Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Informant! (Review)

     "The Informant!," starring Matt Damon and directed by Steven Soderbergh, is an odd, little comedy.  A lot of the humor comes from the (seemingly) non-squinter actions of Matt Damon's character, Mark Whitacre, a VP at food giant ADM, who turns FBI informant.  However, unlike the almost endless wave of gross out, mostly improvised, idiotic comedies that stain theater screens these days, (you know the ones, the ones that seem to rely solely on the non-squinter stupidity improvised by the comedians while filming) "The Informant!" is funny not because all of Whitacre's actions are completely unreal, and therefor, unexpected, but because Whitacre's actions are, in fact, based on actual fact, and there are very real reasons motivating him.  This, sadly, is also the downfall of "The Informant!"  Once we are through the first act, laughter gives way to cringing as we wonder how anyone can be that dumb, and once we are in the third act, we just feel sorry for Whitacre, his family, and everyone who ever had anything to do with him.  In the end, "The Informant!" leaves you feeling uncomfortable and wishing you hadn't gone through the trouble of going to the theater.  Soderbergh tries to take as much creative license as possible, but, in the end, the reality of the material is simply too depressing. 

     I do have to give Matt Damon credit for doing a great job playing, what turns out to be, a character you only end up feeling pity for, to Scott Bakula, who, likewise, does a great job as FBI Special Agent Brian Shepard, who ends up on the receiving end of Whitacre's problems, and to Steven Soderbergh who does his usual best directing, but, in the end, none of them could really overcome the source material, Mark Whitacre's actual life and actions.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Whip It (Review)

     I got to see "Whip It" nearly a week early as it opened this Saturday in limited theaters for a sneak preview.  (I got a free t-shirt too!)  The drive was definitely worth it.  

     "Whip It" mixes just the right amount of humor, emotion, and self discovery into a uniquely Texas coming of age tale.  Ellen Page, who has an incredible amount of talent for one so young, brings her usual stellar performance as Bliss Cavendar, an 17 year old girl from a small (one stop light kind of small) Texas town who is being forced by her, well meaning, mother, played by Marcia Gay Harden, who does a prefect performance of an obsessive, small town, Texas mother, to participate in beauty pageant after beauty pageant, in an attempt to give her daughter the advantages she never had growing up.  Younger sister, Shania, played by relative newcomer Eulala Scheel, seems to love the pageant life.  Not so for Bliss.  She hates it and longs for something outside of small town life.  Her chance comes during a shopping trip to Austin where she picks up a flyer for TXRD, Texas Roller Derby.  From there, a shy, reserved young girl lies to her parents about where she is going at night, lies about her age to get into the league, and discovers something she truly loves, or, at least, loves more than working as a waitress at a small town BBQ joint.  Daniel Stern plays the father.  He's also very typical small town Texas.  He is a bit overwhelmed by a family of beauty pageant girls.  He has to sneak out to his van to watch football and looks enviously at the high school football signs other fathers put in their yards for their sons.  Additional star power is brought by Jimmy Fallon, who actually does a good job as TXRD announcer 'Hot Tub' Johnny Rocket, Kristen Wiig, also brings a great performance as Maggie Mayhem, player for the fictional TXRD team, the Hurl Scouts, Juliette Lewis, who does an incredible job as chief rival Iron Maven, player for the number one TXRD team, the Holy Rollers, Andrew Wilson, who is truly the most under rated Wilson brother, playing the beach bum-esque Hurl Scouts coach to perfection, (his performance is far more believable and authentic than anything brother Owen could ever pull off) and, of course, let us not forget, first time director, Drew Barrymore, who not only shines in her directorial debut, but also does a great job as Hurl Scouts player Smashley Simpson. 

     (Ok, time out for a second.  If case some of that confused you, let me give you a (very) quick explanation of Roller Derby culture.  Roller Derby is a contact sport, played by women on skates, who try to pass each other on a track for points.  The players and teams usually have, let's say, colorful names.  Actual TXRD team names include the Holy Rollers, the Hellcats, and the Putas del Fuego.  Anyway, you really don't need to know anything about Roller Derby before seeing this movie.  It'll be very obvious or they'll fill you in along the way.  Anyway, back to the movie.) 

     "Whip It" is simultaneously a inspirational tale of a young girl finding her own path in life, a underdog sports flick about a team who started at last and fought hard to be on top, and an incredibly funny, true to life comedy, full of characters we see every day (especially if you live in or near Central Texas) and can actually relate to.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Surrogates (Review)

     Online, you can hide behind an avatar and a lie of a profile and have complete anonymity.  Expand that to real life, with a realistic looking robotic body, made in your own image, or not, and you have the world of "Surrogates."  Most crime being a thing of the past, no more spreading diseases, racism and sexism gone (if you don't know, how can you hate?), and few, if any , consequences for your actions, (destroying a surrogate seems to be considered vandalism) all seem to take our own self centered, hedonistic, world of instant gratification to a whole new level.  Throw in those who don't choose to keep them selves 'safe' by using robotic bodies living on reservations, seemingly shunning technology and being the subject of new racism, and you might think that you have a great vehicle for a truly meaningful and poignant tale about where our ever increasingly virtual world is going.  Sadly, "Surrogates" just doesn't go there.  Perhaps the graphic novel origins of this story needed a bit more fleshing out (no pun intended, well, maybe a little) before it was ready for the big screen.  That's not to say that "Surrogates" wasn't a good movie, just not that good of a movie and a disappointment considering the subject matter.

     Bruce Willis brings his usual performance, that is to say, excellent.  If some of the acting seems a little plastic in the first act, that's because it is supposed to be.  Surrogates, the robotic bodies, are very advanced, but really don't quite pull off the full range of human emotions, especially the negative ones.  This vehicle is used for some of the movie's most poignant scenes, showing surrogates fail to register anything when emotions should be tragic, and having the operator, the person behind the machine, actually disconnect and feel those very painful emotions in real life, like they were meant to be felt.  It also shows the ability of people to lose themselves in lives devoid of any negative emotions and, in the process, they fail to feel anything.  Sadly, again, this is shown and explored very minimally.

     Thankfully, "Surrogates" also fails to explore the potential for CGI enhanced, adrenaline pumping, completely incoherent action sequences that would actually be possible with robotic bodies driven by humans who can't feel the pain or need to fear consequences like death or dismemberment.  There is one chase scene where this comes into play, but it is done realistically and is not unnecessarily fast or over the top.  Michael Bay would be disappointed.

     In the end, what you get is a mildly entertaining action film that doesn't assault your senses, but also doesn't really challenge your brain either. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

9 (Review)

     Produced by Tim Burton (and, yes, you can tell Tim Burton was involved) and based on writer/director Shane Acker's short film by the same name, "9" is a visually stunning, post apocalyptic animated tale about odd, little rag dolls which are the last hope of humanity. 

     Fair warning.  Just because this is an animated film and the main characters are small, doll like things, this movie is rated PG-13 for a reason.  It occurs shortly after the fall of mankind.  There is ruin everywhere, some dead bodies, (nothing really graphic) and some skeletal remains.  Don't bring younger or easily frightened children. 

     That having been said, "9" is, as I said, visually stunning, action packed, and exceptionally well done.  Acker pulls off a fast paced, yet enjoyable and engaging, story about death, hope, and the triumph, quite literally, of the human spirit. Voice talents include Christopher Plummer, Martin Landau, John Reilly, Crispin Glover, Jennifer Connelly, and Elijah Wood as our title character, 9.  9 is a small, cloth skinned, creation/creature, brought to life by a scientist, near the end of a devastating war between humanity and machines.  It doesn't take 9 long before he is running for his life, pursued by something that seems to be part machine and part cat skull and aided by 5, one of the 8 other creations/creatures that seem to be the only things life alive.  Each one of these numbered creations seem to have an innate role, including an almost insane 6 who seems to resemble Tim Burton a bit.  9 seems driven to find and rescue 2, who was captured by the afore mentioned cat/machine/monstrosity shorty before 5 found 9.

     From there, the story unfolds quite quickly, all without feeling rushed and while keeping the plot evolving.  The story is simple enough for younger viewers to understand and contains enough subtly embedded meaning and metaphor (like the cathedral-esque factory where the machines are made, the fictional, Nazi-like state that created the machines and used them for conquest, and the best-ever use of a Judy Garland song to foreshadow oncoming doom) to keep adult viewers paying attention.  On top of that, the action is paced very well and keeps you in suspense (nail biting, really) throughout the action scenes.  The ending may seem a bit, confusing or even anti climatic to some, but I, personally, was satisfied with the thought that, one so many levels, live goes on.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Battle For Terra (Review)

      I had seen "Battle for Terra" in theaters when it came out, but only the 2-D version, however, thanks to the Fantastic Fest and the Alamo Drafthouse, I got to see it in 3-D (and have a really good pizza.)      Sadly, the 3-D does very little for this movie.  Luckily, there are no moments of things flying out of the screen, just some floating credits, but there is also not a lot of really good use of 3-D in the screen.  Most of the time, you don't even notice the 3-D or it seems to be almost non existent, as if the movie was not originally made for 3-D and it was added after the fact.  Some of the space scenes are nice in 3-D and the huge, flying, alien whale thing is a nice effect, but all in all, you can safely skip the 3-D version and not really be missing anything.

     Than having been said, this was a pretty good movie.  It is not a lesson on environmentalism.  It is an anti war story.  The movie begins on Terra, an alien world inhabited by large eyed, legless aliens who seem to swim through the air.  Despite the lack of 3-D luster, the animation is actually quite breathtaking.  Not to far in, humans arrive.  It seems that we did not destroy the environment, rather, over centuries, we used up the the Earth's resources.  (No, it is not about recycling either.)  After that, we terraformed Mars and Venus, colonized them, and began to use their resources.  About 200 years after that, the colonies want independence.  War destroys all three worlds, and the remaining humans strike out in a huge ship, taking generations to arrive at the nearest world that can support life, Terra.  So, it's us or them.  The story is a bit archetypal at this point.  There's a general, hell bent on destruction of the native Terrians as the only solution, a young, intelligent Terrian trying to rescue her father, a human pilot who is rescued by a Terrian, and even a cute, little robot sidekick, however, despite a less than original general story, the execution of the story is gripping  and done more than well enough to keep you engaged.  You get drawn into these characters and actually care about what happens to them.  They manage to not make the robot an annoying gimmick and make him more than a bit player.  There is even a surprise as the Terrians end up being not your typical group of backwater natives.

     I enjoyed this movie.  It's not long enough to get preachy or boring or hung up on details or the science of anything and it moves along at a really nice pace.  The voice actors all do a good job, including Evan Rachel Wood and Luke Wilson in starring roles as the Terrian Mala and Human fighter pilot, Jim Stanton.  Other voices include James Garner, David Cross, Beverly D'Angelo, Danny Glover, Laraine Newman, Ron Perlman, Dennis Quaid, and Mark Hamill.  That's quite a lot of star power.  Unfortunately, only James Garner and David Cross play roles of any consequence.  Cross plays the, thankfully, not annoying, (and thankfully not very David Cross) robot Giddy and Garner plays one of the elder Terrians (and guardian of the terrible secret) 

     Ok, so I liked "Battle for Terra," who else will enjoy it?  It's animated, so you think kids, but it's not really a kids movie.  There is war, violence, death, alien autopsy, racial hatred, and an attempted genocide.  Even if you'd like your youngster to see the positive message about living in harmony and peace, it's likely to be a bit much for them.  Adults are likely to be thrown by the short running time, 85 minutes, the sci-fi setting, and the kinda cutesy aliens, and teens will likely think it's a kids movie.  However, if you can get over watching a cartoon (CGI, that is, and beautifully done) and you are old enough for the PG-13 content, I'd recommend seeing "Battle for Terra", at least once.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Coraline (Review)

     I recently had the opportunity to rewatch “Coraline” in 3D at the Alamo Drafthouse. Before I go any further, let me comment on the Alamo Drafthouse. If you have the privilege of living near the Austin area, (Texas, that is) you are missing out if you don't see a movie at any of the four Alamo Drafthouses.  Three of the four are original Drafthouses, an Austin institution for over a decade, and despite the fact that the fourth one is a franchise, I can personally vouch for it. The Alamo Drafthouse is a unique movie going experience. Movies, good food, a wide selection of beer and other potent potables, no commercials before the movies, and unique pre show entertainment, not to mention a generally cool and laid back Austin attitude.  If you only go to see a first run movie, you have only scratched the surface of the Drafthouse experience. I could go on and on, but I'll stop gushing there. If you really want to know more, there is a link above and RSS feeds from the Drafthouse on the right of the page.

     Now, “Coraline”. Based on a novella by Neil Gaiman, who is well known for, rather graphic, graphic novels, as well as some recent, spooky children's books, and directed by Henry Selick of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" fame, “Coraline” is not your typical kiddie flick. Young children should not see this movie. It'll only frighten them. However, for children mature enough to handle a little bit of scary stuff, and for adults of all ages, "Coraline" is an amazing experience and a great film. Now, I don't say stuff like "adults of all ages" lightly. This is not like most kids films, where the kids are entertained, but not really challenged, and the adults are bored with the overly simplistic plot and occasionally entertained by some off color jokes that go over the kids’ heads, you hope. "Coraline" is a very well made and developed movie. Great writing, great direction, great voice acting, a really solid script, and visually, this movie is stunning. The film is shot entirely in stop motion animation, using miniature puppets, and augmented in places with a little bit of CGI, in 2-D, "Coraline" is truly an amazing visual experience. However, in 3-D, well, I was blown away. I can say, without a doubt, that this movie is the only one to date that has used this new 3-D technology correctly. All the other 3-D, animated kids movies to date, computer animated, every one of them, don't do 3-D well, mainly because a computer generated image is, well, flat, and you have to fake the third dimension. Other live action movies, well, they use it as a gimmick. "Coraline", however, was the perfect vehicle for 3-D. The little puppets and miniature, handmade sets, are all in three dimension to begin with. They translate over very well and allow a world of miniature puppets seem quite real. Also, most of the 3-D is inside the screen, not popping off the screen into your face. There are a few, brief moments like that, but they are all appropriate for the action on the screen and don't take you out of the movie. Rather, they draw you in. Well, except for the needle in the opening sequence, but you can forgive one 'ohh ahh' moment in the opening title sequence before the movie has really started. If you have the opportunity to see this movie, in a theater, in 3-D, do it. You will not be disappointed. (You will be disappointed with the DVD 3-D. Just skip that.)

     "Coraline" is a modern day fairy tale, done in the tradition of Grimm's fairy tales, about a maybe 12 year old girl, Coraline Jones, voiced by Dakota Fanning, who has just moved into an aging boarding house with her parents, voiced by Teri Hatcher and John (I'm a PC) Hodgman, and is utterly bored and alone. Her parents work at home as writers and are trying to finish a gardening catalog that they are desperately behind on, so, at the moment, they have little time for their daughter. The new neighbors are elderly and eccentric or just plain odd, and it seems to be raining most of the time, confining Coraline to the inside of a old house with very little to do. That is, until, she finds a small, mysterious door that leads to another world; a world where everything is the same, except better. However, this other, better world comes at a price, and Coraline soon finds herself fighting to save herself, her parents, and the ghosts of other children trapped there. Truly, a wonderful story, a great movie, an incredible experience in 2-D, and an absolute must see in a theater in 3-D.

     I would be remiss if I didn't mention some of the other voice talent in this movie. Robert Bailey Jr. does an excellent job as Wybie Lovat, the slightly weird neighbor kid who, initially, irritates Coraline to no end. Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders, of British comedy fame, do an incredible job as Miss Spink and Miss Forcible, former British (bawdy) stage actresses, who are now well past those days but still maintain a love of theater. Keith David provides a wonderfully mellow baritone voice to Wybie's pet cat, who only talks in the 'other' world, maintaining a separation of real and magical realms. And Ian McShane, from HBO's Deadwood and, more recently, NBC's Kings, lends his incredible voice talent to the Amazing Mr. Bobinsky, a former Russian acrobat who is now, supposedly, training a mouse circus in his attic apartment. Credit, ultimately, must go to Henry Selick though, for directing all of these incredible voice talents. This, once again, isn't your typical kiddie film, where a couple of top name comedians go nuts on the mic for a few days and they write half the movie around their manic style. Henry Selick took years to record carefully directed voice work from each of his actors and got, from each one, a magnificent performance.

     Ok, I should end this review, but I have one more thing to say. Not only is this a kids movie that is actually enjoyable to adults, and enjoyable on an adult level, (parents may even be scared a bit, but not by what scares their children) but it is also one of those rare children's movies that has real characters in it. The adults act like adults, not arch stereotypes or like children themselves, and the kids act like kids. This is a huge departure from any Disney film you've ever seen and nothing like most kids movies. It is so rare to get a kids movie with real, believable characters in it that it is worth mentioning.

     If you get the opportunity, watch "Coraline." If you get the rare opportunity to see it in 3-D, don't hesitate. You won't be disappointed.

Whiteout (Review)

     Against my better judgment, I saw "Whiteout" this Saturday. It was actually not as bad as I thought it was going to be. Not that it wasn't bad, but just not that bad. "Whiteout" is an action/suspense/murder mystery/cop drama? This film never really settles on any one for long. Kate Beckinsale plays Carrie Stetko, a U.S. Marshal assigned to a U.S. Antarctic base, who gets caught up in a murder investigation just three days before a storm will trap everyone on the base for the six months of Antarctic winter. During the beginning of the investigation, she is stalked by a masked, pick ax wielding murderer reminiscent of a bad slasher film. Then she gleams tiny bits of information from suspects as they are picked off, one by one, by the man with the ax. Then the film switches gears to murder mystery as she catches the killer, puts the pieces together, and his plot, ever so slowly and agonizingly, unwinds. We also get a sub plot of Beckinsale's character's past, which is also ever so slowly revealed throughout the film, setting the stage for her redemption in the end.

     The first two thirds of this movie are tolerable; popcorn fodder during a matinee. The last third, however, seems to bog down in the unraveling mystery, which falls apart all to easily and slowly. There is simply not a lot to this movie and it's about 30 minutes too long. This might be worth watching on DVD as background noise or maybe at a discount theater, where it should be making appearances shortly, but I wouldn't (and wish I hadn’t) spend a full, night, weekend ticket price on it.

Citizen Kane (Review)

     This review had to come next. "Citizen Kane." Widely regarded by film buffs, film students, film critics, and basically anyone who went to film school, as the greatest movie ever; it's not. For the greatest movie ever, see "Casablanca."

     "Citizen Kane" is, perhaps, the most over rated movie ever. Let me explain. "Citizen Kane" is a very important and historic movie. Orson Welles was deliberately trying to create something new in movie making, and he did. He pioneered new techniques in cinematography, special effects, make up, ect... Orson Welles was a great director who did something great for American film, and, at the time, something entirely new and different. It also tanked at the box office. Why? Well, it's long and boring and rather tedious. The entire story is laid out for you in the first five minutes, then relived in flashbacks. Of course, all the surprises are gone because you heard it already in the first five minutes of the film. I also really don't want to seem callous, but I really fail to feel any pity or remorse, or anything really, for the center of this story, Charles Foster Kane, played by Orson Welles himself. As a child, care of young Charles Kane is signed over, along with a fortune, to a financial advisor, to keep the boy away from his abusive (?) father. From there he grows up rich and loveless, trying desperately to find some kind of satisfaction in life, but ultimately failing to and wishing, on his deathbed, for the simplicity of childhood. I'm sorry, but the poor little rich kid doesn't really elicit my sympathy. I feel for the child removed from his parents, but that only buys so much emotion and we see Kane mainly as an adult, where all sympathy for the character dies and we are forced to endure the slow, agonizing telling of the story of his, oh so sad, incredibly successful life. I suppose we are supposed to be carried along by the quest to discover what his last word, "Rosebud", meant. The mystery doesn't really support that much story and turns out to be oh so unfulfilling.

     Unless you are very interested in the technical aspects of early film making or just want to be able to intelligently speak about the subject when your film friends talk about it, I do not recommend watching "Citizen Kane."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Casablanca (Review)

     I say this without hesitation; "Casablanca" is the greatest movie of all time. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains, "Casablanca" is the quintessential movie.

     "Casablanca" is both a World War II drama and a simultaneously tragic and happy love story. Set in unoccupied French Morocco during the early days of World war II, shortly after the Nazi Invasion of France, "Casablanca" is about an American, Rick Blane, a stoic, mysterious figure who owns and runs Rick's Café Américain, (The inspiration for the title of this blog) a popular night spot in Casablanca. "Everybody comes to Rick's," including Rick's ex lover, Ilsa, accompanied by fleeing resistance leader Victor Laszlo. From there, there is a murder mystery, complex webs of relationships between the three afore mentioned main characters, and, in the end, love lost, love found, redemption, and "the start of a beautiful friendship."

     The acting, as well as the actors, are all top notch. The directing is superb. The characters are all fully developed, three dimensional individuals, each with complex sets of motivations who grow and change throughout the course of the movie.

     Bogart plays Rick Blaine, the owner and proprietor of Rick's Café Américain in Casablanca during the early days of World War II. Rick is a strong character; Absolute master of his domain. He's also a character who is hiding in Casablanca. Running away both from his native America and from his broken heart, Rick is a character who has tired of fighting the good fight and had found a safe haven from the war and romance in Casablanca.

     Bergman plays Ilsa Lund, a young, naive girl who traveled from her home in Oslo to Paris where she and Rick enjoy a time of carefree romance and no questions.

     Henreid plays Victor Laszlo, a leader in the resistance, who is being perused by the Nazis. He arrives in Casablanca with Ilsa, and the intricately woven back stories and complex interactions of these characters begin there. I'm not going to ruin this movie with too many details after that, but each of these characters has a past haunting them, and all of them being pulled by multiple sets of loyalties.

     Claude Rains quite expertly plays the almost comical Captain Louis Renault, Perfect of Police in Casablanca. While he is the least developed main character, He, like all the other main characters, has his motivations and ends up changing, for the better, in the end.

     Over sixty-five years old, "Casablanca" has withstood the test of time. Most films that old feel dated or quaint. "Casablanca" can stand next to any modern World War II film and hold its own. It is truly a masterpiece and I can, without hesitation, recommend watching this film.