Sunday, December 13, 2009

Invictus (Review)

     I was anxiously awaiting this one.  It had all the right elements to be great: a truly incredible, true story, Clint Eastwood directing, and Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon starring.  It's also a sports story about rugby, but, nothing's perfect.

     "Invictus" is the true story about how a newly elected Nelson Mandela tried to bring some unity to a fractured South Africa by promoting the national rugby team, who were hated by native Africans and loved by the white Afrikaners, and pushing them to win the World Cup.  Morgan Freeman delivers a stellar and convincing performance as Mandela.  Matt Damon co stars as the captain of the South African Springboks, (Spring Buck) François Pienaar, a man who realizes that his team can overcome its image of a hated symbol of apartheid and can help to unite and build a new South Africa

     I think Eastwood milked the ending tension a bit with the slow motion grunting and multiple cutaways, but other than that, "Invictus" is a truly great film.  It manages to tell a story happening amidst great social turmoil and in a land of incredible racial hatred and injustice without bludgeoning you to death that fact.  Instead, "Invictus" is about finding the inner strength to accomplish what must be done, no matter how difficult the task, its about being the 'captain of' your 'unconquerable soul,' it's about what motivates people to achieve greatness and where leaders find the inspiration to lead.  Mandela manages to find strength in a poem, and he instills that strength in François who leads him team to greatness and inspires them to achieve for a greater cause than just rugby. 

     Even if you don't like sports movies, and I generally don't, "Invictus" is an inspirational true story that is well worth seeing.

Brothers (Review)

     The previews do not do this film justice.  I did not expect such depth or power from what seemed like a fairly simple tale of war and family.  Unfortunately, I did expect better character development and more closure from this, or any, film, and I was disappointed there.

     The storyline for "Brothers," even without giving away too much, is difficult to sum up in one or two sentences.  Tobey Maguire, who gets to really show his range as an actor, plays a marine who is shot down and captured in Afghanistan.  He spends months as a captive before American forces find him.  Meanwhile, back home, his wife, played by Natalie Portman, his two young daughters, his ex con brother, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, and his parents, all believe that he died in the crash and life goes on, as much as it can.  Portman grieves, the girls get to know their 'uncle Tommy,' Gyllenhaal's character, better, and Gyllenhaal (seems to) grow and mature as he and his father reconcile somewhat.  Maguire's character eventually returns home and can not come to terms with what happened while he was being help captive.  This, of course, effects his relationship with his wife, daughters, parents, and his brother and life slowly begins to break down.  

     This all seems rather standard and predictable, I know, however, the characters, who are not what you would expect from this kind of story, make "Brothers" compelling and engaging, right up until the end, which happens far too suddenly and lacks the closure necessary for a story with this much emotional investment.  Gyllenhaal's character self destructs just before the end and foreshadows the less than satisfying ending to come.  'Uncle Tommy' seemed to be developing quite well for most of the movie, then, just before the end, we discover that his character hasn't really grown or learned anything at all, and all the emotional investment we had in him is wasted.  Shortly after that, the film builds to a climax, and then fails to deliver and we are left wondering, 'So, what's next?'  There was a moment very near the end where I though we were going to get the point of the film, which was something about brotherhood, but it's a fleeting moment and far too much of the movie is concerned with Maguire's character's dark secret for this to simply be about the bond between brothers.

     "Brothers" had a lot of potential and came very close to being a powerful and poignant film, but falls apart in the end leaving far too many loose ends and abandoning it's characters to an almost obsessive quest for an answer to the question, 'What happened in Afghanistan?'  The revelation of which is not a surprise to the audience and fails to resolve anything.  It actually makes you feel that an ending is coming, but the only thing after that is darkness and credits. 

P.S.  I'd also like to say that I don't know what a good ending for "Brothers" might have been.  Everything I can think of is either cliche or undeserving of the rest of the film, and maybe that's why it seems to fall apart.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Everybody's Fine (Review)

     Despite a weeks worth of less than stellar reviews, I still wanted to see "Everybody's Fine."  I'm glad I did.

     "Everybody's Fine" is a family drama starring Robert De Niro as a recent widower who's looking forward to all four of his adult children coming home to visit.  When they all cancel on him, he, being retired and having nothing better to do, decides to go see them.  From there, we see three out of his four children and their perfect, or less than perfect, lives, and De Niro's character begins to piece together that everybody is not fine, despite his children's best efforts to hide the truth from him.  Drew Barrymore, Kate Beckinsale, and Sam Rockwell all deliver good performances as the family hiding something from dad and De Niro delivers his usual best.  (De Niro is a legend for a reason and shines in just about anything.)

     One might expect a lot of teary eyed melodrama or each member of the family to be picture perfect on the outside but hide dark and terrible secrets in a drama like this, and I am pleased to say that this is not the case.  Sure, the kids are not telling dad everything, but this is part of the tension.  They've spent their lives trying to make dad proud and confiding in mom, and that's gone now, but that's the story; a much more true to life drama about a family finding a new dynamic to exist in when the old one is gone. De Niro's character isn't fine either, nobody's fine, but, by the end, we discover that, while nobody's perfect, everybody actually is, fine.  (More or less.)

     I enjoyed "Everybody's Fine" for the same reason I enjoyed "The Big Chill;" it's a slice of life, something that is rooted in reality and is not over dramatized.  I can see this happening.  It happens everyday.  Life goes on, you can't achieve perfection, but you can be happy, and that's, ultimately, what's important.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Blind Side (Review)

     Once the crowds cleared a bit and I didn't have to stand in line just to see a story I already knew, I went to go see "The Blind Side," and I must say, I was pleasantly surprised.

Please note that because this is a true story, I may give away more of the story than I normally would.  I feel that it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that Amelia doesn't quite make it all the way around or that the boat hit an iceberg and sinks in the end, so I tend to take a few more liberties with the review than I normally would. 

     "The Blind Side" is the true story of NFL left tackle Michael Oher, and how a kind family was willing to take him in when he had almost nothing, provided him a home, and allowed him to become a member of their family.  Oher is played by relative newcomer Quinton Aaron, whose subtle and withdrawn manner capture perfectly the slowly unfolding layers of Oher as he starts to become less of a stranger and more a part of a family.  Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw play Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, the eventual parents to Oher.  Sandra Bullock has a bit of trouble pulling off a convincing, southern accent, but still does a great job as a powerful and headstrong mother to her family, Oher included.  She reminds me a bit of Julia Roberts in "Charlie Wilson's War," but not nearly as bad.  (Sorry Julia, but that was a poor rendition of an aging, Texas debutant.)  McGraw plays a much more convincing, let's say, resident of Mississippi, (redneck!) but he is playing to his strengths.(I should talk)  All kidding aside, McGraw does deliver a strong performance, but the show is stolen by Jae Head, who plays the Touhy's youngest son, S.J.  Head lends a much needed comic relief to what could have been a far too intense movie. 

     There isn't a lot more to say about "The Blind Side."  It's an incredible true story and a feel good movie, so you'll pretty much know what to expect going into it even if you don't know Michael Oher.  What surprised me about the movie was the way it didn't stoop to a lot of sappy, saccharine moments or try to pound you with a message or a moral.  It simply tells the true story of a good person, who needed help, and some other good people who were willing to help.  From that, a young man, practically homeless, became one of the NFL's most promising left tackles.  The cynic in me didn't want to see this film, for fear of it being a boring, pandering, morality tale.  It wasn't and I'm glad I saw it.  You'll be glad you saw it too.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Rustlers' Rhapsody (Review)

     "Rustlers' Rhapsody" is one of those forgotten gems from the 80's.  A western spoof that doesn't take its self too seriously and is completely conscious of its self, but, at the same time, still works as a movie and manages to be very funny.

     The concept here is simple, and is spelled out in narration at the beginning of the film.  What if all those serial westerns of the 40's and 50's were done today.  (And by 'today,' I mean the mid 80's.)  After a quick shift from black and white to color, we get a spoof of those old westerns, and the later spaghetti westerns, with some classic elements, like the good guy always wins, he never draws first, and he never kills anyone, he just disarms them, and a modern look at a lot of those old western cliches, like the way the good guy dressed, and how every single western was, pretty much, identical, (which is why they're called cliches) plus some added modern elements, like a bit of sex and drug (root) use.  The characters are all western cliches as well.  Tom Berenger plays Rex O'Herlihan, The Singing Cowboy, (the what?) G.W. Bailey is the town drunk and Rex's sidekick, Marilu Henner is the prostitute with a heart of gold, (who doesn't actually sleep with her clients) Andy Griffith is the cattle baron (bad guy), and Fernando Rey is a spaghetti western-esque railroad tycoon.  (Another bad guy!)  There's even a second good guy, played by Patrick Wayne, leaving everyone to wonder, what happens when two good guys fight each other. 

     Berenger and Bailey compliment each other well and Bailey's character provides some great comic relief to the stiff and proper Rex O'Herlihan, stereotypical western good guy, but the real star of this movie is the screenplay.  Every western movie cliche is picked out and dissected.  Nothing is left unexamined and every one is turned on it's ear in ways that should have been obvious while we were all watching those old westerns.  Maybe they were a bit obvious, but we were able to forgive them because the good guy always won and we always knew where we stood with them.  

     "Rustlers' Rhapsody" may not be as well known or have the star power "Blazing Saddles," but it is a unique and very funny western comedy/spoof.  I can safely recommend it to anyone, but especially to anyone who fondly remembers a time when movies cost a nickle, Hopalong Cassidy always got his man, and you could sit through both showings of a double feature, twice. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox (Review)

     If you've seen one Wes Anderson's movie, you've basically seen them all, and "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is no different.  I already knew this about Anderson's movies, and I wasn't going to bother with "Fantastic Mr. Fox," but I finally saw one too many reviews and articles lauding Anderson for his genius and wonderful, quirky style and claiming "Fantastic Mr. Fox" to be Oscar worthy material; I had to see the obvious for myself and write an honest review.

     "Fantastic Mr. Fox" is a stop motion animation film by director and writer Wes Anderson, based loosely on one of Roald Dahl's lesser known children's books by the same title.  Mr. Fox, voiced by George Clooney, is a former chicken thief, who gave it up for his family, but yearns to steal again.  He plots against three of the meanest farmers (who didn't do anything to him before this) and their large farms.  Ultimately, he brings the wrath of these three farmers down upon himself, his family, and the entire forest, and yet, he's somehow still considered a good guy in all of this. (I'm sorry, but that's as far as I could go before I begin dogging this thing.)

     Like all Wes Anderson films, "Fantastic Mr. Fox" features people, or, in this case, anthropomorphic animals, mumbling rather than having good dialogue or wit of any kind, very little attention to realistic character development, an incredible, yet inane, plot, uncomfortable situations rather than humor, no real flow to the story line, a very poorly constructed story, and Wes Anderson trying to work out whatever issues he has with his father on the screen.  The animation is mediocre at best.  Some of it looks like Anderson is going for a very retro kind of feel, about the quality of early Wallace and Gromit, but other parts, like the way that fur on the animal puppets tends to move about in random directions (even during still shots) because the people moving the puppets for each shot are sloppy and not minding their fingers, make everything feel fake and takes you out of the movie.  The puppets are almost expressionless.  Facial expressions are limited to movement of the mouth, eyes, and an occasional tear in the eye, so their faces seem rather dead and doll like most of the time.  The walking, especially, and movement, in general, is very sketchy and doesn't help to create any illusion of reality or help you immersion in the film.  Much of the dialogue seems either improvised or just poorly thought out.  (Or just the typical Wes Anderson aimless rambling.)  Characters engage in meaningless banter that goes nowhere and often trails off into mumbling.  This tends to break up any kind of flow or rhythm the film might (or might not) have and takes you right out of the moment.  There is a brief first and second act, sort of, then the bulk of the movie is third act resolution that tends to wander back into second act territory, as if Wes Anderson can't decide how he wants the movie to turn out, but isn't going to take any writing back.  Ultimately, there is sort of an ending, but not a very good one.

     Am I being too harsh?  After all, this is a kid's movie, right?  Actually, I'm not sure if it is.  Sure, it was based on a book intended for children, but this really isn't a movie for kids.  This is just an animated version of the same movie that Wes Anderson does every time.  Children may find something enjoyable in it, but it wasn't made for them.  The humor, if you can call it that, will, mostly, go right over their heads.  Children are likely to get bored with such a poorly paced story.  There's plenty of smoking and drinking, foxes kill chickens, which seem to be the only animals that are not anthropomorphized, Mr. Fox's tail is dismembered by gunfire, a rat dies in a knife fight and Mr. Fox delivers an incredibly cynical eulogy that is bound to disillusion most children watching.  Wes Anderson can't even try to make a movie without profanity.  He didn't actually use any profane language in "Fantastic Mr. Fox," but he also didn't write a movie without it.  He just replaces the amply amount of profane language with the word 'cuss,' as in, 'What the cuss?'  (We all know what you fraking mean.)  This is distracting at best and makes you feel like you're watching an episode of the "Smurfs" at worst.  It's also not very original.  (Curses, foiled again!)  I'm all for making more realistic and challenging movies for kids.  If you challenge children, they will rise to the occasion, and if you pander to them, they don't grow, but this material is neither realistic nor challenging to children.  "Fantastic Mr. Fox" feels like Wes Anderson is making a movie for adults that spoofs or feels like a kid's movie, but children watching it is definitely an afterthought.

     Eighty-seven minutes has never felt so long and I am really tired of Anderson trying to work out his 'daddy issues' on the big screen.  Wes Anderson is not a great writer or director. He once made a movie that connected with a small number of people and has been rehashing the same old tricks ever sense.  Having visible titles all over your movie and a, so called, quirky style does not make you a great director or writer.  It's poor storytelling and is alienating to audiences in general.  If one is going to make movies that pander to small, specific audiences, and lack the basic story structure to make that movie enjoyable to anyone outside of that small group, you might as well just keep those films in limited release, or better yet, straight to DVD. Also, Wes Anderson might want to think about not phoning in the entire directing job from another country when he makes his next, inevitable, film, like he did with "Fantastic Mr. Fox."  It shows.

     I don't recommend "Fantastic Mr. Fox" to anyone who doesn't already have a deep love of Wes Anderson's other films and I would strongly caution parents from letting their children see this movie.  My best advice to parents is to see it yourself first and see if it is what you want your children watching.


     On a more personal note, (more personal than that??!) I would like to address the recent talk about "Fantastic Mr. Fox" being nominated for one or multiple Academy Awards.  If there is any justice in this world and if the Academy members are sane and rational people, any category that "Fantastic Mr. Fox" could possibly be nominated for should already be occupied by Henry Selick's "Coraline," a truly great stop motion animation children's movie, and any category that Anderson himself could be nominated for should, similarly, be already occupied by Henry Selick, a talented and deserving director who personally oversaw every detail that went into the making of "Coraline;" all three years of it.  The Academy should not reward sloppy and lazy work by chalking it up to personal style.

     I would also like to take this opportunity to personally apologize to Henry Selick on Wes Anderson's behalf.  Wes Anderson should be ashamed that he couldn't even bother to be in the same country where his movie was being filmed, for phoning in his directions by taking videos of himself and sending them to the set, for trying to cover up all the obvious flaws in this film by casting George Clooney in the lead role, and for personally putting the genera of stop motion animation back 40 years.   Mr. Selick, I am so sorry that a shiny piece of excrement steals the light from the truly magnificent piece of art you created early this year and I sincerely hope that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences does not fail to recognize yours as the greater talent and achievement when it hands out awards this March.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

A Serious Man (Review)

     I may just be done with the Coen brothers after this.  I don't care how brilliant your symbolism is, poor story telling makes for an unenjoyable movie.  I may be being a bit harsh.  I'll give the Coen brothers this.  They do seem to be able to capture the essence of a person or people.  Perhaps if I knew more about Midwestern Jews in the 1960s I would have found parts of "A Serious Man" more interesting or amusing.  I did, after all, love "Raising Arizona," but, then again, I have a lot of experience with, shall we say, people who prefer to live in trailer houses.  That having been said, making a movie inaccessible to everyone but a specific group is also bad storytelling. 

     "A Serious Man" is the Coen brothers attempt to tell the biblical story of Job, in which, Satan contends that, to a man who has everything in life, like Job does, faith comes easily, so, to prove a point, God allows Satan to do all sorts of terrible things to Job, but Job's faith remains unshaken, so God gives him back everything he had, plus more.  In the Coen brothers version, a very sad and pathetic individual, has some bad things happen to him and he gives into temptation.  Along the way, there is a lot of symbolic imagery, including a tornado, and a lot of loose ends don't get tied up. (Also, I was bored for 105 minutes!)

     This wasn't all that bad of an idea for a film, but the story was executed very poorly.  It's impossible to feel anything for our main character, with the exception of maybe contempt.  Without empathy for the characters, you are simply left to sit in the dark watching sad, pathetic people fail miserably at life until the end, where they fail the final, biblically inspired, test.  (I understood the ending, the tornado is God, but that doesn't mean that I liked the ending, or any other part of it!)  People who are not familiar with the biblical story, or who fail to make the connection to it, will simply be bored by this movie and completely confused by the ending.  It's the job of the storyteller to make their story accessible to as many as possible, not just a few.  (Unless your goal is to make your movie inaccessible and pompous.)  Again, that's bad story telling. Just as surly as making a movie with nothing but overblown special effects and no plot makes for a poor movie, so does nailing the symbolism you are trying to get across, but failing to make any other part of the movie engaging.

     If your passions lie in picking a movie apart to find more and more layers of (what you think are) symbolic meaning so that others will marvel at your (apparent) perception, you'll love this one.  As for me, well, I know when, as an audience member, I'm not wanted.

Planet 51 (Review)

     I don't usually go to see CGI kids movies unless I think there is going to be something special about it.  I didn't know what to expect with "Planet 51."  It's the first offering from Madrid based Ilion Animation Studios.  I'm disappointed that it isn't anything too special, but I'm also pleased that it deviates from the typical  route taken by a lot of Hollywood's CGI 'extravaganzas.'  (Also pleased that it isn't unnecessarily 3-D!) 

     The story here is extremely stereotypical and well worn.  An alien lands in the 1950's.  Everyone is scared.  The military is mobilized.  Local kids help the alien, who is actually peaceful and just wants to get back home.  In the end, everyone learns a lesson about prejudice and the alien is allowed to leave.  The twist, which is no secret, is that the alien is a human astronaut landing on an alien planet.  That, and a pretty good time, is what kids can expect to get out of "Planet 51."  Adults, well, luckily, this film doesn't feature the usual, occasional off color joke to keep the parents paying attention.  It does, however, feature a lot of spoofs, parody, and in jokes, which I found to be a lot more entertaining than the usual schlock.  The entire movie is, basically, a parody of 1950's alien/horror movies, right down to the extremely 1950's look and feel of the town and aliens.  There's other humor as well, like a rover probe, sent in first by NASA, that is so obsessed with gathering rock samples that it completely misses an entire alien civilization and an alien dog, that looks like the aliens from the movie "Alien", named, Ripley.  Unfortunately, much of this is forced to take a back seat to the plot in the third act.  Happily, there is a story, plot, and character development.  Oh sure, I saw it all coming, but it managed to keep me interested. Voice talents include Dwayne Johnson, Jessica Biel, John Cleese, and Justin Long as the alien Lem.  (LEM, pronounced exactly the same way as they do in the movie, is also what NASA called the Lunar Excursion Module used during the moon landings.  I love nerd humor!)  Thankfully, Long acts, rather than attempting to inject his SNL persona into the film, like too many comedians tend to do in these types of movies.  Although, I wouldn't have minded if Cleese had injected a bit of Cleese into his part, but I can't blame the director for wanting to make a movie and not a vehicle for comedians. 

     "Planet 51" definitely isn't the next "Shrek," but I laughed a lot more than the kids in the audience did.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Big Chill (Review)

     "The Big Chill" is one of my favorite movies and tonight, I was feeling nostalgic.  I didn't even make popcorn.  I didn't want anything anything between me and the screen.

     "The Big Chill" is about seven old college friends, 60's radicals and revolutionaries all, who are brought back together to attend the funeral of one of their own, who committed suicide for, seemingly, no reason.  They all spend the weekend together, remembering old times, catching up on where they are now, wondering how they got there, testing the bonds of their friendship, and wondering if those times, not so long ago, were really as deep and meaningful as they seemed or as shallow and naive as they now appear. 

     That doesn't sound like much of a plot, I know, but "The Big Chill" is an extraordinarily well written and well acted psychological analysis of the Woodstock generation and their seemingly inexplicable transformation into the yuppies of the 1980s.  It mixes subtle humor with dark subject matter and creates a web of complex and dynamic relationships that feels as genuine and natural as life its self.  (Real friends and relationships.  Not the kind on Twitter and Facebook.)  Add to that a talented, ensemble cast, (Glenn Close, Jeff Goldblum, Kevin Kline, William Hurt, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, JoBeth Williams, and a young Meg Tilly) and an incredible soundtrack of 60's classics and you've got a cult hit that gets deeper and ever more meaningful with each viewing. 

     "The Big Chill" isn't for everyone.  There are no explosions or special effects.  The humor is subdued and mixed with emotional subtext.  The details of each characters relationships to one another unfold slowly and are revealed in meaningful glances and quick comments that only close friends would understand.  This film is an exceptionally well portrayed slice of life.  In the end, people have grown or changed or have begun to heal longstanding and painful issues in their lives.  We get to see the 60's through the cynical eyes of the 80's and regain a bit of of the 'lost hope' from that rose colored, bygone era.

Amelia (Review)

     The main problem with true stories or biographical films is that you are limited to what actually happened.  Embellish too much and your story can be unbelievable or cliche.  Stick to the facts and you risk being dry and sounding like a textbook.  "Amelia" leans slightly toward the dry side yet manages to be a not unenjoyably portrait of a unique woman and how she lived a unique life.

     "Amelia" is, of course, the story of legendary pilot Amelia EarhartHilary Swank plays Earhart and Richard Gere plays here husband and publicist George Putnam.  The movie begins, more or less, with their meeting and is, really, more the story of their life together, mainly from Earhart's point of view, making this less a full fledged biography and more a tragic love story. 

     Swank and Gere's performances are believable enough, but there really isn't anything special about either.  The story is, as far as I know, historically accurate, but there really isn't any tension and not nearly enough emotion.  This is the life of an American hero, a truly unique and special woman who inspired generations of women to pursue their dreams and believe in themselves, a woman who refused to live by the rules of a society that told her she couldn't, or shouldn't even try, to be whatever she wanted to be, and it has all the feeling of a made for T.V. movie.

     "Amelia" isn't not worth seeing, but it also isn't likely to inspire any future generations.


     While standing in line to see "Titanic," which I was tricked into seeing, I upset a few of people by repeatedly saying, 'In the end, the boat sinks.'  (Sad, really.)  So, on that note, she doesn't quite make it all the way around.  Sorry if I spoiled it for you.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Box (Review)

     I have never seen any of Richard Kelly's other movies and I am not that familiar with the play "No Exit," however, I am very doubtful that my enjoyment of "The Box" will increase any if I were better versed in these works.  I understand stories that are supposed to raise moral and metaphysical questions and make you ponder these types of things for yourself rather than making conclusions for you, however, "The Box" fails to do either. 

     "The Box" stars Cameron Diaz and James Marsden as a couple who get presented with a choice; they can press a button on a box and they will get a million dollars and someone they don't know, will die, or, they don't press the button and well, this eventuality isn't discussed, but you are meant to assume that nothing will happen.  This choice is presented to them by a mysterious and deformed man played by Frank Langella.  From there, the movie devolves into a messy mix of conspiracy/mystery movie and not quite metaphysical and almost science fiction story that tries very hard to leave you wondering about the fate of humanity and the if we deserve to live on as a species, but ultimately fails to raise any questions. 

     "The Box" fails on many levels.  With the exception of Langella, the acting is really not very good.  Saddling the main characters with vaguely southern accents was not the best of ideas.  The directing isn't bad, but the movie does seem to become lost in its self in the middle, then there are far too many revelations about this mysterious force that's controlling everything, and, from there, the ending is very slow to come and doesn't really leave you with any questions to ponder, except, if the people pushing the button don't really believe that anything will happen when they push it, is it really a test of humanity's altruism?  This might have been a better story if it had been left to the realm of the metaphysical by telling us nothing about the force behind everything, but the suggestion of alien intervention really throws the whole thing into an almost cheesy science fiction area that really doesn't work.  One family's personal Hell, I could work with, but a succession of people being controlled by less than perfect aliens doesn't really make me ponder humanity's inherent worth.  Perhaps if they had left the alien connection for the very end, and shortened the whole thing to ninety minutes, it might have made for a better mystery, but once the Mars judges humanity reference comes out, the mystery is completely deflated and we are left with aliens judging humanity, one case at a time, with rather flawed methods.  Even the threat that humanity might not pass the test, as a lingering question, is defused by the fact that the movie takes place in 1976, so either the aliens are taking their sweet time about judging humanity's worth, or we were deemed worthy at some point in the last thirty-three years and no one bothered to mention it to us. 

     "The Box"  is long and tedious, its secrets are shallow and obvious, and the only thing it leaves one to ponder is, "Why didn't I believe the critics on this one?"  If you can, personally, find some meaning in "The Box," I'm happy for you, but please realize that that meaning is purely a personal one and nothing that is inherently suggested.  (That or you are just claiming to find meaning where there is none because you like to make people think that you are smarter than you actually are.  Sorry if that sounds bitter, but I was really disappointed.)

Monday, November 9, 2009

Dead Alive or Braindead (Review)

     I'm always looking for new, or new to me, zombie movies, so my Netflix queue is ripe with potentially disappointing, less than B-movie grade, suck fests.  I had slightly higher hopes, however, for one of Peter 'Nerd of the Rings' Jackson's early works, "Braindead" or "Dead Alive," as it is known in the US, and I was actually surprised at how bad a lot of this movie wasn't, and very surprised at how bad other parts were.

     Written and directed by Peter Jackson, "Dead Alive" is a lot of plot and the goriest, bloodiest, and sickest ending I have ever seen.  After watching this movie, I sincerely hope that Peter Jackson has since gotten some serious, psychiatric help. 

     "Dead Alive" is about a timid man, living with his (s)mother.  The mother gets bitten by the worst special effect in the entire movie, a stop motion, cursed, Sumatran rat-monkey, and she slowly degraded into an undead, zombie like creature.  She then kills her nurse and turns her into a zombie as well, and we are halfway through the movie with very little action and almost no zombies.  Another quarter of the way in, and we have three more zombies and an hint of the twisted depravity to come in the form of a newly born zombie baby, which is the product of zombie 'love.'  (Really Mr. Jackson, really?)  The last quarter is a non stop blood bath with unspeakable atrocities being committed upon zombie and human alike.

     Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not opposed to a good blood bath, and I understand that we are not supposed to be taking this movie seriously.  Any time that a zombie's intestinal tract spills out on the bathroom floor, and then begins to pursue the main character, taking on a distinct, zombie persona of its own, I realize that this is not a serious horror movie.  The problem that I had with "Dead Alive," however, was that it seemed like every single kill, of any type, had to be unique.  The entire last quarter of this movie was almost like a neglected child, crying out for attention, and when he does not get any, he commits ever increasingly, disturbing acts in the hope that, surely, they won't be able to ignore this or, even worse, like there is no one there to control Peter Jackson's imagination and he is feeding on himself, trying to outdo every kill with the next kill, with no limit to just how depraved it might become.  There is no one to say, "Hey, maybe we shouldn't have the zombie explode and liquefy as it hits the ground" or "Hey, maybe they shouldn't keep kicking the upper half of that guy's head around" or even, "Hey, maybe we don't need to shred zombies in a lawnmower."  Once again, normally, I wouldn't have a problem with any one, or even some of what happens in the last quarter of "Dead Alive," however, with each zombie kill more gruesome and bloody than the previous ones, it rapidly reached a point where I had had enough, and Peter Jackson, it seems, was just getting warmed up.

     On a more positive note, I do have to give Mr. Jackson credit where credit is due.  For an extremely low budget, campy, gore-fest, the story is better than it should be, the characters are better than they should be, and the special effects, while completely disgusting, are better and more realistic than B-movies with much larger budgets.  Peter Jackson is a talented movie maker, and it shows in this early work.  (He's also one sick puppy.)

     Fans of disgusting splatter-fests and gore will want to see "Dead Alive" again and again.  Everyone else, I'd suggest you just skip it, or self medicate first.  (Don't do drugs, kids, and don't watch "Dead Alive.")

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Men Who Stare at Goats (Review)

     I've wanted to see "The Men Who Stare at Goats" ever since I saw Jon Ronson's interview on "The Colbert Report," although I could have sworn it was "The Daily Show."  (I LOVE YOU SARAH VOWELL!!!)

     "The Men Who Stare at Goats" is an odd, little dark comedy, about a secret Army program in the 1980's called project Jedi that tried to create psychic warrior monks who could prevent wars with the power of their minds.  Did I mention that this is supposed to based, at least in part, on real events?

     Ewan McGregor plays Bob Wilton, a recently jilted reporter who goes to Iraq to prove himself.  There he meets George Clooney, who plays Lyn Cassady, retired Jedi warrior.  Together, the two embark on a journey of self discovery and redemption that, in many ways, mirrors the Star Wars movies.  (And they borrowed heavily from Shakespeare, like everything else does.)

     There is a lot of subtle humor along the way, and some not so subtle, along with just enough drama to develop the characters and move the story along.  "The Men Who Stare at Goats" isn't going to win a Best Comedy Oscar (and not just because there isn't one), but it is an amusing film that fans of dark, subtle humor will enjoy.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

The Fourth Kind (Review)

     I attended a matinee showing of "The Fourth Kind" because I didn't want to risk paying the full night/weekend ticket price on what might be a less than stellar movie.  I still paid too much.  I want my money, and that hour and a half of my life, back.

     "The Fourth Kind" is Hollywood's (failed) attempt to make a 'found footage' movie.  It's a mix of movie footage and so called 'real' archival footage.  I actually thought that this technique would have made "Paranormal Activity" a much better movie, and it might have.  "The Fourth Kind", however, only manages to make the entire movie seem completely unreal by constantly trying to convince you that it is real.

     The movie begins with Milla Jovovich breaking the fourth wall and lying to the audience by telling them that the archival footage in the movie is real.  It quickly becomes apparent that it is not.  Jovovich plays Dr. Abbey Tyler,(who is not a real person, despite what faked web sites tell you,) a psychologist in Alaska, who is continuing her late husband's work with people having sleep problems.  She quickly stumbles into the possibility that these people are being abducted by aliens.  Under hypnosis, her patients discover the truth of what is happening and begin to go nuts.  This is where the movie lost me.  We are treated to, so called, actual dashboard camera footage of a standoff in a house where one of these abductees is holding his family hostage.  In poorly shot, grainy footage, we see him shoot his wife, both children, who are across the room, and himself, in a matter of seconds, and the police don't manage to fire a single shot.  If this had actually happened, it would have been all over the news.  The cable news outlets would have been giddy over actual footage of someone killing three other people and himself.  Of course, this didn't really happen, but the movie is so incredibly persistent in trying to convince you that it did all actually happen, that one simply loses the ability to suspend disbelief.  We are continually treated to split screens of movie footage and 'real' footage, audio tape recordings where the actors and the tape are heard almost simultaneously, and barely audible, subtitled audio, all in an attempt to get you to believe that it's all real.  "The Fourth Kind" beats you over the head with with it's attempt to make you believe that the found footage is real but it only manages to destroy any illusion of reality that might normally be created by a movie.  The acting is poor, the direction is poor, the story goes nowhere, the characters are unbelievable, and the plot is based entirely on you believing that what you are seeing is, somehow, actual reality.  On top of that, there is nothing actually scary about anything that happens in this movie.  The 'taped' evidence is not scary.  There is no tension.  When something happens on tape that might be frightening, the tape, conveniently, goes out.  Of course, they even fail at the tried and true method of, what you don't see is scarier than what you do see, by actually showing you a bit of something completely unbelievable as the tape is flickering in and out.  They show you just enough so you can't believe what's happening, but not enough to actually create any fright.

     The only way this movie is scary is if you actually believe that aliens really are abducting people, nightly, all over the world, and everyone, except for a handful of people in Nome, Alaska, are blissfully unaware.  If you believe that, then this film might actually frighten you, (and you might actually frighten me,) otherwise, it's an hour and a half of bad movie making and oversell of a poorly thought out concept.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

時をかける少女 or Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo or The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Review)

     When I saw "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" on Netflix, I thought it sounded like a a fairly original idea and was curious to see a Japanese perspective on time travel.  I discovered later (five minutes ago) that this is actually, only the newest incarnation of an old story in Japan.  The original dates back to 1965, according to The Boston Globe.1  (Actually, I learned that from Wikipedia, but I refuse to quote them as a credible source.)

     "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" is an almost tragic love story/coming of age tale, about an ordinary, maybe 15 year old, girl, Makoto Konno, voiced by Riisa Naka, who accidentally acquires the ability to, quite literally, jump through time.  (I'm surprised she didn't get a concussion from all the rough landings.)  Predictability, she uses the new found power to improve her own life, redoing each small embarrassment over and over until it come out well, and discovers, again, predictability, that her actions may have unintended consequences.

     While the setup may be cliche, where they go with it is not.  I absolutely hate domestic romance flicks.  They are all identical in the third act, leading up to what is really only the beginning of the story, and they all end in a huge romantic gesture and passionate kiss that, if you actually stop to think about it, is likely to be the start of a terrible relationship.  Thankfully, "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" doesn't go there.  It's more like one of my favorite films, "Roman Holiday."  Sure, they have a good time for a day, but in the end, it can never happen.  Well, maybe it can happen for these kids, but that's for the future, quite literally, and maybe a sequel.

     "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" has a great story, great development of characters, a surprise near the end that I would have never seen coming, is voiced very well, and, like most Japanese animated movies, is beautiful to look at.  It also seems to put a new twist on this old, Japanese tale.  From what I can tell, which isn't much, I don't think that the girl in these stories was ever as strong a character as Makoto is in this version. I could be wrong though. 

     Anime fans (the ones who like to read their anime, anyway) will enjoy this modern update of "Toki wo Kakeru Shoujo" and so will anyone who enjoys a well done, if a bit fanciful, coming of age tale. 


Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Død snø Or Dead Snow (Review)

      I will apologize now if my objectivity on this review is not as objective as it should be, however, I LOVE zombie movies, and I saw "Dead Snow" on Halloween, at the Alamo Drafthouse; the experience could have not been better.

     "Dead Snow" is a Norwegian, Nazi zombie movie (that should be all the review you need!) and an instant classic for the dark comedy/horror genre.  The premise is simple and familiar; (even the people in the movie recognize it) a group of young, med students are on a ski trip to a remote mountain cabin where there is no cell phone signal or any other means of communication, they had to hike forty-five minutes to get there, and, the only other person they see is a random, old man of the mountain, who shows up for no purpose other than to educate the vacationers, and the audience, of an evil presence on the mountain, in the form of Nazis, who fled to the mountain with their stolen gold and were never seen again.  Some fun in the snow, drinking, and sex follows, and then our vacationing med students are besieged by hordes of Nazi zombies and the gore fest begins! 

     "Dead Snow" is extremely self aware, making fun of its self when it begins to become too serious or cliche.  It mixes dark humor, gruesome death by zombie, and horror movie stereotype in a way that is very reminiscent or "Evil Dead II."  While the crowd I was watching with, a sold out showing for the final movie in the Alamo Drafthouse's, Dismember the Alamo film festival, was obviously, like myself, biased and inclined to enjoy this movie, I still feel it is worth mentioning that multiple times during the movie, we broke out in applause at the creative gore, unique zombies kills, and the absolutely righteous mass slaughtering of Nazi zombies.

     I hate to give away too much of a good movie, but I would like to mention (entice you with) some vague details, like the fact that a Nazi zombie's intestine can support the weight of a person, and a higher ranked Nazi zombie, while they are both dangling off a cliff, the fact that I have never seen more intestine in any movie, ever, the fact that, at one point, someone's brains landed on the floor, and the fact that this movie contains, hands down, the funniest, self amputation scene that I have ever had the pleasure of witnessing.

     I find it very difficult to actually review "Dead Snow."  I think about this movie and I just smile and wish I could see it again, and again, and again.  (Sometimes I start to giggle a bit too.)  It is pure gory fun.  One of those rare gory, scary, and yet funny movies that just seems to get everything right.

True, "Dead Snow" is not for everyone.  It does take a special (that boy ain't right) individual to like this kind of movie, but if you liked the Evil Dead movies, you will absolutely love "Dead Snow."

     P.S.  Ok, so I didn't answer the main question for any zombie movie.  Slow moving, Romero-esque, living dead, zombies or fast moving, virus infected, not really dead, zombies?  Neither.  These zombies are obviously dead, they move as quickly as a living Nazi, but there is no explanation for how they became zombies other than, they were the really evil Nazis, and they want all their stolen Nazi gold back. It all sounds so ridiculous when you say it out loud, but, when you are in the theater, watching it unfold, it's pure Nazi zombie magic.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Stepfather (Review)

      I saw "The Stepfather" this weekend, after a failed attempt to see it opening weekend, and I was surprised.  Most PG-13 rated horror movies are complete trash.  They exist only to attract kids with disposable income to theaters during the first two weeks of release; the most profitable weeks for movie distributors.  "The Stepfather," however, is not a horror movie.  It's a suspense film.  Something I didn't expect to see considering today's movie audiences are dominated by kids who text throughout the movie and only look up when something explodes.  (You kind of have to pay attention to the whole movie when suspense is involved.)  "The Stepfather" is not filled with a lot of gore or action.  It's a textbook example of a suspense thriller.  Of course, this is also it's downfall, for, sometimes, "The Stepfather" feels like you are reading a textbook.  I was surprised to see it was doing everything a movie should do, like character development, foreshadowing, three well defined acts, and so on, but I was also disappointed that it was all so very obvious.  Almost like watching a film school assignment where you get a passing grade because all the elements are there, but none of them are done with any style or finesse. 

      "The Stepfather" is about a serial killer, played by Dylan Walsh, who fools single mothers into thinking he has recently lost his family, gains their trust, tries to live as a happy husband with the perfect family, and then ends up killing everyone when it fails to work out.  Why he does this is a mystery, although he does seem to be a bit of an obsessive compulsive.  (He's also completely nuts!)  "The Stepfather" is suspenseful, but also fairly predictable.  I really hate to dog this movie.  It really did make a valiant effort and it did everything the way it should, and, in a market full of plot holes, crappy dialogue, bad acting, and completely incomprehensible action sequences, "The Stepfather" gets everything right, but just barely.  Perhaps it was a bad idea to have a director, Nelson McCormick, who works almost exclusively in TV, and actors, Dylan Walsh, Sela Ward, and Penn Badgley, who also do a lot of TV, all try to make a movie.  In the end, you get what you might expect, a movie of the week, but not a film worthy of the cinema. 

     Watch "The Stepfather" on DVD or on cable some Sunday afternoon when you have absolutely nothing better to do or some weeknight when all the networks are playing nothing but reruns, but, don't bother with it in the theaters.  Well, maybe in a few weeks when it's playing in some run down dollar theater, maybe.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Paranormal Activity (Review)

      I (finally) got to see "Paranormal Activity" this Friday, at a midnight showing, at the Alamo Drafthouse.  In doing so, I gave this movie the best chance I could of actually scarring me.  At the Drafthouse, I am virtually guaranteed there won't be anyone breaking the tension by talking or yelling something during a tense moment, or other such sophomoric activities that you are likely to get at a regular theater.  Unfortunately, the movie did that its self.

     "Paranormal Activity" has been advertised as some kind of underground phenomenon.  During its first weeks of showings, it played only to midnight audiences.  Much of the hype around it was word of mouth.  It is being advertised as "one of the scariest movies of all time.*"(*note the poster on your right)  Perhaps it works a little bit better at midnight showings, where you don't know what to expect, and you haven't seen commercials or trailers, but now that the secret is out, and the trailers I've seen contain most of the movie's creepier moments, the experience falls a bit flatter than it should.  Maybe it will work better on DVD, just you and a loved one you want to scare, or a small group of friends who have never heard about it, but large groups of people in theaters who know what they are in for disarm some of the scare of "Paranormal Activity,"

     Over-hype isn't the only problem with this film, however.  The concept its self seems very strong.  The way that the creepy moments are shown in digital camera 'reality vision', so to speak, make them seem real and visceral, however, there was no need to shoot the rest of the movie in the same, shaky, reality style.  That tends to be the failing of every one of these Blair Witch clones.  There is no real reason for someone to STILL be filming EVERYTHING that is happening.  ("Cloverfield" is a prime example.  Put down the camera and RUN!!!)  The attempted explanation of the continual filming also tends to ring hollow.  I think the film would have really worked if the scary moments were all on digital camera, making them seem very real, and the rest of the movie were just that, a movie. 

     The main failing of "Paranormal Activity", however, is the idiot boyfriend, who, in the end, deserves what comes to him.  I'll elaborate.  "Paranormal Activity" is a kind of found footage movie.  There are a couple of lines of text at the beginning, no logo or credits, the movie just starts.  The movie is made up of footage from one digital camera that a couple, Katie and Micah, played by on one you're likely to know, has purchased to document odd occurrences that happen to Katie as she sleeps.  Now, if both people were sane, rational individuals, this movie could have been very frightening, because you could empathize with them.  You might internalize what is happening and imagine that it could happen to you.  For a moment, you could get lost in their reality, suspend disbelief, and feel what they feel.  Sadly, you can't do this, because Micah, is an idiot.  He thinks everything that's happening is cool.  He is excited to get it all on camera and actively tries to provoke more occurrences.  To a point, I was still with the movie.  I could see that happening.  However, when the occurrences did begin to accelerate and intensify and when Katie, who has been dealing with these types of things ever since she was eight years old, begins to mentally break down, he should have stopped.  They should have consulted the expert recommended by the first paranormal investigator who predicted everything that happened up to that point.  Instead, Micah continues ahead, fueled by an inability to see the obvious and an overblown male bravado, and the film degrades into one of those horror movies that beg you to yell at the screen just to relieve your own frustration at the apparent stupidity of the characters.  In the end, I didn't feel scared.  I felt sorry for Katie and I felt like Micah deserved his fate. 

     I understand the premise behind "Paranormal Activity."  The fact that it's all supposed to look so very real, like a tape you found out in the woods or cans of old film in the attic, but its been done, so the shock value is gone, and you are not actually filming reality, so you still need to pay attention to your characters and their development.  Personally, I recommend waiting a year or so, finding a copy on DVD, and trying to scare a few close friends with it, but I wouldn't bother seeing it in theaters now.  The moment has passed.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Monty Python's Life of Brian (Review)

     Thank you IFC, for playing my favorite Monty Python movie, "Monty Python's Life of Brian."  This is not my favorite Monty Python movie for the obvious, narcissistic reason, (same name!) but rather because, this is the most fully developed Monty Python movie.  That is to say, it has a story and a plot.  I don't mean to speak ill of the other Monty Python movies, they are classics in their own right, but this is actually a full fledged movie, whereas the others are more like skits, loosely bound together by a common theme.  In any case, if you don't know who or what Monty Python is, well, it's almost impossible to explain.  "Monty Python's Flying Circus" was an extraordinarily off beat comedy show in Britain in the early 1970's.  It was a sketch comedy show where skits had no endings and one ran into the other, pet shop patrons couldn't convince shop owners that a parrot was dead, and double sighted mountaineers led expedition up the twin peaks of Kilimanjaro.  Insanely silly would just begin to scratch the surface.  If you still don't get it, ask your nerd friend (you know you have one) or anyone behind the counter at the Geek Squad, and I'm sure you'll get an earful.

     "Monty Python's Life of Brian" is a comedy, of sorts, about Brian or Nazareth, born one stable over from the central figure of Christian mythology, and, his entire life, is mistaken for the Messiah.  A rather simple idea that the Python crew milk for all it's worth.

     While there is a generous helping of uniquely Pythonesque (that's a real word, by the way) comedy in this film, there is also quite a bit of religious satire.  While the Python crew made sure not to make fun of Jesus himself, they have a lot of fun at the expense of those who follow him, or, rather, follow him poorly.  My favorite example of this is the sermon on the mount, where Jesus is talking about how the meek shall inherit the Earth.  As soon as the words are out of his mouth, people in the back, who can't hear everything he's saying very well, immediately begin fighting over what he said and what it means.  (If that sounds familiar, it's still happening today!)  There is also a short lived alien abduction somewhere in the middle of the film because they had to give Terry Gilliam a chance to animate something. That's Monty Python for you. 

     If you've never seen anything by Monty Python, "Monty Python's Life of Brian" is a pretty good starter movie.  It mixes their very unique brand of comedy with biting satire and has an actual plot and story you can follow.  It's a good way to get your feet wet and experience Python humor without being overwhelmed by the  incredible, non linear, insanity of the show or other movies (or everything else they ever did!)  

Law Abiding Citizen (Review)

     I love theaters, so, I'll often go to see movies that I wouldn't normally rent or bother with on cable.  In the past, I have been pleasantly surprised.  Other times, well, I got out and I went to a theater and all knowledge is good, even if that knowledge is just how badly a film sucked.  (Hey, I could have went with, "Eternal vigilance is the price of integrity," but then I'd have to go see stuff like "Twilight" just so I could dog it in the review, and I'm just not willing to pay that price.)  That's why I went to see "Law Abiding Citizen."  It looked like it might have potential.  It seemed like it might be worth taking a chance on.  I needed to get out and go somewhere or I was going to go crazy.  Luckily, "Law Abiding Citizen" was not really a bad movie.  Sadly, it wasn't a very good movie either.  It had potential, and it simply failed to live up to it. 

    Starring Gerard Butler as Clyde Shelton, a man who's family is murdered by thieves, and Jamie Foxx as Nick Rice, prosecutor who cuts a plea deal with one of the two accused to get a guaranteed conviction on the other one, "Law Abiding Citizen" seemed like it was going to be another "Se7en," complete with a moral lesson spelled out in blood across a city and everyone who will learn, too late, what that lesson is playing right into the intricate plan, but, in the end, it turns out to be something between an action flick and a crime drama. 

     "Law Abiding Citizen" is actually not poorly done, film wise.  Butler and Foxx do good enough jobs, although their parts are not exactly challenging, the action isn't over the top, although there isn't enough of it for those looking for an action flick, and there seems to be a point to all of it, but this is where the film fails, because there actually is no point beyond, don't make deals with murders.  The film seemed to be building toward an ending where Foxx's character would have to make a choice between stopping the killing by breaking the law, thereby proving a point being made by Butler's character, or do what the systems demands of him and allowing people to die or even, maybe, allowing Butler's character to go free because his constitutional rights had been violated, instead, it ended with the lesson being quite shallow and a big explosion.  How very sad.  There isn't even a clear moral good guy vs. bad guy in this film, just some explosions and killing. 

     If you are looking to turn off your brain for a while and waste the better part of two hours, "Law Abiding Citizen" is a reasonably well done popcorn flick.  If you expect some kind of thought process to have gone into the screenplay and to get some kind of meaning from your time, you'll be sorely disappointed. 

Revolutionary Road (Review)

     After being tricked into seeing "Titanic," I said a lot of cruel, hurtful things about Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.  I was wrong about all of them and "Revolutionary Road" is the thesis statement in the argument against all those terrible things I said.  True, both actors have proven themselves many times over before this movie came out, but this biting critique of suburban life in the early 1960's is almost the antithesis of beautifully made yet vacuous love tragedy of "Titanic."  (Kathy Bates gets to redeem herself as well!)

    "Revolutionary Road" is a film adaptation of a Richard Yates novel by the same name.  It shines an intelligent and unforgiving light on the illusion of happiness created in suburban America.  Frank and April Wheeler, played by Winslet and DiCaprio, are a couple who are a little bit too intelligent for suburban life, but have fallen into it anyway.  Both are bored and unsatisfied with the lives they've chosen and are looking for something more.  Inspiration strikes as they revive a youthful dream of living in Paris and prepare to make good their escape from the tedium and shallow depths of their 'perfect' suburban home and lives on Revolutionary Road.  However, cruel fate steps in and they must make a moral choice to stay in their suburban nightmare or end April's newly discovered pregnancy, sacrificing their unborn child for their own happiness.   The drama is realistic and tense and the satire biting as the couple struggles with what to do.

     "Revolutionary Road" is, indeed, a masterful work.  The dialogue is incredible, the plot is thought provoking, the source material is, well, Yates, and Winslet and DiCaprio prove, once again, that they are not simply a couple of good looking faces, but, rather, great actors in their own right.  The best performance, however, was had by Kathryn Hahn, who plays neighbor Milly Campbell.  Young actors could learn a lot from watching the subtly of her facial expressions as she tries to keep the crumbling mask of happiness from revealing the utter desperation of a hollow and meaningless existence found beneath it.  Dylan Baker also puts forth a great performance as Jack Ordway, who refuses to play along with the suburban facade, speak the truth about what he sees, and is considered insane because of it.  

I was very disappointed when I didn't get to see "Revolutionary Road" in a theater, but the wait was well worth it. 

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Shawshank Redemption (Review)

     "The Shawshank Redemption" is one of my all time favorite films.  It's one of those movies that, when it's playing on some movie channel, no matter how much I missed, I still get drawn in and soon find myself completely engrossed, watching till the very end.  It had been on cable a lot lately, and I have been catching it, over and over, here and there, so, when I caught it at the very beginning tonight, I had to watch it, and I had to review it. 

     "The Shawshank Redemption", based on a short story written by Stephen King, (why is it that Stephen King horror novels made into film or television program never really seem to live up to the book, but his short stories make such incredible movies?) is a well written, well directed tale about a banker, Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, who is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and sentenced to two consecutive life terms in prison.  The story is narrated and told, primarily, from the perspective of fellow prison inmate, Ellis Boyd Redding, or Red, (because he's Irish) played by Morgan Freeman.  The story chronicles Red and Andy's stay in prison, and hope.  Hope that Andy never gives up on.  Hope that Red give up long ago, but, ultimately, finds again.  It seems like too simple of an idea for a two hour and twenty minute movie, but you'll never notice the time.  The story carries you along and keeps you hanging on every moment, then, suddenly, springs open like a jack in the box, revealing parts you never knew existed, but were right there in front of you the whole time. No matter how many times I see it or how well I know every detail, the story and the almost prose like dialogue, eloquent, befitting of character, and ineloquent, when necessary, still manages to enthrall me every time. 

     Freeman and Robbins are great actors who give great performances.  They are joined by a colorful cast of supporting characters, each of which has their own story and each of which grows over the course of the story.  The dialogue, especially between Andy and Red, is both natural and memorable.  The story is complex, yet, easy to follow and lose yourself in.

     It's difficult to give this film the high praise it deserves and not sound like the rambling of an enamored school girl savoring her first crush, so I'll stop here by saying that, to truly understand the greatness of this film, you simply must experience it for yourself, and it is an experience I strongly recommend.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are (Review)

     If not for the book of the same name, "Where the Wild Things Are" could have simply been called "Childhood," for this is the best, symbolic representation of childhood and the perceptions of a child's mind that I have ever seen on the movie screen.  On the surface, the plot is almost as simple as the 10 sentence book that it's based on, but hidden therein are layers upon layers of meaning.  The urge to psychoanalyze this movie is overwhelming, but, for fear of giving away to much or tinting your own analysis and enjoyment, I'll save that for later.

     Writer and director Spike Jonze and writer Dave Eggers masterfully recreate the mind of a child as it tries to comprehend the adult world that surrounds it.  Max, played perfectly by Max Records, is a maybe eight to ten year old kid who's trying to deal with an absent father and his mother dating.  Max flees home after, in his anger, he hurts his mother and, through Max's imagination, we live out his feelings and fears as childhood anxieties and the adults in his life are replaced with wild things.

     James Gandolfini plays Carol, the wild thing that primarily embodies both Max's father and his fear of loss (but I'm supposed to be saving the psychoanalysis for later.)  Though most of the dialogue sounds like it was written by an 8 year old kid, and seeing as it is supposed to be the embodiment of the imagination of such a child, it should sound exactly like that,  Gandolfini, as well as the other actors voicing  wild things, does a great job of sounding like an adult, as heard by a child.

     Even though this movie has a cast of big, Muppet like, monster characters, it is not really intended for toddlers.  I saw many bored and restless three to five year old kids in the theater.  Sadly, this movie is simply above their level of comprehension.  Seven to twelve year children will likely identify with this movie very well, and, when they grow up and see it again, they will likely gain a greater insight to their own childhoods and a greater understanding of their own children (one can hope.)  Kids older than that can still enjoy this movie, though older teens may be a bit bored.  Parents are likely to get the most out of "Where the Wild Things Are," as they see the lives of their own children mirrored in Max's imaginary world (and they, hopefully, develop a greater empathy toward their own children and the world their children live in.)  And, apparently, twenty something can even enjoy this film as well.  I was witness to a group of college aged kids reverting back to childhood, howling, as they left the theater.  (No, they hadn't been drinking.) 

     Although I, personally, am a sucker for psychoanalytical symbolism, I can safely recommend "Where the Wild Things Are" to anyone who can find and savor that bittersweet joy that can be had by seeing the world through the eyes of a child. 

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Master Pancake Theater Presents Total Recall

     Ok, this is not, technically, a movie review, but I'm going to say a few words anyway.  Last Friday night, I, and about eleven friends, co workers, and guests, went to go see Master Pancake Theater at the Alamo Drafthouse, Ritz, as they mocked "Total Recall."

     If you don't know what Master Pancake Theater is, or what the Alamo Drafthouse is, the harsh and cruel reality of your cold and pitiful existence saddens me almost to the point of tears.  (...or not.)  The Alamo Drafthouse is a uniquely Austin (Texas, that is) movie going experience.  Movies, good food, no commercials before the previews, unique, pre-show entertainment, and alcohol, and that's only for normal movies.  They also have special events, like, Master Pancake TheaterMaster Pancake Theater is very much like Mystery Science Theater 3000, where comedians watch a movie and make fun of it, except, for Master Pancake Theater, this is done live, in a theater full of people that sells out every showing, and they bring food and beer right to your seat.  Surely, this must be as close as we can come to nirvana.  So, while you were doing whatever Friday night, I was, literally, laughing myself hoarse, with friends and good food.

     The Total Recall show was, hilarious, as they all are, (every showing selling out should be a hint of this) even if a lot of the comedy is obvious.  Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't exactly hard to make fun of.  However, the troupe was in top form and the odd, grunting noise that Schwarzenegger tends to use in place of actual vocabulary never gets old. 

     If you get the opportunity, go the the Alamo Drafthouse and see ANY Master Pancake show.  I can guarantee, you will not regret it.  Buy your tickets early, online, because they will sell out days ahead of time.