brando’s role as Superman’s father in “Superman: The Movie”.

Like “Despicable Me”, “Megamind” doesn’t reach much higher than flip-flopping the conventions of the “bad guy” to turn him into a good guy. It does, however, reach much deeper and is a better movie because of it. My wife actually turned to me at one point during the movie and said, “How could I have known I’d need tissues at this movie?” That’s a good sign, even with a cartoon comedy.

Special Note: I’ve noticed a disturbing trend with a good deal of CGI “family films” of late. In an effort to appeal to children’s parents, filmmakers are including more and more classic rock songs in movies that are clearly aimed at children. This one has several heavy metal songs that were popular when I was in high school, including songs by artists like AC/DC, Ozzy Osbourne, and Guns N’ Roses. While I do appreciate the use of popular music in these films, sometimes the lyrics of these songs are not appropriate for children. The inclusion of these songs might be intriguing for the parents, but I’m not sure a five-year-old should really go around singing about the virtues of being on the “Highway to Hell”. I’m not trying to be a prude, but prudence is generally a good thing, especially where children are concerned.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Unstoppable / **** (PG-13)

Frank: Denzel Washington
Will: Chris Pine
Connie: Rosario Dawson
Galvin: Kevin Dunn
Inspector Werner: Kevin Corrigan
Ned: Lew Temple
Dewey: Ethan Suplee

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tony Scott. Written by Mark Bomback. Running time: 98 min. Rated PG-13 (for sequences of action and peril, and some language).

When I first heard about “Unstoppable”, the fifth feature film collaboration between star Denzel Washington and director Tony Scott, I didn’t think much of it. Their best film together was their first, the submarine thriller “Crimson Tide”; and they’ve had diminishing quality returns ever since. When I discovered it was a runaway train picture, I thought, didn’t they just do a train flick with “The Taking of Pelham 123”? When I saw the previews, I thought that it looked even more preposterous than the totally testosterone driven “Runaway Train” from 1985.

Then, the reviews started coming in. They were surprisingly positive for a Tony Scott movie and for what appeared to be merely a popcorn thriller. Even then I was surprised to find “Unstoppable” to be one of the most efficient, exciting, and poignant thrillers I’ve seen in years.

Claiming to be “based on true events”, not that it matters, Scott and screenwriter Mark Bomback (“Live Free or Die Hard”) model their film on the basic disaster flick structure. First, they set up the crisis; in this case a train yard employee loses control of a train he is moving when he gets out to change a track switch. As this situation develops we are introduced to several unrelated characters, who all end up becoming contributing factors to the developing crisis before it all comes to a head. Wisely, Bomback chooses to hold back the cast of characters to the bare essentials, unlike the ridiculous Irwin Allen disaster flicks of the 70s.

We meet the heroes. Frank (Washington) is the veteran train driver, who is saddled with a new conductor, Will (Chris Pine, “Star Trek”), for a day of on site training. Will is dealing with a troubled marriage along with carrying the burden of being the lower paid rookie who has been recruited by corporate to replace the higher paid veterans before they reach retirement age. We meet Connie (Rosario Dawson, “Seven Pounds”), the dispatcher who is the only one who seems to realize that their “coaster” train is a major threat.

We also meet Galvin (Kevin Dunn, “Transformers”), vice president of train operations, the man who makes all the wrong decisions. Ned (Lew Temple, “Waitress”) is the grease monkey who ends up providing a key to the resolution of the crisis and would threaten to steal the show were he allowed more screen time. Finally, there’s railroad Inspector Werner, a character that in a lesser movie would be used to provide false tension to the events by threatening to close everything down and have everyone’s jobs. Here he’s handled with intelligence by the filmmakers and by actor Kevin Corrigan (“Big Fan”). He provides valuable insight to the developing events including the information that some of the train’s cargo is a highly toxic chemical. He provides an anchor for everyone who is trying desperately to do the right things.

This material is perfect for Scott’s kinetic direction and quick cut editing style. The events begin almost innocuously; with the initial loss of control over the train presented as something that happens occasionally. Scott keeps the multiple storylines of the characters shuffling at a compelling rate until the runaway train angle really gets under way. The tension felt between the two stars is typical of this type of story, but handled well with each character biting a little too hard at the other at some point. These seem like real emotions they’re dealing with. And, it doesn’t hurt that nobody’s going to complain about having to watch either Washington or Pine.

What really separates this material from the standard action thriller, however, is its commentary on our current economic climate. This is a movie made for and about the recession. The conflict between the two heroes involves the fact that Frank has been forced into early retirement with half benefits so the company can make room for cheaper inexperienced labor like Will. The main reason Galvin makes all the wrong decisions is that the board makes them by committee with more considerations for profit loss than what will actually work. There’s one scene where one of the biggest decisions on how to handle the crisis is made by an executive from a golf course while Galvin ignores the experienced advice he receives from Connie. Of course, the ideas of the blue-collar workers would lead to the safest and best resolution, while the moneymen end up costing everyone.

Some viewers may not see the economic metaphor, and therein lies the movie’s overall power. It works as both kinds of movies. Some will just enjoy a thrilling popcorn tosser. Others will see their own troubles coming up with their monthly mortgage on screen. “Unstoppable” is a classic use of great genre entertainment as social commentary that is filled with the spirit that imbues Americans’ lives today. Perhaps even the title, “Unstoppable,” is meant to imply something about our American spirit as well. Let’s hope so.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Penny Thoughts: November 1-11

Babies (2010) ***½
Director: Thomas Blamés
Writers: Thomas Blamés (adaptation), Alain Chabat (idea)
Starring: Ponijao, Bayar, Mari, Hattie
Babies are adorable. This is an arguable point, but for many they just are. The new documentary “Babies” proves that they are at least as, if not more, adorable than a bunch of penguins. Seeming to follow in the documentary trend that started its most recent boom in popularity with “March of the Penguins”, “Babies” sets out to prove that it isn’t just your own children that are adorable, but others as well. It doesn’t matter where or how they are raised, their inscrutable insistence on exploring and growing makes them irresistible. And from someone who is pretty much only impressed by his own children, it makes a pretty good case. Looking at four different children during their first year in four different cultures, “Babies” shows that infants just can’t be held back.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) ***
Director: Ji-woon Kim
Writers: Ji-woon Kim, Min-suk Kim
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung, Je-mun Yun, Seung-su Ryu
“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is a slam bang shoot ‘em up western. Who cares if it’s Korean? In fact, since the most visually exciting cinema at the moment is all coming from South Korea, I’d say that’s an asset. Set in late 1800s Manchuria, like it really even matters, this western homage takes a large queue from the classic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, with a smidgeon of “The Road Warrior” thrown in for one big climactic chase sequence. But it’s all done with a much more lighthearted spirit than those heavy lifters.

The great comic actor Kang-ho Song takes the primary focus of the plot as The Weird of the titular triumvirate. Like the Sergio Leone western, the trio of the title is seeking a treasure. The Good and the Weird are at odds with each other, but often work together in their efforts to prevent the Bad from getting to the booty first. There’s a great deal of comedy milked from the strange situations the Weird finds himself in. And there’s even more action. Looking at a movie like this, you begin to wonder what happened to the spirit of American cinema. Korea is now where it’s at.

28 Up (1985) ****
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, Peter Davies, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker
In the fourth installment of Michael Apted’s ambitious “Up” documentary series, which follows a group of British citizens throughout their lives with an episode every seven years, we find the children we met at age seven now at age 28. It seems that universally throughout the subjects that 28 is the age where all their life illusions have been tempered into realism. Gone are all these people’s mere dreaming of what they will be. Some have achieved exactly what they said they would at age seven. Most have fallen somewhat shorter than their childhood imaginations carried them, and one seems to be teetering on the abyss. For the most part, they seem happy with their lives despite the fact that most are not where they once imagined. As with each episode of this fascinating documentary exercise, I find myself longing to know where these people find themselves at our next visit with them.

Louie, season 1 (2010) ****
Director/Writer: Louis CK
Starring: Louis CK
I don’t usually review television shows here, but I’d like to make an exception for the wonderful, funny, poignant, surprising, and genuinely original FX series “Louie”. It’s based on the life of its creator, stand up comic Louis CK. It’s been called Seinfeldian in its stylistic approach, but Louis CK really sculpts the format to fit the messages he’s trying to convey. Unlike Seinfeld, it isn’t a comedy about nothing. It’s more about being a divorced single father than anything else.

Most episodes are broken into three distinct segments interwoven with each other. There are stand up segments of Louie at work in small New York comedy clubs. Some episodes have cold opens with very strange conversations. The meat of each episode is usually slice of life stories that involve subjects like dating, fatherhood, sex, play dates, school volunteering, growing old, and God. The subjects of each episode generally start out as awkward situational comedy, but Louie frequently faces these comic situations with a good grain of seriousness that suggests these aren’t mere jokes to him. These issues are things that really matter to Louie. They often strike fairly universal cords and rarely go down expected roads.

Winter’s Bone (2010) ****
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Daniel Woodrell (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser
“Winter’s Bone” is so good, it makes me proud to be a Missourian. That’s saying something, coming from a Mainer through and through. It tells the tale of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl taking care of her younger siblings in the Ozark Mountains. Her mother is mentally ill and her father has disappeared after a run in with the law. If he misses a court date, the house he used for bonding will be taken away from Ree. The threat of homelessness is hardly the only obstacle Ree has to face in her life, but it could make keeping her siblings together impossible. She must find her father, a difficult thing to do in an extended family that would rather leave Ree to fend for herself than reveal the truth about her father’s whereabouts.

“Winter’s Bone” is at once a tense backwoods noir and a heart wrenching drama about survival at the poverty level. Ree has a neighbor that does what she can for her, but they aren’t much better off. She has a good friend that talks to her about the realities of sacrifice necessary in marriage. One such sacrifice is possibly not being there for a friend in need. Her uncle, John Hawkes in a career defining performance, shares the tough love adopted by most of the extended family, but since he’s in almost as much hot water with them as his brother seems to be, he shows mercy on Ree. For that matter, the young Jennifer Lawrence shows as much gumption and determination in her performance as Ree as the character shows in her resolve to save the shabby but love driven life of her and her siblings.

Splice (2010) ***
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac
I’ve got mixed feelings about this sci-fi horror thriller. On the one hand, it’s a very well made genre picture that ponders many moral quandaries about science and motherhood. On the other hand, I think they could’ve made a better movie out of this same subject matter without many changes.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley put in two solid performances as scientists who create a new lifeform in order to extract genes for curing human ailments. However, they get caught up in the whole paternal implications of what was intended to remain a scientific experiment. Complicating things further is the experiment itself, which prefers to be seen as a lifeform more so than a science project.

The middle act is a tough sell, as the characters are forced into some betrayals that I don’t feel the screenplay fully earns. But the brains behind the script are too hard to deny as producing a movie worth seeing. As you might expect, there are some scares that the filmmakers earn very well. It’s far better than the similar in atmosphere “Species”.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010) **
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Writers: Jonas Frykberg, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Michalis Koutsogiannakis, Yasmine Garbi, Georgi Staykov
“The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” is one of my favorite films of the year. Going into this sequel, I knew many critics were disappointed with it. This did not surprise me, since the first one was so good, the second couldn’t possibly match it. I was shocked to find that the difference was more than just a let down. The second is just poor filmmaking. It drags. It drops entire subplots. Its twists are simplistic, yet reached in far too much complexity. To even call this one a pale shadow of the first is giving too much credit to it. It is no surprise that this one was made by an entirely different creative team. I’m shaking my head in frustration. Hopefully, they fix this one in the Hollywood version.

Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon (2010) ***
Director: John Puglisi
Writers: Peter Steinfeld, Jeff Snow (story), David Moses Pimentel (story), Ken Morrissey (story), Johane Matte (story), Aimée Marsh, Cressida Cowell (book series)
Starring: Craig Ferguson, Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, TJ Miller, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler
It’s DVD time for a major animated box office success, and so we get the obligatory animated short to entice shoppers with promises of something they didn’t see in theaters. On the DVD release of “How to Train Your Dragon” we get “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon”, a quite humorous short that answers many questions we never thought to ask of the feature film, including, “How did Gobber lose his tooth?” and “What was that awesome looking skeleton dragon shown in the book of dragons?” Much the same as the short that accompanied DreamWorks’s “Kung Fu Panda”, the producers save some money by making half the movie in a traditional hand drawn animation style (although likey still produced by a computer) to avoid the time consuming 3D rendering necessary for the current popular CGI style of the feature film. It’s still a pretty good little flick, though.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) ***
Director: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Writers: William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders, Cressida Cowell (novel)
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig
As the year has progressed, the good reputation of “How to Train Your Dragon” has only grown. Generally though of as the best 3D experience since “Avatar”, home video brings “Dragon” without the 3D format, but with the same good story of finding your own place in the world and visuals that are just as stunning in only two dimensions.

Second viewings often bring new perceptions to good movies and this time around this disabilities angle of the story really struck me. There’re the fairly obvious mirrored disabilities in Hiccup and Toothless in the final scene of the film, but even before Hiccup is physically handicapped, his social handicaps present a very large hurdle he must overcome. There’s this illusion that such situations require a personality shift, something all but unheard of in real life but fairly easy when a script is involved. It’s nice the way the screenplay here embraces Hiccup’s personality flaws, instead of disregarding them to present us with a more typical hero. I really like how he has to struggle to articulate his feelings for Toothless when pressed by Astrid. This is the best animated film I’ve seen this year.

Read my original review here.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 / *** (R)

Kristi: Sprague Grayden
Daniel: Brian Boland
Ali: Molly Ephraim
Hunter: William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto
Katie: Katie Featherston
Micah: Micah Sloat

Paramount Pictures presents a film directed by Tod Williams. Written by Michael R. Perry. Based on the motion picture “Paranormal Activity” by Oren Peli. Running time: 91 min. Rated R (for some language and brief violent material).

The first “Paranormal Activity” was one of the best movies of last year. It was also one of the scariest films I’ve seen, playing on our fears of the unknown and unexplained, and the childhood notion that there’s something evil lurking about your house in the dark. The fact that you can’t see it makes it more frightening, more real. Now, along comes “Paranormal Activity 2” only a year later, made with the thinking that there’s nothing like replicating success cheaply and quickly, before your audience loses interest.

The first film proposed to tell its story through a video camcorder purchased by a newly wed couple who suspect strange things are happening in their suburban condo. The entire story is told with the single camera, usually with one of the two characters doing the filming. Comparisons to the hand-held horror phenomenon that ushered in the era of digital camera filmmaking, “The Blair Witch Project”, were abundant. The difference between that movie and “Paranormal Activity” was that the newer movie provided a palpable threat to its characters that had a definitive physical impact to go along with the psychological terror they felt. Another difference was that PA left me lying awake all night wondering at every creak I heard.

PA2 is a unique sequel in that it acts as both a prequel and a sequel to the events depicted in the first film. It retains the digital camera perspective technique from the first film but widens its scope. This time we meet a family—mother, father, teenage daughter and newborn son.  After what appears to be a break-in the family installs a security system that takes the camera out of the handheld realm and allows multiple shots of goings on throughout the entire house.

After a while, it becomes clear that what is happening in the house is more than mere break-ins. I liked how much time director Tod Williams (“The Door in the Floor”) commits to establishing the family life here. This works in two ways. It allows the audience to get to know the characters well before we see them in an extraordinary situation. It also lulls us into the same sense of security the family feels in their own home.

Each night depicted in the film begins with the same security camera shots of the front door, the swimming pool, the living room and the foyer. What is different each time? Is anything? Will anything ever be different? These establishing shots get under your skin because you know something will eventually be different. Something is bound to change. Williams resists giving up too much. He does use the pool shot to work in a fairly humorous incident with the automatic pool vacuum cleaner.

Once it is established that what is going on in the house is quite sinister, the shocks start coming in quick succession. I wouldn’t think of spoiling any of the scares found here, but I will say they are less mysterious than the ones presented in the original film. They do surprise and they made me jump on more than one occasion, but they are also more specifically focused on what we already know has happened in the first film. There’re fewer questions concerning what exactly is happening, which lessens the effect of the fear created. There’s less attempt by the characters to try and understand what is going on with more assumption on the parts of the filmmakers that everyone in the movie and watching the movie knows what’s going on.

All this dilutes the impact of the horror to some degree, but it all still has the desired effect of making you grip your armrest more than you might be conscious of. The main difference between this movie and the original is that this one tries to scare you while spending an equal amount of time building the mythology of the paranormal universe that it inhabits. The first one just tried to scare you. This one wont’ disappoint people who want to relive those scares of the first, but since it tries to add a little more, it yields just a little bit less.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Horror Thoughts 2010: Final Weekend

Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride (2005) ***½
Directors: Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
Writers: John August, Caroline Thompson, Pamela Pettler, Tim Burton (characters), Carlos Grangel (characters)
Starring: Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Emily Watson, Tracey Ullman, Paul Whitehouse, Joanna Lumley, Albert Finney, Richard E. Grant, Christopher Lee, Michael Gough

It’s no surprise that Tim Burton’s stop-motion animated “Corpse Bride” looks amazing in HD. Burton has an amazing vision in his films and for stop-motion in particular. Even many of his live-action films have a stop-motion look to them in their production design. Of course, one of the most impressive choices Burton makes in his production design for “Corpse Bride” is the decision to present the world of the living as a drab, monotone world of blues and grays, while the underworld of the dead is filled with vibrant pastels and neon colors. This is a beautiful film with a fine appreciation for the fun in the macabre that fuels all of our love for Halloween. This is a movie that can be cherished.

The Lovely Bones (2009) **
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Alice Sebold (novel)
Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli, Rose McIver

“The Lovely Bones” was the great disappointment of last year’s awards season. Is it as bad as it’s reputation? No, but it’s not good. Cinematically, it’s a well-made film, but many of the story devices just don’t work. First off, it’s very difficult to pull off the whole narrated by a dead person premise. William Holden pulls it off in “Sunset Boulevard”. I can’t think of another movie right off the top of my head that does this well. Unfortunately, Saoirse Ronan’s precise voice-over work here only highlights the weaknesses of the script that uses many of the same lines and set ups in repetition to little effect, whatever effect could be desired by this storytelling technique.

Director Peter Jackson produces some stunning visual sequences in the girl’s afterlife, despite using a similar tower spotlight threat to his “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Unfortunately, the girl’s journey after death isn’t half as interesting as the fate of her killer. Every time the movie breaks from her family’s search for the killer to return to the dead girl it’s a disappointment for the audience. It doesn’t help that the killer seems like he should be the police’s most obvious suspect, yet they never really investigate him. The story isn’t really about the police investigation, but shouldn’t there be some reason why they rule him out for so long?

I should probably stop now, because “The Lovely Bones” is one of those movies that look better than it actually is and just collapses under any form of scrutiny. Continuing to try and figure it out will only make me more disappointed with it.

What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? (1962) ***½
Director: Robert Aldrich
Writers: Lukas Heller, Henry Farrell (novel)
Starring: Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Victor Buono, Maidie Norman

The most surprising thing about Robert Adlrich’s “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” is that it was made in 1962. It seems somehow like a movie made from a younger Hollywood than that, yet a younger Hollywood couldn’t have made a movie this biting with a pair of pitch perfect performances by two old Hollywood legends. Joan Crawford was Mommie Dearest, but hers is a very sympathetic role here next to Bette Davis’s nasty, nasty insane Baby Jane.

While not an all out horror flick, really, what’s more scary than family. The two play sisters locked in a lifelong battle of one upmanship. The final battle ground was set years earlier when an automobile accident involving Baby Jane left her sister without the use of her legs and physically dependant on Jane. Their psychological game against each other is wicked and intense and provides a powerful cinematic relationship. What a treasure to watch two masters of the craft really going at each other.

Leprechaun (1993) ½*
Director/Writer: Mark Jones
Starring: Jennifer Aniston, Warwick Davis, Ken Olandt, Mark Holton, Robert Gorman

Watching “Leprechaun” just a day after “The Lovely Bones” makes the latter seem like a masterpiece. Of course, “Friends” star Jennifer Aniston infamously got her first starring role in this ultra-indie schlock, but really you can’t blame her for taking this job. She didn’t know she was about to be cast in the most popular sitcom of the ‘90s. The real question is, was Warwick Davis really so hard up for work to return to this dreck five more times, including a trip into space and two times into the ‘hood? Does being a little person make you immune to shame? I don’t think so. Shame on you, Wicket! Bad Ewok!

The Haunting in Connecticut (2009) **½
Director: Peter Cornwell
Writers: Adam Simon, Tim Metcalfe
Starring: Kyle Gallner, Virginia Madsen, Elias Koteas, Amanda Crew, Martin Donovan, Ty Wood, Sophi Knight

Well, I couldn’t end Horrorfest on the atrocity that is “Leprechaun”, so, after all the trick or treating on Halloween night, I settled down to a good ghost story. Well, maybe not entirely good, but a ghost story. “The Amityville Horror”… I mean “The Haunting in Connecticut” tells another ghost story based on real events. Different real events than the superior “Amityville”, but they might as well have been the same, since the movie doesn’t really tell a story anything like the one it’s supposedly based on.

It’s made well enough I suppose, but to continue the comparison with “Amityville”, it plays things out just a little too neatly. Sure the family gets out in the end of Amity, but it’s a messy ending. This movie feels like it pulled its punch in the end. It spends too much time giving you shocker moments, and not enough giving you real ones. The ghosts aren’t shy, even in the beginning of the picture; and considering the plot’s twist, they should be. “Poltergeist” might make for a good comparison piece as well, because they share similar false endings. But again, “Poltergeist” is messy, and this one’s just a little too neat.