Saturday, November 1, 2008

High School Musical 3: Senior Year

For film critics, movies like High School Musical 3: Senior Year are tests of integrity. It would be all too easy to reach into an arsenal of witty phrases and shoot this movie down out of hand, but that would be on par with picking on a ten-year old. The only appropriate analysis of this film comes from comparing it to High School Musical and High School Musical 2. By that standard, HSM 3 achieves what very few sequels with high expectations have done in recent years: it never disappoints. The cast and crew behind the High School Musical phenomenon saved the best for last.

If you’re in the minority of those unfamiliar with this franchise, Disney’s High School Musical films have been worldwide pop-culture sensations. The first two premiered on the Disney channel, and this third installment marks the series’ theatrical debut. The HSM movies focus on high school sweethearts Troy Bolton (Zac Efron) and Gabriella Montez (Vanessa Hudgens), two students from different social circles who show the students of East High School how to embrace their differences and learn from each other. In High School Musical 3, they face all of the typical senior year challenges: choosing colleges, choosing dates for Prom, letting go, and saying goodbye.

All three films are musicals about musicals; even as music moves the stories along, the characters themselves are preparing to perform their own high school drama productions. Even after two films’ worth of self-discovery, basketball superstar Troy is still having trouble embracing his theatrical side. Gabriella does all she can to help him branch out and be true to himself, but she has her own dilemma. When Stanford University asks her to enroll early (and thus miss the musical performance), she suddenly has to choose between her future and her friends.

I wasn’t sure if a theatrical installment of High School Musical would work, but the filmmakers struck the right balance: production quality has been appropriately scaled up for the big screen, but not so much that it loses the essence of its predecessors. The musical numbers are as energetic and catchy as ever, and the delightful cheesiness returns in full force. It’s a movie for the fans, and I can’t imagine any fan being disappointed. Director Kenny Ortega could write the How-To Guide for giving the people what they want. At various intervals, the audience cheered, laughed, audibly swooned over Troy, and burst into applause.

The original High School Musical has been correctly referred to by many as “this generation’s Grease,” though it’s actually much more wholesome than Grease. You won’t see any cigarettes or provocative outfits, because all it takes to be cool at East High is to be yourself. High School Musical presents high school as it should be: a fun, healthy environment where students build each other up. I’m surprised and pleased in equal measures that something so decent and morally centered has become so popular.

High School Musical 3: Senior Year has been billed as the final installment, and it should be, though Disney has proven that they have no idea when to stop, as nearly every Disney classic has been given at least one mediocre straight-to-video sequel. I hope everyone involved here has the good sense to just walk away and leave a solid ending alone. Cultural events like High School Musical don’t come around all that often, but as one generation of fans raises another, they live on. HSM 3 ends with an on-screen curtain call as the characters sing, “Step into the future, but hold onto High School Musical.” It sure seemed like the actors were genuinely singing those words, too.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: G

There’s nothing in the way of objectionable content; my only advice would be to show your kids the first two (if they’ve somehow survived childhood without seeing them) before taking them to see the third.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

I feel a bit out of place reviewing Star Wars: The Clone Wars, because it isn’t a movie in the traditional sense. The film actually serves as the first installment of an animated television series that will air on Cartoon Network later this year. It should not have been released in theatres, because everything about it is suited for the television medium. As a niche tale intended mostly for children and serious Star Wars fans, it’s also completely immune from criticism. It is, therefore, as a hardcore Star Wars fan, rather than a film critic, that I proceed.

The story unfolds during the Clone Wars, the terrible three-year struggle that eventually leads to the creation of the Galactic Empire. This story takes place between Episodes II and III, and it still boggles my mind that George Lucas omitted most of this war from the prequel trilogy. The central focus of this installment is the dynamic between Anakin Skywalker and his new Padawan Learner, Ahsoka Tano. As Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin transition from a teacher/student relationship into a genuine friendship, Anakin learns what it means to be an effective mentor.

Because Time Warner owns Cartoon Network, Warner Brothers served as the distributor for Clone Wars, rather than Twentieth Century Fox. Seeing the Warner Brothers logo at the film’s opening jarred me immediately, and several other differences within the opening five minutes made it clear that this is a television show, not a true Star Wars feature. The story has multiple arcs, as though four 22-minute episodes were loosely strung together. Everything about this series will feel more at home once it arrives on Cartoon Network.

The visual style used here appeals to me, though I’m sure it won’t please everyone. The animation doesn’t compare to the beauty of Pixar’s films, but again, this film isn’t really a theatrical effort, and the animation quality of Clone Wars easily surpasses television’s typical standards. Some elements, like environments and battles, are incredibly realistic, while characters’ faces are intentionally stylized. I’m glad they didn’t attempt the level of realism employed by Robert Zemekis in Beowulf (2007) or The Polar Express (2004). The cartoonish faces in Clone Wars just feel right.

Feisty teenager Ahsoka Tano is a fun new addition to the Star Wars universe, bringing some serious spunk to the table and proving difficult enough to earn Anakin’s respect. Ahsoka, Anakin, and Obi-Wan are the central characters, while familiar faces like Padme Amidala and Yoda only make fleeting appearances (they will probably be featured more in the television series). The only unfortunate new character is Jabba the Hutt’s uncle, aptly named Ziro the Hutt; he’s a zero, all right. By my estimates, he makes Jar Jar Binks look Oscar-worthy.

I return to my belief that Star Wars: The Clone Wars should never have premiered in theatres. It pales in comparison to the six feature films and won’t hold the interest of most viewers, but then again, it’s not intended for most viewers. If you don’t have young kids and you’re not a serious Star Wars fan, then maybe don’t bother. It doesn’t work too well as a feature film, but compared to most other shows currently airing on Cartoon Network, it’s quite impressive. It ultimately won me over, and I’ll be tuning-in to watch the television series once it airs this Fall.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sci-fi action violence throughout, brief language and momentary smoking.

The brief language and momentary smoking are nothing to worry about, but the violence is occasionally intense. Alongside the usual battle droid carnage, many human soldiers fall in the line of duty, and some of the battles are a tad fierce. Still, it’s about on par with the battles in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I think PG is fair, and we can probably expect similar content from the upcoming show.

Monday, August 4, 2008

The Dark Knight

With The Dark Knight, comic book movies have officially evolved beyond their source material. Such adaptations have typically been in the surreal spirit of the originals, but not this one. Even more hard-edged than its predecessor, Batman Begins, this story is but a few adjustments away from unfolding in our world, with no suspension of disbelief necessary. While I don’t see this style as the future of all comic book movies, because it wouldn’t work for many comic characters, it’s perfectly suited to the gothic lore of Batman. The Dark Knight is a masterpiece from start to finish.

As Batman (Christian Bale) continues to fight crime in Gotham City, District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) is quickly becoming a public hero for his swift prosecution of criminals. Batman/Bruce Wayne’s prior love interest, Rachel Dawes (now played by Maggie Gyllenhaal), is head-over-heels for Harvey Dent. All seems well in Gotham, until a brilliant, psychotic criminal known only as “Joker” (Heath Ledger) unites the Mob under a common goal: restoring chaos to Gotham by killing Batman.

Most of this movie’s hype has rightfully surrounded Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker. His make-up looks like it was applied in the dark and then splashed with putrid water. His would-be-blond hair isn’t dyed bright green, but is just green enough to seem wrong. Perhaps most unexpected is that Ledger’s Joker rarely smiles. Instead, his mouth is scarred from having been slit upwards at both corners. If he does find humor in his work, he’s mostly laughing on the inside.

Ledger gives a perfect performance, but the Nolans (Director Christopher and his brother Jonathan) wrote a wonderful character to begin with. This Joker fits perfectly within the recent reinvention of Batman, but he is certainly not the Joker from the comics. He rarely smiles, he doesn’t tell jokes, and even his laugh rings hollow. Traditionally, the Joker always used jokes to commit murder, but this time, murder itself is the joke. He doesn’t kill in amusing ways; he kills and finds it amusing. There has been a lot of talk over whether Heath Ledger or Jack Nicholson should be remembered as the definitive Joker, but having seen both performances, the comparison seems utterly irrelevant. The two characters are both named Joker, but that’s about where their similarities end. Both performances work well and are completely right within their respective Batman universes.

Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman reprise their supporting roles, and both are given key moments in the story. Several relevant political issues are explored, including phone-tapping and the right to privacy. The fine lines between hero and villain become increasingly blurred as the story unfolds, and no one seems sure what to think of Batman. At times, not even Batman is completely sure what to think of himself. He remains haunted by the Joker’s blunt observation: “See, to them, you’re just a freak … like me.”

Nolan has made realism the hallmark of his Batman films, and that’s a masterful choice on his part. I can’t think of any other comic character better suited to operate realistically, for Batman has no fanciful powers. There is even an ongoing debate in the comic book community over whether Batman should be considered a superhero at all (some prefer “Costumed Crimefighter”), but it is exactly this sense of reality that makes Batman so interesting. Christopher Nolan and crew play the material entirely straight, yet it never becomes too dark; it retains the proper feel of Batman. The filmmakers show equal measures of daring and restraint.

Moral dilemmas are at the heart of The Dark Knight, and characters are often pushed to make impossible decisions. Mourning also plays a large role, for the characters lose much, and it seems strange that even as we watch a film about mourning, we ourselves mourn the loss of Heath Ledger. He was on the verge of a great career, and he will be sorely missed. The Academy has a chance to get this year’s Oscars right; Heath Ledger should be posthumously nominated for Best Supporting Actor (and would probably win), and both The Dark Knight and WALL•E should be among the Best Picture nominees. We’ll see if the Academy is feeling brave enough to step outside itself and truly honor this year’s best.

I hope Christopher Nolan decides to make one more Batman movie. His vision has breathed new life into one of the greatest of all comic book characters, and The Dark Knight feels very much like the middle installment of a trilogy. Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) ignited the comic-to-film revolution, and the character of Batman has helped advance the genre once again with The Dark Knight. Everyone who worked on this great film has helped to achieve a new level in comic book storytelling.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and some menace.

The Dark Knight was never intended for children. It pushes the PG-13 limit, but avoided an R rating by steering clear of profanity and blood. The violence is still pretty rough, and the Joker is one creepy dude. There’s nothing fanciful about this story that would remove it from reality and make it less frightening, and there’s even a scene where a hero turns bad and holds a gun to a child’s head. I wouldn’t take anyone under 13.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

WALL•E

Calling WALL•E the best animated movie of 2008 would itself be the biggest understatement of 2008, akin to calling Michelangelo a good painter. When was the last time the year’s best movie was an animated film, a science fiction film, or a romantic comedy? Added to this, has one single film ever been a champion of all three genres? Despite having very little dialogue and very few human characters, WALL•E has more genuine emotion than any of its summer competition. It’s the very best film so far this year, and it won’t be dethroned easily.

As great as any movie Pixar Animation has ever made (and that is saying something), WALL•E takes place hundreds of years in the future. The Earth has been abandoned because of excessive trash, and WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load-Lifting Earth-Class) robots have been left to clean up the mess. By 2815, only one WALL•E unit is still operational, and he has developed an inquisitive personality. He lives in a bunker full of human knick-knacks that are familiar to us, but mysterious to him (very reminiscent of Ariel’s cave in The Little Mermaid). Once an EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) robot arrives on a secret mission, WALL•E becomes completely love-struck, and soon gets caught up in an interstellar quest to save humanity.

Just as The Incredibles (2004) surprised viewers by not only being a great family film, but also a great superhero movie, I think WALL•E will surprise fans of science fiction. Serious themes are explored, and the film serves as a cautionary tale against the excessive waste of our consumer society. The environmental moral is powerfully conveyed, but never hit over our heads, and the overall message is a hopeful one. However, the romance between WALL•E and EVE takes center stage, and I’m still not sure how Pixar pulled it off. If you think a robot romance can’t move you to tears, think again.

For a film set so deeply into the future, WALL•E feels a lot like the Classics. Similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey (which is paid homage in WALL•E more than once), this film has very little dialogue. It’s just a few tweaks away from having no spoken words at all, but the storytelling is so strong, you probably won’t notice. The romance is old-fashioned, and much of the soundtrack is built around songs from Hello, Dolly! (1969), which WALL•E watches constantly via an ancient VHS tape. When the film opened with a shot of outer space and Michael Crawford singing, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” I knew I was along for a very special ride.

Pixar does things with animation that no one else has been able to do. Perhaps most impressive is the equal appeal to viewers of all ages. Most family films have scenes for adults and scenes for children, but in Pixar's films, the same scenes speak to all. As simple as it may seem, there’s rich complexity in this multi-layered storytelling. It’s the tried-and-true recipe of every great family film, and it’s never as easy as it appears.

Given Pixar’s track record, I expected to enjoy WALL•E, but I didn’t expect to be awestruck. I wasn’t prepared to wipe tears away during the closing credits. I didn’t think a rusty old robot could be so endlessly lovable. Writer/Director Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo) has crafted a bold, wonderful tale of loneliness and love that will transcend ages and cultures, and just like its central character, will stand the test of time.

Note:

My wife and I saw WALL•E during an electrical storm, and the theater lost power twice during the movie. At the end of the show, we were given vouchers to see any film we wanted. We’re going to see WALL•E again.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated G

WALL•E’s first half-hour has some surprisingly dark elements, being set in a dystopian future, but I think kids will eat up the visuals and quirky humor. The loud sounds and explosions might frighten the very youngest children, but there’s no truly objectionable content. You’ll enjoy this just as much as your kids, if not more.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

It’s been 19 years since Indiana Jones rode off into the sunset at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). A fourth installment has been in the works ever since, and part of me hoped it wouldn’t ever happen. Did we really need one more adventure? Well, for better or for worse, the fourth film has arrived. George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are back at the helm, offering all of us an excuse to spend two more hours with one of Hollywood’s greatest characters. The majority of it succeeds in being exciting and familiar, but there are still many aspects that I wish had been handled differently. My thumb is up, but with an asterisk.

The most vital element to this film’s success is, of course, the character of Indiana Jones himself. As soon as you see Harrison Ford back in the famous outfit, your biggest fears will be alleviated. He’s older, but within moments, he proves that he’s still Indiana Jones. The story unfolds in 1957, as Indy and an adventurous young man named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) try to outrace the Soviets in recovering a mystical Central-American artifact, the Crystal Skull. Cate Blanchett plays the villainous Soviet Colonel Irina Spalko (her over-the-top Russian accent is a lot of fun), and Jones is joined by a new sidekick, George ‘Mac’ McHale (Ray Winstone). Indy’s old flame from Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), also gets caught-up in the adventure.

The Indiana Jones series was originally a love letter to the classic B movie serials of the 1930’s, and this new installment stays in the same tongue-in-cheek vein. There are snakes, skeletons, mummies, car chases, waterfalls, man-devouring ants, whips, punches, and many impossible feats of daring-do. The action stands out as the film’s greatest strength; most sequences are thrilling and fun, and only a few scenes go too far (the few that did push the known limits of reason induced both laughs and groans from the audience). Most of the action is done the old-fashioned way, with real stuntmen, and there’s a spectacular car chase through the jungle that evokes Raiders of the Lost Ark. Every time Indy punches two guys at once and gets another with his whip, we feel right at home.

The film features an extra-terrestrial element, and while this works with the 1950’s setting, it didn’t feel right alongside the previous films. Indy’s displacement is a problem for me; I didn’t want to see him as an older man, battling Soviets in the late 1950’s. As a superhero, he should forever be frozen in time, fighting the Nazis in the 1930’s. I got over it and was able to enjoy the ride, but I still say that we didn’t need a sequel to the greatest adventure movies ever made. Especially in light of the 19-year gap, expectations were impossibly high. It may not be completely fair to compare this movie to the originals, but you invite that comparison when you take on a project like this.

Early scenes of Dr. Jones teaching in his classroom are welcome, but the intelligent character exchanges are sorely missed. Watching the originals again, it’s surprising just how much time elapses between the action sequences. Memorable characters help carry those movies, and the characters and plot of this latest chapter don’t stack up. Without giving anything away, Ray Winstone’s ‘Mac’ character doesn’t make much sense. I would rather have seen John Rhys-Davies reprise his role as Sallah from the originals.

In the final moments, when the classic music swelled and I reflected on all I had seen, I felt conflicted. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull works as a fun Summer movie, and it carries the Indiana Jones label well enough. It’s not all it should have been (and I still hold that it wasn’t necessary), but I do think audiences will have fun. Often in these Indiana Jones films, Indy will exhume some precious artifact, be glad to have unearthed it, but eventually wish he had left well-enough alone. I’m glad to have seen one last Indiana Jones movie, but part of me wishes it had stayed buried.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for adventure violence and scary images.

The violence and scary images are on par with Indiana Jones’ previous adventures. We see people get shot, consumed by mysterious extra-terrestrial flames, and eaten alive by enormous ants. You may recall that the originals also have moments of strange, semi-ridiculous violence: faces melting off, hearts being ripped out, etc. The violence isn’t striving for realism, but it’s still a bit disturbing. As is often the case with movie sequels, you can use the originals to determine whether or not you should take your kids.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

For multiple reasons, Prince Caspian has big shoes to fill. Continuing the story begun by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005), this film has the built-in problems of being based on a beloved book and being the sequel to a hit film. Prince Caspian deftly leaps across both these hurdles, not just living up to its predecessor, but complementing it. Like the books on which they’re based, these two Narnia films are stronger as a pair than they are as individuals.

The story begins in 1941, as the four Pevensie children are mysteriously whisked away to Narnia, the fantasy realm they discovered one year earlier. They soon learn that though they have only been away from Narnia for one year, 1300 Narnian years have passed. Everything has changed, and the kingdom is now ruled by the cruel Miraz (Sergio Castellitto), a usurper who plans to kill the rightful heir to the throne: his own nephew, Prince Caspian (Ben Barnes). The four children join an underground resistance to help Caspian, all the while wondering why the creator and true ruler of Narnia, the great lion Aslan, doesn’t seem to exist anymore.

This film adopts a much darker tone than its predecessor through its themes, its intense action, and even in its color palette. The film carries a PG rating, as no blood is seen, but let’s just say PG isn’t what it used to be. Battles are much more frequent, and much more potent. Despite the heavy overtones, the family-friendly nature ultimately remains intact, and humor helps offset the violence. Trumpkin, a sharp-tongued dwarf played by Peter Dinklage, breathes fresh air into the series. The four main actors, all of whom successfully sustained the first film, are even better this time around.

Unfortunately, the story itself isn’t as compelling as The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. C.S. Lewis’ second Narnia novel unfolds at a slower, more contemplative pace. The writers compensated for this in several ways, the biggest of which was adding an important action scene to Prince Caspian that isn’t in the original novel. Surprisingly, the addition enhances the story. What could have been an empty action sequence becomes powerful because of how it connects to the story’s key themes. It’s a change that I think C.S. Lewis would have approved of.

Your enjoyment of the first film can serve as a fair barometer for this one. If you didn’t care for the first, there’s probably nothing here to win your interest. If you haven’t seen the first, I recommend that you do so before seeing the sequel, because as I said before, the two films complement each other very well. As an avid fan of C.S. Lewis’ novels, I loved the first film, and enjoyed this second journey into Narnia just as much, if not more. Within the last decade, breakthroughs in visual effects have allowed many great fantasy classics to translate legitimately to the big screen, and I’m thrilled that so many have been done so well. Visual effects make fantasy films possible, but classic cinematic virtues bring them to life.

Prince Caspian is based on the second of seven novels in The Chronicles of Narnia. I hold what seems to be a minority opinion among fans of the books, and that stance is that the next film, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, should be the last. It’s the last story to feature the Pevensies as children, so there’s no race against the clock to retain the same young actors (like with the Harry Potter films). I just think that the stories become too abstract and philosophical down the road, and in its themes and scope, Dawn Treader would be a fine finale. Whatever the filmmakers choose to do, I hope they can match the same quality of work already set forth. For lovers of fantasy and adventure, this latest journey into Narnia is one worth taking.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for epic battle action and violence.

I think most double-digit kids will enjoy Prince Caspian, but you may want to prescreen it or talk to other parents who have seen it if you’re planning on taking younger children. It’s PG only because there isn’t any blood, but the action is certainly intense enough to warrant PG-13. As I understand it, director Andrew Adamson even had to make minor adjustments to squeak-by with a PG rating.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Speed Racer

Speed Racer has all the elements of its original Japanese anime source material: it’s exciting, ridiculous, cheesy, and strangely endearing. The Wachowski Brothers (of The Matrix) have made a faithful adaptation by keeping it fun and silly in equal measures. The filmmakers made bold choices, and I think they paid off. Don’t go expecting anything moving or spectacular, but do take the kids, and be prepared for fast-paced, family-friendly fun.

Based on the first Japanese anime show to be popular in the United States, Speed Racer revolves around a family of race car enthusiasts. You may think that the title is descriptive, but no; the lead character’s name is actually Speed Racer. Speed (Emile Hirsch) has only ever wanted to be a race car driver. He has always raced for his parents’ company, and as his dream of being the best comes true, he quickly falls under pressure from large companies wanting to buy him out. The more he learns about corruption within the sport, the more Speed wants to fight back and win with integrity. Susan Sarandon and John Goodman play Mom and Pops Racer, and Christina Ricci plays Trixie, Speed’s long-time love interest.

More than eye candy, the visuals in this film border on eye cocaine. The environments are digitally painted to look constantly bright and surreal, and objects in the background remain in focus even when they shouldn’t, much like hand-drawn animation. The richest colors pop off the screen at all times, yet I never felt assaulted by the style, which some viewers probably will. For me, the visuals enrich the fun. They will also likely hold up over time, because they never strive for realism. When computer animation attempts to be realistic, it usually looks dated within just a few years. Much like the hand-painted afterlife sequence in What Dreams May Come (1998), these visuals will probably never be duplicated, and are therefore likely to last.

Fans of the original show will recognize many iconic elements and phrases, but most viewers these days aren’t fans of the original show. The Wachowskis are playing to a niche market here, and that may hurt the film’s overall appeal. I think kids of all ages will enjoy Speed Racer, but some may stay away just because of how odd and specialized it is. Because the film occupies a world on par with the original show, it never achieves real depth of emotion. The actors do well with the material, but it’s more goofy and light-hearted than dramatic.

This isn’t necessarily a criticism. It would have been easy to make Speed Racer edgy for teens and adults, especially given the Wachowskis’ past films like The Matrix and V for Vendetta. Just a little violence and sexuality would have been very simple, but it wouldn’t have been true to the original cartoon, and that one criterion seems to have guided most of the decisions along the way. I predict this film will have many critics, but most of their criticisms will be applicable not only to the film, but to the original show. The two beat with one heart.

I was expecting to be thoroughly entertained by the visuals, but I wasn’t necessarily expecting to have a good time. I’m glad to say that Speed Racer delivers the kind of popcorn-fun you hope for in a summer movie. I hope this film finds its audience, because as quirky as it is, it succeeds as a piece of well-made escapism. Personally, I enjoyed watching a “live action anime.” It slides easily from silly, cartoonish kung-fu scenes to serious lessons about putting family first. It may be corny enough to feed Kansas, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself humming the “Go, Speed Racer, go!” theme song for days to come.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG for sequences of action, some violence and language.

While the non-stop action is intense, the violence itself is tame, even to the point that drivers don’t die in the races, but eject out of their cars in safety bubbles. There is one scene where mobsters are about to torture someone, but they never get around to it. Language is scattered throughout, but sparse. I think most kids will absolutely eat this up.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Iron Man

The Summer is off to a good start with Iron Man, a superhero film with a real head on its shoulders. As expected, there’s plenty of action and special effects along the way, but as countless terrible films have proven, smoke and mirrors aren’t enough. Almost all comic book movies have somewhat goofy premises, so it’s ultimately up to the characters to make or break such efforts. Iron Man understands these rules, and I’m pleased to report that characters take center stage in this quality comic adaptation.

Robert Downey Jr. gives a memorable performance as Tony Stark, a brilliant engineer who runs the world’s largest weapons manufacturing company. Stark comes across like a hodge-podge of other movie heroes: he’s a prolific, sharp-tongued, womanizing billionaire, and that’s an interesting place to begin a character’s journey. Much like Bruce Wayne, he has every luxury, but he doesn’t yet have purpose. When a terrorist organization holds Stark hostage and forces him to build missiles, he decides to stop manufacturing weapons of mass destruction and start building something else: something he can use to escape imprisonment and fight injustice.

The character of Iron Man reminds me of Batman mostly because of his origins. He chooses to be a superhero without any obvious powers or genetic mutations. His suit enables him to fly, have super strength, and use all kinds of weaponry, but it’s due to his own invention and craftsmanship. He doesn’t live by Spider-Man’s obligatory creed: “With great power comes great responsibility.” Tony Stark takes on the role solely out of personal conviction, and it’s a joy to see his character develop from a jerk into someone who really cares. Gwyneth Paltrow plays the “Money Penny-ish” Pepper Potts, Stark’s loyal assistant, and Jeff Bridges acts as Stark’s oldest friend and mentor.

Just as Batman Begins made a silly situation seem believable for the first time, so Iron Man succeeds in convincing us of an implausible idea. Iron Man isn’t quite as realistic as Batman Begins, nor is it as superb, but it does work on most levels. Robert Downey Jr. deserves much of the credit; in a difficult part that could have easily been performed all wrong, Downey Jr. makes Stark arrogant, yet lovable. He’s an endearing jerk, which is not an easy balance to achieve.


The visual effects are first-rate, and the story is genuinely compelling, but I’m sorry to say that the film takes some wrong steps in its final Act. Amidst a masterful blend of comic book thrills and genuine drama, the film resorts to a typical superhero finale, filled with some odd character choices and moments of cartoonish action. This mediocre climax feels very out of place, especially given the quality of action that has come before. When Iron Man first flies to the Middle East to unleash justice at the film’s half-way point, the combat scenes aren’t exactly realistic, but they are rewarding. The final battle just feels all wrong when compared to the rest of the film.

However, the last five minutes bring it all back, and the film ends on a fun and unexpected note. There’s also a bonus scene after the credits that will no doubt leave comic book fans cheering. Even though Iron Man takes place in an uncertain time period (combining modern technology like cell phones with futuristic elements like artificial intelligence and holographic computers), the film feels very modern and relevant. Iron Man deserves to be mentioned alongside other significant superhero films. It has its defects, but despite the weight of its flaws, Iron Man soars.


Click here to view the trailer


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and brief suggestive content.

The violence in this film is on par with most James Bond films. There is one scene of sexuality, but it’s pretty tame. I think most young viewers would enjoy Iron Man, but the violence might be troubling for some. Kids aged 13-and-over will probably do fine; if they’re much younger than that, it depends on what they’ve seen before. People get shot, burned, blown-up, and more, but there isn’t much blood, nor does the violence linger. If you’re familiar with James Bond, you know how this works.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Charlton Heston, 1923-2008

This week, one of the great Hollywood legends passed away. Academy Award winner Charlton Heston was a cinematic giant who completely redefined stage presence with his powerful voice and dynamic performances. He starred in many great and diverse films, most notably The Greatest Show on Earth, The Ten Commandments, Planet of the Apes, and Ben Hur. He was a controversial political figure on both the liberal and conservative ends of the spectrum. He marched for civil rights in the 1960's long before it was considered right or even acceptable, he opposed President Johnson's Gun Control Act in 1968, and he openly opposed the Vietnam War.

Becoming more conservative in later years, he spoke out against affirmative action, referred to political correctness as "tyranny with manners," and served as President of the National Rifle Association from 1998 to 2003. His political and social stances were always bold and often questioned, but he will ultimately be remembered for his incredible film performances. He was a superlative actor and a true legend, and he created some movie moments that will live on for generations.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

There Will Be Blood

“I have a competition in me; I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people … I’ve built up my hatreds over the years.”

– Daniel Plainview

There Will Be Blood features one of the year’s finest performances from one of the greatest living actors, Daniel Day Lewis, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s direction is spot-on. However, the film provides just as much fun as its title suggests. This story is cold, merciless, shocking, and sad. Despite its masterful performances, virtuoso direction, and many other glimpses of greatness throughout, the finished product somehow comes up a bit short.

Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood follows the rise and fall of a self-made oil man, Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day Lewis). The story opens in 1898, as Daniel and his young son make their way across the country in search of oil. Daniel’s greatest find comes on a farm he purchases from a man named Abel Sunday. Abel’s son, Eli (Paul Dano), fears that the new oil empire will destroy God’s plans for his church, The Church of the Third Revelation. The epic story follows Daniel across three decades of loneliness, corruption, and despair.

At various times, I was reminded of George Stevens’ masterpiece, Giant (1956). It’s not really fair to compare the two, except that both films feature men who become completely dehumanized after striking oil. In fact, both films even have scenes where characters become covered in oil from head to toe, staring out from the darkness with wild, near deranged expressions. There Will Be Blood has strong religious themes, and when Daniel Plainview becomes literally drenched in oil, it seems very much like a reverse baptism, one that promises a new life of misery and madness. Early on, the camera even lingers on a shot of a father dabbing oil on his infant son’s forehead, just as some Christian traditions baptize infants.

As both a writer and a director, P.T. Anderson always makes thoughtful storytelling choices. When shots linger for long periods (as they often do in his films), they evoke certain emotional responses. The film’s title holds multiple meanings, one of which refers to oil as the lifeblood of the Earth, and many times the ground itself seems to bleed freely from Plainview’s violent, precise digging. Long stretches without dialogue help reinforce how Daniel Plainview has alienated himself from his staff, his business partners, and even his own son. When a long-lost relative of his shows up looking for work, Daniel has no idea how to treat him. He hates all people, including his own self.

Daniel despises no one more than Eli Sunday. We quickly sense that Eli has no true interest in God’s will, but seeks praise and glory only for himself. In this way, he’s as selfish and broken as Daniel. His Church of the Third Revelation consists of him performing every Sunday, screaming wildly as he casts out demons and heals various afflictions. While Eli never says as much, I gathered that he believes himself to be God’s “third revelation.” Daniel immediately sees Eli for what he is, but must continue to placate him to appease the townspeople.

Daniel Day Lewis gives a haunting, unforgettable performance as Daniel Plainview. From his voice, to his eyes, every part of him owns the role. He has several moments of unrestrained madness, but then plays quiet scenes with just as much intensity. P.T. Anderson’s direction enhances the performance, and some unusual music also adds to the anguish; unsettling chords and tense notes ensure that viewers are never at ease. Think of the final half hour of Citizen Kane, except less fun and lasting 160 minutes.

I wanted to wholeheartedly love this film, but as the credits rolled, something was holding me back. There’s nothing wrong with depictions of darkness. Many of my favorite films are dark, heavy dramas, including P.T. Anderson’s own Magnolia (1999). I suppose the difference comes in purpose. Magnolia has tremendous philosophical and spiritual significance, and I think There Will Be Blood could have used some more substance. Still, there’s plenty here worthy of praise. P.T. Anderson and Daniel Day Lewis both have well-deserved reputations as artists whose work will stay in your head. There Will Be Blood has stuck with me, despite my best efforts to shake it.

Click here to view the trailer.

For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for some violence.

There Will Be Blood has a few violent moments, but is not at all gratuitous. This film isn’t upsetting because of what you see, but because of its tone. The story is quite disturbing, and I advise caution to those who might have trouble shaking it. If you are still unsure, the trailer is fairly indicative of the overall experience.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

No Country for Old Men

The greatest suspense thriller in years, No Country for Old Men also boasts, in my opinion, 2007’s best screenplay, best direction, best editing, and best ending. The drama unfolds slowly and naturally, but don’t get any wrong ideas about this film lagging for even a moment. The edge of every seat will be occupied, and no dry palm will be found within a two mile radius of the theater. As Tommy Lee Jones’ character in the film might say, “If this ain’t the year’s best movie, it’ll do ‘til the best one gets here.”

The tale unfolds near the Texas/Mexico border, 1980. Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin) comes across the bloody aftermath of a drug deal gone wrong. Amidst a slew of corpses baking in the noon-day sun, Llewelyn discovers a satchel stuffed full of money. He takes the cash, thus setting off the bloodiest chain of unfortunate events since … well, since the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, I suppose. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell (Tommy Lee Jones) sets out to protect Llewelyn from whoever may be hunting him, most notably the terrifying, psychotic killer, Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem).

The Coen Brothers’ films have been hit and miss for me. Their films are unusual and different from one another, except that they all contain a cast of colorful, memorable characters. Everyone here has a great face, accent, or both. The dialogue is made up mostly of Southern wisdom, and the simple, homespun phrasing often seems poetic. The film opens with shots of wide open plains, matched with a voiceover by Sheriff Bell, reminiscing about the old days. “Some of the old-time sheriffs never even wore a gun. A lot of folks find that hard to believe. The crime you see now, it’s hard to even take its measure … you can say it’s my job to fight it, but I don’t know what it is anymore.”

Javier Bardem turns in an eerie performance as a man without compassion or morals. If he does live by any ethical code, it’s one of his own invention. Sporting a bizarre, mop-top haircut, he kills primarily with a cattle gun, powered by a tank of compressed air. He often seems bored, as if killing innocent people has grown unspeakably dull. He sometimes gives victims a chance to survive on a coin-toss, and there’s a masterful scene early in the film where Anton flips a coin in a filling station and tells the old man behind the counter to call it. The clerk looks nervously at the covered coin, saying, “I got to know what I stand to win.” Chigurh quickly responds, “Everything.” After more silence, the clerk says, “I didn’t put nothin’ up.” “Yes you did,” Chigurh tells him. “You’ve been putting it up your whole life; you just didn’t know it.”

The suspense in this film reaches Hitchcockian proportions. Everything blends together to make a piece of perfect storytelling. The editing and pacing are just right, the performances are all understated, and the dialogue has real purpose. No Country for Old Men respects the intelligence of its audience. There are no superfluous, explanatory lines of dialogue, because we don’t need them. We know only as much as the characters know in any given moment, and in that sense we’re along for the ride. The cinematography highlights the emptiness of West Texas, thus evoking the vastness of evil, the inevitability of fate. The film contains almost no music, so that we vividly hear every bullet, every creak, every gust of wind. The Coen Brothers took a minimalist, less-is-more approach, and anything else would have weakened the impact.

Now, about that perfect ending I mentioned earlier. I won’t dare reveal any details, except that I was sitting in the theater, completely enthralled, when the thought actually crossed my mind, “What if the film just ended right now? How fitting and courageous it would be … ” Before the thought was even fully formed, the screen cut to black, the credits began to silently roll, and I knew I had seen something great. “Perfect” is a strong word, not to be used lightly by any critic, but I have no hesitations about using it here. The Coen Brothers have made an American masterpiece.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated R for strong graphic violence and some language

The violence in this film is very, very strong. It’s not strong because it’s graphic; any two-bit horror movie can be graphic, and most horror films are more explicit (in terms of what you see) than this one. This is the story of a crazy, conscienceless serial killer, and the violence here is frighteningly, unapologetically real. It would be nightmare material for any preteen, and anyone too young to buy their own ticket should be cautious. It’s a great film, albeit an upsetting one.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Juno

I have heard some critics unfairly refer to Juno as “this year’s would-be Little Miss Sunshine,” although both films are solid and really quite different. Still, if we’re going to play that game, I’d more comfortably call Little Miss Sunshine last year’s would-be Juno, for here is a film I loved even more. More than the year’s best comedy, Juno has wonderfully refreshing dialogue, characters that consistently ring true, and a full palette of fine-tuned performances. Every moment charmed me.

The title character (played to perfection by Ellen Page) is a 16 year-old high school student who discovers that she is pregnant. She lovingly seduced her best friend, Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera), but had no intention of conceiving. Having seen countless movies involving unintended pregnancies, I was prepared for a string of stereotypical situations. How thrilled and blown away I was when Juno remained grounded and made countless right choices. How can a movie about teen pregnancy keep it real and also be uproarious funny? Even after seeing it, I’m not entirely sure.

The dialogue itself doesn’t necessarily seem real, but it does help overall situations feel genuine. Amidst heavy moments of great emotional complexity and confusion, characters stutter and fail to find the perfect words to say. Jokes appear when you would expect tearjerkers, and vice versa. Juno and her friends use slang terms so outrageous and inventive that even though the exchanges are simple, there’s a near elegance to them. It takes tremendous effort for scenes to unfold so effortlessly, and I’m sure that this film will spawn an army of imitators that think they can be as clever. Pulp Fiction is the ultimate example of a screenplay that many misinterpreted as “simply conversational;” countless knockoffs later, the script’s true brilliance was apparent.

Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner play the young couple hoping to adopt Juno’s child. They have perfect chemistry as spouses suffering from extreme communication failures; in yet another wonderfully authentic storytelling choice, the two aren’t even communicating about their lack of communication. Jennifer Garner especially impressed me with her subtle, nearly heartbreaking performance as a woman who wants a child more than anything, and has sought parenthood even to the exclusion of her husband’s needs. So many key moments are communicated through very few words, or even just through facial expressions. Every performance here is pitch-perfect.

Even though serious themes are at work, humor constantly abounds. For instance: when Juno goes to visit Vanessa (Jennifer Garner), Vanessa tells her, “Your parents are probably wondering where you are,” prompting Juno’s response, “Nah. I mean, I’m already pregnant, so what other kinds of shenanigans could I get into?” I’ll take this opportunity to issue a cautionary warning that not everyone will love this movie the way I do. The dialogue is extremely hip and witty, almost to the point of absurdity. No one can talk the way Juno does, and yet she kept a smile fixed on my face. After the first five to ten minutes, you’ll know whether or not it’s for you. Whatever facial expression you find yourself making early on, you probably won’t change it much (I recommend watching the trailer for a good taste of the humor).

The audience I was in really loved this movie, laughing and sighing at all the right moments. Juno is provocative, sweet, hilarious, simple, heartfelt, confident, and wonderful. Ellen Page will likely receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, and I’d give writer Diablo Cody a nomination as well. This teen comedy has lovable characters, uncertainty, and teens that think and act like teens; it even features loving, supportive parents. There aren’t nearly enough great coming-of-age stories about teenage girls or pregnancy, but Juno is a marvelous film about both.


Click here to view the trailer.


For the Parents:

MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic material, sexual content, and language.

As often as I lament the mistakes of the MPAA Ratings board, I think PG-13 is a perfect fit here. If you’re thirteen or older, you’re likely old enough to appreciate the humor, as well as the themes. If you’re younger than that, then you’re probably too young.