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.